BILL O’REILLY: Do you believe that you are smart enough, incisive enough, intellectual enough to handle the most powerful job in the world?
SARAH PALIN: I believe that I am because I have common sense, and I have, I believe, the values that are reflective of so many other American values. And I believe that what Americans are seeking is not the elitism, the kind of spinelessness, that perhaps is made up for with some kind of elite Ivy League education . . .
– The O’Reilly Factor, Nov. 21, 2009
No sooner had I lighted on this exchange than the familiar words of Faust — familiar, at any rate, to us Ivy Leaguers, for whom he is something of a patron saint — were on my tongue:
Habe nun, ach! Philosophie,
Juristerei und Medizin . . .
I have, alas, studied philosophy,
Jurisprudence and medicine, too,
And worst of all theology
With keen endeavor, through and through —
And here I am, for all my lore,
The wretched fool I was before.
I was, as I say, trilling Goethe when it occurred to me that Governor Palin had a point. Perhaps the Ivy League business has been a little overrated.
Everyone knows that many stupid people possess degrees from fancy schools. Many smart people don’t have them. But in a big country, it isn’t easy to distinguish the wheat from the chaff. We are obliged to rely on things like academic degrees — and on the relative prestige of the institutions that grant them — to a much greater degree than was the case in the past.
This was evident in the comparisons that were drawn between President Obama and Governor Palin in the summer of 2008. His intelligence was never questioned. Hers was, repeatedly. Undoubtedly his two Ivy League degrees (from Columbia and Harvard) helped him. Her want of prestigious education hurt her: It made it easier for those who didn’t like her to say she was stupid. This presumption of stupidity was in the air before the interviews with Charles Gibson and Katie Couric. Those interviews resembled ambushes, orchestrated by people who were already convinced that she was a moron. Had Obama — who cherishes his teleprompter — been ambushed in this way, his intelligence would have been questioned too.
Degree fetish might be a necessary evil in a big country where there are lots of candidates for jobs and no easy way to rank them. But if in the future the only means of obtaining intellectual credibility in America should be through an accumulation of degrees, the country will almost certainly become stupider.
Degree fetish fosters a standardization of the intellect: Everyone is obliged to jump over the same hurdles to get their intellectual passports. If standardization has its virtues, particularly in the hard sciences, its promise in the humanities is much less obvious; Edmund Wilson was probably right when he said that literae humaniores have suffered from the Ph.D. fetish.