18th August 07:56
Blair Hornstine (wise merit case aspects sacrifice)
A pointless sacrifice
How did a New Jersey **** come to embody everything we hate about high
by Jonathan S. Tobin July 17, 2003
Growing up, most of us knew a Blair Hornstine -- a girl or boy who
seemed to do everything right, who was always at the top of the class
in high school. You know the type -- that someone who combines
straight A's with relentless do-gooding on the road to Harvard, Yale,
or some other school most of us didn't get into.
We're all supposed to admire people like that, but the truth is, the
vast majority of us can't stand them. We envy the ease with which they
move from success to success in life. And when the inevitable day
arrives for a Blair Hornstine to trip over some unforeseen banana
peel, the pleasure afforded by the star's comeuppance is shared by
more people than are willing to publicly admit it.
Hornstine, whose personal lawsuit forced Moorestown High School in New
Jersey to grant her the title of the school's sole valedictorian (it
was supposed to be shared with another deserving male candidate), has
now paid the sort of price for notoriety usually restricted to corrupt
politicians and college football coaches who lie on their resumes or
go on drunken binges with exotic dancers.
Vilified by her fellow students and townspeople for her willingness to
use the legal system to get her way, Hornstine was subsequently
exposed as a plagiarist for using published material (including
presidential speeches and Supreme Court decisions) uncredited in
What went wrong?
Had she not made headlines as the protagonist in what The Weekly
Standard's Jonathan V. Last aptly called the "Bobo version of the
Texas cheerleader case," it is doubtful that anyone would have taken
the trouble to investigate her work and expose her.
So instead of collecting the laurels due to someone whose high school
GPA was a gaudy 4.689 (on a scale of 1 to 4), and who collected enough
extra credit and volunteer projects to fill volumes, Hornstine wound
up skipping graduation to avoid being jeered at by her peers. Worse
than that, she was subsequently tossed out of Harvard University on
the grounds of ethical misconduct two months before her freshman year
Nobody seems sorry for Blair or for her father, the Honorable Louis
Hornstine, the New Jersey superior court judge many blame for the
whole mess. Blair deserves to live her life in peace. Whatever her
faults or those of her family, she hasn't murdered anyone that I'm
aware of, and has already been punished far more severely for her
transgressions than some other type-A overachievers who've done far
worse (what comes to mind is a certain ex-president named Bill
Clinton, whose biography by The Washington Post's David Maranis was
titled none other than "First in His Class").
But before this bizarre chapter turns into a cheesy television movie,
it's worth pondering not only what it says about envy and the perils
of celebrity, but also about what it seems that we value in our
Perhaps we should also think about the values this typically upwardly
mobile middle-class Jewish family seems to embody. Respect for
learning is integral to Jewish culture, but the need to be No. 1 at
all times is not, despite the fact that some of us act as if it is.
What compulsion for recognition or status drives such hunger for being
Last, who previously attended Moorestown High himself, painted an
unflattering portrait of the Hornstines in his insightful July 7
feature on the case. Though she triumphed in the preliminary stages of
her lawsuit, the closer you get to the details, the more you get the
feeling that there was something odd about the way the system was
manipulated by the Hornstines.
Suffering from an unspecified malady akin to "chronic fatigue," which
enabled her to study at home rather than attend most classes, Blair
was able to maintain a higher average than she could have achieved
actually going to school. She also managed to use her plentiful spare
time to become a champion volunteer and junior philanthropist.
But, according to Last and others who have investigated the story, few
in town believe she has any real disability, and many resent her for
resisting the school's attempt to name the student with the
second-highest marks -- who attended full-time -- as co-valedictorian.
Once the suit (which calls for $2.5 million in punitive damages) was
filed in federal court, Hornstine become the topic of water-cooler
conversation in offices around the country. Most of these centered on
the increasing use of lawsuits to deal the kinds of
problems that used to be able to be settled without resorting to
Are there second thoughts?
I share those concerns. And, I imagine, Judge Hornstine himself may
now be troubled by second thoughts about his decision to plunge his
family into this maelstrom of controversy. Like the protagonists of
the classic English play "The Winslow Boy" by Terrence Rattigan, the
Hornstines must wonder whether their crusade to ensure their daughter
was not slighted has cost them far more than the title of
valedictorian was worth.
But unlike the play that depicted a family's ultimately successful
effort to vindicate the reputation of a schoolboy wrongly accused of
stealing, Blair has not won out in the end.
On the contrary, her frivolous use of the legal system backfired when
she was accused of an offense that no one had thought her capable of
when all of this started.
In the play (which was itself inspired by a true story that occurred
just before World War I), we sympathize with the boy's father, who
sacrifices his health, finances, and the future of his other children
for his son's cause. We do so not because his decision is wise
(clearly, it is not), but because we share his belief in the
importance of the truth, and that redeeming the unblemished honor of
his innocent child is a battle worth fighting. He represents the ideal
Englishman who prizes fair play and honor above all.
Unlike Ronnie Winslow, Blair and her father have come to represent
some of the worst aspects of our society -- the desire for empty
honors and meaningless school grades, along with a willingness to hurt
anyone who comes in the way of such goals.
Blair is undoubtedly a brilliant girl whose charitable work does not
merit our contempt. Her plagiarism was a serious offense. But this is
a youthful indiscretion that ought not to hang around her head for the
rest of her life (as it probably will). Hornstine is no Jayson Blair.
Instead of chortling at her discomfort, we should be thinking
seriously about the kind of pressure we put on our kids for high marks
or activities that will get them into the best schools.
Perhaps Blair does now stand for all the things most of us once hated
about high school. But if we envy the Blair Hornstines we meet in our
own youth, then we should remember that their pressure-filled
existence and pyrrhic scholastic victories aren't the route we would
choose for ourselves or for our children.
Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in