Thirty years ago, President Nixon nominated G. Harrold Carswell to the Supreme Court. Carswell was attacked for being a mediocre jurist. Sen. Roman Hruska (R) of Nebraska attempted to turn Carswell's perceived mediocrity into an asset. "Even if he is mediocre," Hruska said, "there are a lot of mediocre judges and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they, and a little chance? We can't have all Brandeises, Cardozos, and Frankfurters, and stuff like that there."
The celebration of mediocrity is in full bloom at Cuesta Community College in San Luis Obispo, Calif. Cuesta has instituted a lottery system for admission to its nursing program. This semester, 38 names were pulled at random from 156 "qualified applicants" - those with at least C averages in core courses.
According to the chancellor of California's community colleges, grade point averages are an "artificial barrier" to professional school admission. "We can't discriminate in favor of students who get A's over students who may be getting B's," says Amy Grant, dean of nursing instruction at Cuesta.
The chancellor's office, Grant says, stipulates that a community college must prove that getting a C in anatomy demonstrates that a student couldn't succeed in its nursing program. Otherwise, the college had to eliminate its grade-based admissions policy.
Mary Parker, dean of nursing at Cuesta, argues that "just because you have straight A's doesn't mean you're going to be a good nurse." Parker also maintains that distinguishing among GPAs is impossible, given that a C student may be a single mother holding down a full-time job, while the A student may be a 19-year-old full-time student living with her parents.
Prior to this year, nursing school admissions at Cuesta were determined by grade point average, recommendations, medical experience, and an interview.
College officials deny that they are attempting to circumvent California's Proposition 209, which bans affirmative action in state hiring and admissions.
Many residents support the lottery. A letter to the San Luis Obispo Telegram-Tribune said, "Your underlying assumption is that A students are brilliant, incredibly hard workers, and C students are stupid, lazy slacks. Wrong. Many great leaders, educators, authors, scientists, and artists throughout history were not A students."
There is substantial anti-elitism in American life. Job applicants are rejected for being "overeducated" or "overqualified." David Halberstam wrote scornfully of "the best and the brightest" and the "whiz kids" who got us into Vietnam. The intellectually inclined are dismissed as "eggheads." Many college students wear Homer Simpson T-shirts: "Underachiever and proud of it." NBA players who threaten to kill their coaches earn more in two weeks than many educators earn in a decade. And Dan Quayle or Ronald Reagan certainly didn't win admission to Phi Beta Kappa.
The Cuesta lottery admissions program is consistent with the nation's revolt against academic standards. The Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California-Berkeley no longer distinguishes between a 4.0 from Cuesta and a 4.0 from Harvard. More than a quarter of college freshmen need tutoring or remedial courses in math. Many college administrators call for the elimination of the SAT.
Others are not so contemptuous of meritocracy. Susan Jolly, an A student at Cuesta College who didn't win the admissions lottery, complains, "You work so hard for so long, to get really good grades in really hard classes. Then you find out it doesn't matter."
* Ted Rueter is a freelance writer in San Luis Obispo, Calif.