In a 2001 New Yorker profile, David Samuels lays out the story of 18-year-old Alexi Santana, a “self-educated” cowboy who lived outdoors in the Mojave Desert, “read Plato under the stars,” ran a sub-four minute mile, and was among the applicants to Princeton’s class of 1992. Santana played up every “hook” that a perfect college application could possibly offer — an ambiguous minority background, high SAT scores, athletic prowess, immense erudition, and an iconoclastic life story that would bring color to whatever class he might join. Evidently not considering that such a perfect application might be too good to be true, Princeton admitted him. He excelled at school, but in his second year, a spectator at a track meet recognized Santana from a former life. He was actually James Hogue, a 31-year-old drifter, con-man and habitual thief who had served time in prison prior to coming to Princeton. Hogue was expelled from the university and, after another stint in prison, plunged back into obscurity.
But Hogue’s story had captured for Samuels something of the dark side of the American Dream, and Samuels continued to pursue him after the New Yorker story to try and discover the motives for his Princeton hoax, an effort that culminated in The Runner. The sections that Samuels has added to his original story, on which The Runner is based, suggest that he has thought considerably about the fascination that shape-shifters like Hogue hold for Americans, whose faith in redemption and self-fashioning is a central theme in our national literature and amounts to what Samuels calls “our ardent national desire to wake up every morning brand new.”
Samuels suggests that the self-made man valorized by Benjamin Franklin, the man who improves himself through tenacity, is more closely related to the outright liar (“self-made” in a different sense of the term) than most American Dreamers would be comfortable admitting, and he hopes that, by illuminating the motives of the incorrigible con-man, he might arrive at a better understanding of the average striver. Samuels is ambivalent about the virtue of the self-made man — he shuttles between his own desire to be someone else, and his fear that the lies required for such self-creation “diminish the universal store of truthfulness…which makes it possible for us to learn new things and establish meaningful connections to others.” James Hogue’s deceptions throw these possibilities into stark relief — he is at once brilliantly successful and completely alone, and had Samuels been content to reflect on the shadows of Hogue’s life, The Runner might have been a fine indictment of the damage wrought by the self-made man. However, these ruminations on the self-defeating desire to shed one’s skin are abandoned halfway through in favor of Samuels’s self-pitying and contradictory polemic against the Ivy League.
The Runner‘s subtitle, “A True Account of the Amazing Lies and Fantastic Adventures of the Ivy League Imposter James Hogue,” marks out Hogue’s Princeton hoax as his self-defining stunt. It’s certainly what endeared him to Samuels, himself an Ivy League graduate now saddled with a mountain of guilt for having benefited from his education. Hogue’s life, however, would seem to tell a different story, one in which the Princeton episode is a footnote in a series of lies and half-truths that make up the con-man’s identity. If anything, his identity is defined more by the West — where he spent the better part of his life (and committed the majority of his crimes), and where, after all, generations of American adventurers have gone to escape their pasts and start again — than by his brief infiltration of the bastions of East Coast privilege.
But it’s at Princeton where Hogue’s deceptions crosses paths with Samuels’s angst, and so despite Hogue’s warning that, “The questions I was asking him…were products of a story line in my head, whose relation to his life was at best coincidental,” Samuels forges ahead, molding Hogue’s life into “Exhibit A in my personal catalogue of reasons why the Ivy League should be abolished.” Samuels’s argument for abolishing the Ivy League is actually much less interesting than Hogue’s life — it consists primarily of stale observations about the impossible demand that applicants be both academically successful after a standard pattern and personally unique, the tendency of elite institutions to reproduce existing wealth and privilege, the injustice of legacy admissions, and the appalling number of neckties Samuels’s Harvard roommate had in his closet.
The central injustice of the Ivy League, according to Samuels, is that it selects a group of 18-year-olds based on what it tells them is their hard work but is in fact their inherited privilege, and it then grants these golden children the freedom “to become someone new. In turn, the university will testify to the social legitimacy of your actions by putting its name on your diploma.” This was the case for Samuels, whose acceptance to Harvard was his ticket out of a strict Orthodox Jewish upbringing he was already itching to escape. But by Samuels’s own logic, such self-invention cannot possibly be widespread in elite institutions whose aim is to perpetuate privilege across generations. Rather, such institutions rely on their students not to change, or else they risk losing the very assets that make them desirable to elite schools in the first place.
Moreover, even Samuels seems content to admit that a really good education should transform a person beyond simply imparting him with more information. At the same time that Samuels heaps disdain on the hollowness of the Ivy League, he evinces surprising faith in the possibility that it could somehow have saved Hogue from himself. He describes Hogue’s application to Princeton as “a saving act of self-invention,” and believes that Hogue’s invented persona, Alexi Santana, “had balanced out the parts of Hogue that were unstable and most in need of protection.” Had Hogue been permitted to remain at Princeton after his fraud was discovered, Samuels implies, he might well have been able to overcome his otherwise irrepressible tendency towards deception and criminality. How an institution as morally adrift as the Princeton of Samuels’s description could possibly have anchored Hogue’s wayward life is unclear, but such contradictions belie Samuels’s own sense that something of a true education — that is, a transformative moral education — is in fact on offer at America’s elite schools, obscured as it may be by the status games played on their campuses.
The massive publicity that Ivy League hoaxes like Hogue’s receive is due in large part to very rarity of such brazen deceptions in these schools, which are under constant public scrutiny and require unusual amounts of documentation to corroborate applications. But much of the rest of America operates along laxer standards, and it is primarily there that most of its James Hogues live — the cops with degrees purchased online, the practicing lawyers and doctors who never quite passed their accreditation exams, the plagiarizing novelists and lying memoirists, and all the rest of the country’s petty fakes who game whatever system is placed before them. Harvard may have been a convenient exit for Samuels, but, as many ambitious or scheming Americans eventually discover, there are many roads out of town.
America has always been a porous society; the price of our collective conviction that talent and virtue can arise out of the most unlikely circumstances and that we should therefore extend the benefit of the doubt to all-comers is that we have become a nation of marks for con-men. But are the alternatives — the early and decisive educational tracking of European systems, for example, or a broader caste system in which everyone’s place in society is so clear transparent and immutable that every opportunity for self-improvement is foreclosed — any more egalitarian than our problematic meritocracy?
It is here that Samuels falls prey to the very elitism he abhors by assuming that life outside the glowing circle of Ivy League privilege must be so unbearably boring as to be almost beyond consideration. He admits that, “Without the assurance conferred by my Ivy League acceptance letters, I would have happily copied what other first-generation American children around me did and become an accountant or a lawyer.” It is because Samuels believes that Harvard and Princeton really are the center of the universe, and that they are so powerful as to be the arbiters of not just the destinies of their successful graduates, but also of everyone else in America, that he is convinced that the Ivy League must, in the name of fairness, be abolished. But as one of Hogue’s track teammates from Princeton points out, this is a delusion prevalent primarily among graduates of these schools: “Some people feel very, very good when they say, ‘Man, I went to Princeton,’ and everybody goes, ‘Ooooh,’ …And they’re thinking, hey, these people think I’m the man because I went to Princeton, when in reality they just don’t give a shit.”
This is probably the truest insight of Samuels’s book. Our handful of elite institutions are not the problem in higher education. Certainly, if it’s true that they are nurturing the latter-day patricians of our republic, they could do more to instill in them the duties to which such privileges are bound. (It is the frivolity and academic apathy of his classmates that Hogue, and, by extension, Samuels, seems to resent most when he recounts his experiences at the Ivy League.) But for most American college students, the difficulty is not in deciding how many ties to bring to their dorms, but rather in stitching together a real education out of the financial constraints, institutional apathy, and insufficient secondary preparation that plague so much of American higher education.
As Gary Lavergne pointed out in the Chronicle of Higher Education last year, the real imperative in higher education is not checking the elitism of the most selective schools, but rather guaranteeing the availability of excellent higher education everywhere else: “Compared with the general population, elite colleges are overpopulated with affluent young people, but it is undeniable that such students are qualified to be there and are successfully earning diplomas. We need more acceptable alternatives for all who have demonstrated they can perform at such a high academic level.” It’s a less romantic proposition than the abolition of prestige in America, and it will undoubtedly do little to resolve the tension between community and self-invention out of which amorphous and unmoored men like Hogue are born. But this is nonetheless the real challenge before us if we want to continue to be a society that believes that great potential may arise from the least promising circumstances, and if it does, it deserves at least a passing opportunity to develop. Prestige may be a zero-sum game among institutions, but that doesn’t mean a good education has to be.
—Rita Koganzon is a writer living in Washington, D.C.