Magazine | March 9, 2015, Issue

B.S. Degrees

“Why do you have trouble with recall? Do you have a mental disorder we should know about? #AskHillary #whitewater” (Mr Popular, @Real_Mr_Popular)
There is no such thing as ‘presidency studies’

Exhibit A in the category “Questions Nobody Is Asking”: Does Howard Dean believe that Wisconsin governor Scott Walker is qualified to be president?

“Qualification” has two related but distinct senses: The first entails the satisfaction of formal requirements, e.g., the qualifications for voting include being a U.S. citizen at least 18 years of age. The second sense of “qualification” means that one is in possession of certain skills or experience that suggest one can perform a given task: Howard Dean is not qualified to perform brain surgery.

This can get murky: Howard Dean is not qualified to practice medicine at all, in the sense that he does not have a physician’s license, though he is qualified in the sense that he possesses a medical degree and did practice medicine for a time. The first sense of “qualification” carries the connotation of credential, which is what those who huff and puff over Scott Walker’s lack of a college degree are going on about. That is precisely the wrong approach, and among those getting it wrong is the qualified/unqualified Doctor/Not-a-Doctor Dean himself, who suggested that Walker’s lack of a B.A. marked him as “unknowledgeable” and therefore unqualified for the presidency.

The irony there is that Dean and Walker, a former presidential candidate and a likely one, share, despite their dramatically different backgrounds, precisely the same qualification (in the second sense) for the presidency: time served as governor of a state, the job in American politics that most closely resembles the presidency. Barack Obama comes from the Senate, and a state legislature before that, i.e., the jobs that most resemble service on the high-school student council.

Scott Walker did his time on the student council, too, at Marquette, a career in campus politics that already has been — because the intellectuals of our times do not rise to the seriousness of our times — the subject of a lengthy PolitiFact investigation, complete with claims — fabrications, really — from the Democratic party that Walker was kicked out of student government and out of Marquette for misbehavior while electioneering. (That’s the nationwide Democratic party of the United States of America, incidentally, making dark and fictitious aspersions about a student-council race at Marquette in the 1980s. Mike Tate, chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic party, went so far as to use the phrase “nefarious activity,” which is kind of cute.) Marquette confirms that Walker was a student in good standing who voluntarily withdrew from the university.

He never went back. This isn’t that uncommon, and used to be quite a bit more common, with gentlemen exhibiting a measure of aristocratic contempt for academic formalities. Brooke Dolan of the Academy of Natural Sciences and the Office of Strategic Services studied zoology at Princeton before moving on to more interesting work in the 1930s and 1940s. Bill Clinton never bothered finishing his studies as a Rhodes scholar. Bill Gates has only an honorary degree from Harvard, having set aside his studies for more fruitful endeavors. Dolan could have been more careful with his homework: Leading a mission to Lhasa with Ilya Tolstoy, he caused a diplomatic incident when he suggested to the young Dalai Lama that the United States was ready to recognize a free Tibet. But does anybody believe that Bill Clinton would have been better off with another year of graduate school, or that Bill Gates suffered for his lack of sheepskin?

What, exactly, should Scott Walker — who has reshaped both the politics and the policy environment of his state while winning three elections in four years — have a degree in before he is “qualified” to be president? Presidency studies?

The bachelor’s degree as general credential has a great deal of allure, not least to people who suspect — perhaps with some reason — that they are frauds, a feeling that frequently afflicts sons of privilege such as Howard Dean of Park Avenue and the Hamptons. A degree is the last fragment shored against the ruins of an intellectual fraud. Barack Obama doesn’t speak a foreign language or play a musical instrument, exhibits no sign that any great book has left a mark upon his mind, has never, so far as the printed word can document, uttered an original thought or put forth an interesting idea — but he has a Harvard law degree. Journalism is not a field marked by notably high intellectual standards, but the four-year journalism degree enables the pretense that it is a profession, like medicine, rather than a trade, like lard-rendering.

It is a strange thing: College is in many cases a very expensive four- to six-year sleepaway camp for young adults who really are too old for that sort of thing, where the main lessons given are in status-signaling. The useful bits of my time as an undergraduate at the University of Texas could have been compressed into about three semesters and a lengthy newspaper internship. My subsequent experience — as a sometime adjunct professor, director of programs for college students and recent graduates, manager in the private sector, etc. — is that a person’s holding a bachelor’s degree or failing to hold one says exactly nothing about what, if anything, that person knows.

So, why the fetishization of the bachelor’s degree?

Consider the bitterness of complaints, most recently from Millennials, about having to work at Starbucks or make $10 an hour doing banal office chores in spite of having a college degree — and the mountain of debt that so often goes with it. Later, those will become wry observations about having a degree that has nothing at all to do with one’s job. There are two things at work: The first is the damaged but extant idea that a bachelor’s degree is the Willy Wonka golden ticket to a comfortable middle-class life. The second is the related inability to distinguish between education and job-training. Neither one of those errors should be able to withstand much critical examination: No sensible person digging through the works of Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim thinks: “Man, this is going to lead to a really cushy job, someday.” After leaving the Velvet Underground and getting his doctorate in medieval literature, Sterling Morrison became a tugboat man in the Houston ship channel. There was no degree in being a rock star, and no graduate program in post-rock-star studies. There is no degree in being Leader of the Free World, either, no credential for Scott Walker to put at the top of his curriculum vitae.

A related line of criticism is that it does not so much matter that Walker does not have a degree as that he quit and never came back, which suggests that he lacks the focus or the drive to stick with difficult tasks. Roger Kimball, one of the great critics and publishers of our time, regrets not finishing his own education, in his case a Ph.D. at Yale. “One should, I believe, complete what one begins,” he explained. The criticism is a fair one, and a general one. In the specific matter of Walker, it would be preposterous to suggest that this governor — of all figures on the American political scene today — lacks perseverance. Wisconsin is neither a famously conservative state nor a famously Republican one. Every Republican officeholder of any consequence endures the machinations of the crime syndicate that is the Democratic party — Rick Perry’s risible indictment on charges of vetoing a bill, Tom DeLay’s indictment (by the same prosecutor’s office) on charges of violating laws that had not been passed, IRS leaks, etc. — but very few have been subjected to what Walker endured as part of the investigation of his campaign’s relationships with independent conservative groups, a truly outrageous Gestapo affair in which defendants were forbidden to defend themselves in public even as they were dragged through the mud. Walker came through — not exactly a happy warrior, but happy enough. Likewise, the bongo-banging, screaming, union-goon protests in Madison — in which some of his more energetic critics on the left threatened to murder his wife — did not prevent Walker from securing the passage of one of the most important public-sector reforms of our time.

So, “qualified,” then?

If by that you mean that he performed admirably in his qualifying rounds in Madison, then Scott Walker is qualified indeed. If you mean that he possesses a piece of paper certifying that the dean of students has declared him ready to be president, the fact is, they aren’t handing those out. Not really.

Is Scott Walker qualified to be president? Is Howard Dean qualified to judge?

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