Eddie Rickenbacker and the Ivy Leagues

I used to think the Air Force would be very excited about Detachment 520 at Cornell University, it being the only AFROTC unit directly attached to an Ivy League school.  I figured officers were college graduates, the Ivy League means top US colleges, so Ivy League-educated officers would be the top officers.  But somehow this didn’t seem to be what the Air Force thought.

Here’s my theory why they’re, on average, not the ideal officers.  (Obviously the Air Force can’t say this in so many words, even if it’s true.  There would be even more jokes about “military intelligence”.)

There are some jobs (besides the military, police and firemen come to mind) where decisiveness is actually more important than intelligence, because even the right decision will be wrong if it comes too late.  So you actually don’t want an intellectual taking the time to consider all sides of the question – unless he can do that instantaneously.  Decisiveness is vital; intelligence is just a bonus.  And decisiveness you can find at other colleges that cost a lot less in cadet scholarships.

Eddie Rickenbacker wasn’t so hard on the Ivy League pilots he knew (presumably many if not most of these were Cornellians since 2% of US officers in WWI were from Cornell).  Even in today’s Air Force, preventing FOD (foreign object damage) is everybody’s job.  Rickenbacker was just making sure they realized that….

The new group had reason to object to me personally.  Its members were all young men of good family, recruited from Ivy League universities.  Faultlessly attired in shiny Sam Browne belts, handmade boots and tailor-made uniforms, they came in expecting to find a flying school in full operation.  Instead they found a mudhole and a tough Swiss-German engineer with a grammar-school education and the grubbiest of chores for them to perform.  They made sarcastic remarks both behind my back and to my face, and I admit that I had some desire to get even.

The muddy field was strewn with rocks, which would fly up and break the wooden propellers.  I was running out of props.  One day I requisitioned a hundred buckets, put them in the hands of a hundred Ivy Leaguers and sent them out in the mud to pick up rocks.  The groaning and moaning that day were music to my ears.  But, though there was some antagonism between us, I must say that they were a fine bunch of kids, and many of them became excellent flyers.

- Edward V. Rickenbacker, Rickenbacker: An Autobiography(Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1967), 112

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