‘Were he to become president,” Howard Dean jeered this morning on MSNBC, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker “would be the first president in many generations that did not have a college degree.” This, Dean concluded was a disgrace. “He’s never finished,” he spluttered, and “the issue here is not just an issue of dancing around the question of evolution for political reasons, the issue is how well educated is this guy? And that’s a problem.”
Thus was one of the most successful politicians of recent years condemned for lack of a certificate.
It is unlikely that most of Walker’s critics will be as openly vicious as is Howard Dean, but, if Walker continues his march toward the presidency, Dean’s is an argument that is almost certain to be deployed elsewhere. Already, a search for the words “dropout” and “Scott Walker” reveals the taunt to be a favorite of left-leaning sites that are angry with Walker for his education reform; while Twitter has a sizeable contingent of users who are convinced that the republic will fall if the “uneducated” “dropout” “loser” gets anywhere near the reins of federal power. (An amusing number of these accounts have “Dr.” or “Ph.D” or “university” in their handles. The educated doth protest too much, methinks.)
How effective the approach would be during a general election is anybody’s guess, for at present Americans exhibit a strange and inconsistent attitude toward their dropouts. In theory, this is a nation that was built by the rebels and the nonconformists — more specifically, by the recalcitrant revolutionaries of Valley Forge, the chippy entrepreneurs of the frontier and of Silicon Valley, and by the ambitious Lincolnian auto-didacts who looked at their conditions and sought to improve them on their own terms. In practice, however, America is becoming increasingly rigid and Babbit-like. When a given individual makes it without school, we lavish him with praise and with adulation and we explain his rise with saccharine appeals to the American spirit; when our own children suggest that they might wish to dropout, however, we tut-tut and roll our eyes and make sneering jokes about Burger King. Likewise, when a chippy little self-starter eschews Harvard and starts a billion-dollar company, we applaud him for his derring-do; and yet, when a smart high-school graduate applies to work on the reception desk of that company, we send him away in search of a B.A. (in anything at all). Politically, we talk romantically of those who have made the journey from log cabin to White House, but when there is a possibility that the United States might have its “first president in many generations [who does] not have a college degree,” the likes of Howard Dean feel entirely comfortable throwing pejoratives his way, and making it clear that his eccentricity would be a mark against him. Want to become a hairdresser in a town that lacks barbers? Go and get a qualification, loser.
This is no accident. Rather, it is the product of an increasing tendency among college-educated Americans to regard the letters after their names as a distinguishing mark that renders them as part of a special, exclusive class. By willfully conflating their established educational achievements and their presumed intellect or societal worth — in Dean’s words, their “education” per se — these people extract every last ounce of social value from their investment, and make it appear as if the only way to compete with them is to join them. Sure, the clerisy concedes, you might be acceptable within your own field, but you will never be able to compete with us for the jobs that we prefer. Why? Well, because we have decided that they require a college degree, and you have an unfortunate background in trade. Sorry, Mr. Walker, you have the wrong colored dot on your forehead to run for higher office.
Putting to one side the obvious benefits that this tendency accords to its practitioners, the conflation of ideas that is at the heart of our present education mania is predicated upon a misunderstanding of both what a college education actually does for a person, and of which skills are pre-requisite to first-class political leadership. Broadly speaking, university prospectuses promise that students will gain two things from their attendance: The first is information and the capacity to think critically; the second is application — namely, how to stick with something, how to manage their time, and how to work through problems methodically. Of late, the latter promise has been transformed a little, from “college can give you this skill,” to “only college can give you this skill.” In turn, the word “dropout” has been infused with an even more potent sting. “You didn’t finish college,” the charge holds. “What are you, some kind of bum?”
This is not, of course, to say that universities do not teach their charges how to apply themselves (although for the process to be effective students will have to be intellectually challenged in a manner that most contemporary universities would never consider). But it is to pour cold water on the presumption that the campus is the best or even the only venue within which these skills can be learned. Are we honestly to propose that, as a result of my education, someone such as myself is more disciplined or hardworking than a business owner or a military veteran or a single mother or a baseball coach?
Or, say, than the governor of Wisconsin?
And, for that matter, are we to presume that four years at Marquette or Harvard or the University of California provide graduates with the necessary skills to run the executive branch of the federal government?
Indeed, it seems often to be the case that the exact opposite is true. Certainly, leadership and analytical skills can come from anywhere. But, with the notable exception of those who are in professions that required specific training — engineers, doctors, biologists, etc. — college students who seek what Walker terms “an education for an education’s sake” tend to be rather an odd bunch. They are strong in the abstract realm, yes. They may know a great deal about literature, and some history. But they also have a weaker grasp of reality than many of those who did not attend at all. It is no accident, perhaps, that the worst president of the 20th century was an academic with a Ph.D.
It seems obvious why this is the case. A plumber is required to get his calculations right, or hot water will spray all over the place and he will be fired or sued. A soldier must learn to stick to a plan and to remember his training under pressure or he and his friends will die. A business owner must wake up every day and subject himself to the harsh and inescapable vicissitudes of the free market. A journalist or a compliance officer or a bureaucrat, on the other hand, is able to live almost entirely in his head. Are we to presume that this does not matter?
This being a democratic republic, it is dangerous in and of itself for our elites to condemn as unsuitable for office those they consider to be “less educated” than themselves. But it is downright repugnant to watch certain members of the journalistic class meditating on the question of whether a man who has been infinitely more successful than themselves should be deemed ineligible for want of their preferred credentials. It is difficult, too, not to divine a touch of caste-system snobbery in the initial inquiry. As higher education becomes increasingly fetishized, those who do not possess the right letters after their names will be increasingly in danger of marginalization — even, it should be said, when they are successful and happy and full of self-assurance. If Scott Walker is the nominee, there is no doubt his detractors will play as subtly but as brutally as they can on his being a “dropout,” nor that the professional class that determines the shape of the debates will mutter in irritation that he is not one of them. If he has any sense about him, he will refuse to entertain the premise. “Sure I didn’t finish college,” he will say. “But look where I am now. This is America, goddamnit.”
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.