THE MEDIA have had a field day with the fact that two of this year's Miss America finalists are Harvard University graduates, while the reigning queen, Erika Harold of Illinois, is bound for Harvard's law school.
It's as if brains and beauty never mix. We all know that isn't true. (It's certainly not true of my wife and most of the women I know.) When they do mix, if the brains and beauty reside in a Harvard graduate, it's simply irresistible. If Miss Virginia, Nancy Redd, and Miss Rhode Island, Laurie Gray, both had graduated from, say, the University of Texas, or if both had earned doctorates, or if both had majored in nuclear medicine, there would have been publicity, but nothing like this.
To its credit, the Miss America Pageant hasn't made a whole lot of its two Harvard misses. The pageant, which calls itself the "world's leading provider of scholarships for young women," has welcomed brains for at least three decades. The breakthrough came in 1974, when Miss America, Rebecca King of Colorado, said her intention was not to represent the ideal American woman but to earn law school tuition. (The next year, she crowned Shirley Cothran, a Texan who was earning a doctorate in education.)
Miss America women tend to be very smart, and many have amazing musical talent that can't be measured by a standard test. Musical ability is one of the "multiple intelligences" made famous by Howard Gardner, the renowned education researcher from - where else? - Harvard.
It's the Harvard mystique (perhaps compounded by the slow-news cycle of the summer dog days) that makes Redd and Gray particularly newsworthy. Harvard is extremely selective. It's the world's best-known educational brand name. A Harvard diploma opens doors, gets jobs. The attraction to the media is that Redd and Gray have all that and drop-dead beauty to boot.
But Harvard needs a more critical look. Washington Post education reporter and columnist Jay Mathews has done so in Harvard Schmarvard (Prima Publishing, 290 pages), a sort of guidebook with helpful essays on such topics as writing the college essay and approaching admissions offices.
Mathews doesn't put Harvard down, but he does put it in perspective. As the title implies, life doesn't end if you don't get into Harvard or the Ivy League colleges and other elites such as Johns Hopkins. These schools aren't for everybody; indeed, their share of total higher education enrollment in the nation is minuscule, and the majority of leaders in American life didn't graduate from these schools. "Persons with degrees from Harvard, Yale, Princeton and the rest, it turns out, do not rule the world," says Mathews.
There are at least 100 American universities whose academic resources are indistinguishable from Harvard's, Mathews writes. He advises students and their parents to relax, have fun in selecting a school, and avoid choosing on the basis of fame. Base the selection on "whether the schools fulfill [your] personal desires and dreams."
In an appendix, Mathews lists 100 "hidden gems," including four in Maryland: Washington College in Chestertown, Goucher College in Towson, St. John's College in Annapolis and Loyola College in Baltimore.
You've probably not heard of most of the other 96, schools such as Christopher Newport in Newport News, Va., Carroll College in Helena, Mont., and Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles. But for some kids, they're just the right choice, far from the intense pressure of "getting in" and the slick marketing of the brand-name schools. And much more affordable.
So far as I know, however, none has had two graduates in the same Miss America pageant.
From the frying pan in Md. into the fire in Baghdad
Last month, Francis Canavan, associate vice chancellor for communications at the University System of Maryland, shocked his colleagues with an e-mail.
"I have accepted a new position, public affairs manager for Bechtel Corporation's Iraq Infrastructure Reconstruction Project," he wrote. "I will be in this area for the next few weeks and then it's off to Baghdad! (Yes, he said Baghdad.)"
I called Canavan and asked if he'd lost his mind. Thousands of Americans are trying to get out of Baghdad. Things haven't been easy in the university system, what with state budget cuts, but this move is jumping from the frying pan into the fires of hell.
"I really look on it as an adventure," Canavan said, "and you're never too old for an adventure."
He'll be living and working in a Bechtel compound on the grounds of one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces. And "I'll earn more money," most of which he can salt away. No country club dues where he's going.