You Are the Victims of This Enormous Cheat…

The other day, I finished reading this powerful, moving letter from Michael O’Hare, addressed to his students at University of California, Berkeley. I think it’s a must-read, even if you don’t care about politics or education.

Immediately into the essay, I was taken aback:

Welcome to Berkeley, probably still the best public university in the world. Meet your classmates, the best group of partners you can find anywhere. The percentages for grades on exams, papers, etc. in my courses always add up to 110% because that’s what I’ve learned to expect from you, over twenty years in the best job in the world.

I have never taken any course where a professor was so forthcoming and expected so much. Of course, I’ve never taken a college course where we were graded on a 110% scale.

And then Professor O’Hare goes for the gut:

The bad news is that you have been the victims of a terrible swindle, denied an inheritance you deserve by contract and by your merits. And you aren’t the only ones; victims of this ripoff include the students who were on your left and on your right in high school but didn’t get into Cal, a whole generation stiffed by mine. This letter is an apology, and more usefully, perhaps a signal to start demanding what’s been taken from you so you can pass it on with interest.

And what is wrong with their world? Succinctly, O’Hare explains:

I’m writing this to you because you are the victims of this enormous cheat (though your children will be even worse off if you don’t take charge of this ship and steer it). Your education was trashed as California fell to the bottom of US states in school spending, and the art classes, AP courses, physical education, working toilets, and teaching generally went by the board. Every year I come upon more and more of you who have obviously never had the chance to learn to write plain, clear, English.  Every year, fewer and fewer of you read newspapers, speak a foreign language, understand the basics of how government and business actually work, or have the energy to push back intellectually against me or against each other. Or know enough about history, literature, and science to do it effectively!  You spent your school years with teachers paid less and less, trained worse and worse, loaded up with more and more mindless administrative duties, and given less and less real support from administrators and staff.

I can’t comment on the students at Berkeley, but I do think this effect is prevalent all across America. The education budget keeps getting slashed and the students aren’t learning as much as they used to. But I don’t think that’s the entire story either…

What I loved about the letter was a challenge at the end:

You need to have a very tough talk with your parents, who are still voting; you can’t save your children by yourselves.  Equally important, you need to start talking to each other…

I can only hope the students in Professor O’Hare’s class(es) heed his advice and do something about it. Today is the day.


Professor O’Hare also blogs at, and you can find that letter here. Do read through the comments, as there is a healthy discussion there as well.