A reader remembers that when David Halberstam used the phrase “the best and the brightest,” it was not praise. It was an ironic reference to the seemingly brilliant Harvard graduates at the State Department, the National Security Council, and the think tanks who got us into the war in Vietnam.

You often hear education reformers, including President Obama, talk about how we must have the “Best and Brightest” from the most elite schools enter the teaching workforce to improve education.

I always want to say to say to them, the phrase “Best and Brightest” doesn’t actually mean what you think it means.

When David Halberstam used the phrase “Best and Brightest” for his book on the Vietnam War, he used it ironically to show how these so-called geniuses from the so-called elite colleges took the nation down the path of an insane policy that cost many lives.  Even when it became apparent the policy wasn’t working, they continued to double down on it, throwing more soldiers and more money into the conflict, rather than admitting they had been wrong about the whole thing to begin with.

The parallel between the geniuses, the so-called Best and Brightest, in the Kennedy and Johnson administration who brought us the Vietnam War and the Best and Brightest in the Bush and Obama administrations, in the think tanks and non-profits who bring us education reform is striking.  It is true that lives are not being lost due to the failed ed policies the reformers continue to pursue, but lives of students certainly are being worsened by these policies, futures, minimized.  And as with the Vietnam policy, the reformers refuse to admit when the policies fail – merit pay doesn’t work, sure let’s try it again anyway!  Teacher evaluations tied to test scores is untested – sure, let’s give that to the whole country even though we don’t know how it will play out!

I think you can extrapolate the “Best and Brightest” comparison to the rest of the culture and society as well.  It is the “Best and the Brightest” that our so-called elite universities have to offer who have brought us such wonderful innovations such as collateralized debt obligations,securitization, Too Big To Fail Banks and all the other things that helped bring about the ’08 collapse (and will undoubtedly help bring about the next one too.)  The Best and Brightest have brought us the idea that GMO is the way to feed the world, monocropping and corporate farming is the only way society can grow its food.

Frankly I think we need fewer “Best and Brightest” in our society and more people with the humility to say, “You know, maybe I’m not as smart as I think I am, maybe I shouldn’t hoist my untested policies upon the entire nation.