The moment former Sen. Gary Hart told the audience at the Milken Institute's Global Conference that America is "at a cross roads," Abe Zarem leaned over to me and said, "He's wrong."
There were 1,500 people sitting in the audience listening to a panel tussle over the United States' role in the world. For a conference that annually attracts the world's financial and academic elite, the seating at the Beverly Hilton was refreshingly democratic: no place cards, sit almost anywhere you like. So I found myself between Charlie Woo, the innovator behind downtown Los Angeles' Toy Town district, and Zarem, inventor, professor, entrepreneur, thinker.
"Crossroads is not the right word," Zarem told me, correcting Hart, "because at a crossroads you pick a direction and you know where you're going. We're at a cloverleaf. When you turn off a cloverleaf you don't know where you're going."
The subject arose over dinner in a neighborhood restaurant. Have you heard, asked a friend who's generally up on current affairs, that the new governor wants to open the University of California system to the top 4 percent of every high school graduating class? The implications seemed obvious: If 4 percent of the graduating seniors of every public high school in the state were to receive automatic admission to UC, this would be one more signal that diversity was being prized over quality. Why, we all wondered, was Gov. Gray Davis putting his clout behind the dumbing-down of a once-proud university? And, more to the point, what would happen to our own teenaged children? As parents, we had worked hard to enroll them in public schools with high standards and large numbers of high achievers. If our high school seniors didn't fall into the magic 4 percent, would they be out in the cold? Would they end up wishing they had gone to school in South Central instead of Santa Monica or Beverly Hills? As parents, as UC graduates, and as taxpayers, we were sorely perturbed.