March 17, 2019

PEGGY NOONAN: Kids, Don’t Become Success Robots: Tennessee Tech is an amazing school, and nobody breaks the law to get admitted.

I’ll tell you where I saw success robots. I go to schools a lot, have taught at universities and seen a ton of great kids and professors who’ve really sacrificed themselves to teach. A few years ago I worked for a few months at an Ivy League school. I expected a lot of questions about politics, history and literature. But that is not what the students were really interested in. What they were interested in—it was almost my first question, and it never abated—was networking. They wanted to know how you network. At first I was surprised: “I don’t know, that wasn’t on my mind, I think it all comes down to the work.” Then I’d ask: “Why don’t you just make friends instead?” By the end I was saying, “It’s a mistake to see people as commodities, as things you can use! Concentrate on the work!” They’d get impatient. They knew there was a secret to getting ahead, that it was networking, and that I was cruelly withholding successful strategies. . . .

Here is a school that is an antidote to that. Three years ago I went to a smallish school that enrolls mostly students who are the first in their families to go to college. It was Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville. A lot of the kids are local, a racial and ethnic mix, immigrants and children of immigrants. They were so mature—gracious, welcoming, quick with smart questions on presidents and policy. At a reception I complimented a young woman on her pretty cocktail dress. She smiled and said, “I got it from the clothes closet.” I shook my head. The Clothes Closet, she explained, is where students go to get something to wear to a job interview or an event like this one. People contribute what they’ve got, the students can always put something nice together. In time they contribute clothes too.

Cheryl Montgomery, the college’s director of development, laughed when I called her about it this week and told me that the closet, which had literally been a closet, is now in an office renovated to function as one. “We’ve got everything,” she said. “Men’s suits, women’s professional suits and dresses, ties, belts, shoes. We don’t want a student to worry, ‘Am I dressed appropriately?’ ” Interviews are hard enough. A lot of students don’t have anyone in their lives to help them. “Last Friday a gentleman who’s a quite spiffy dresser came to see me, a very successful businessman, and he donated four sport coats, a trove of men’s dress slacks and very nice button-down shirts, all in style.” When a cash donation comes in, it goes toward clothes for the unusually large and the unusually small.

I came away from Tennessee Tech thinking what I always think when I see such schools: We’re going to be OK.

Well, but — by design — that’s not where our leadership class comes from. We’d be better of if it did, instead of from the Ivy League.

UPDATE: Second link was bad before. Fixed now. Sorry!