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Drop the ‘Dropout’

by Charles C. W. Cooke

This country was built by people without formal credentials

I have long argued that any culture that fetishizes its system of formal education will soon end up disparaging those who opt out — and it was with this somber maxim in mind that a recent headline from the progressive Web publication PoliticsUSA grabbed my attention: “College Dropout Scott Walker Claims Ronald Reagan Ended the Cold War by Busting Unions.”

There are no two ways around this sentence — no perplexing ambiguities or contrived interpretations. Here, “college dropout” serves as an unlovely substitute for “stupid,” “uncultured,” “unvetted” — or, at the very least, for “lacking in credentials.” It’s a putdown and a swipe — a churlish, ugly dig in the ribs designed to put a man in his place. And, more than anything else, it’s a signal for fellow fetishists: “This person is not like us.”

If it seems unwarranted that someone would attempt to throw this card at the successful governor of a state of almost 6 million, that is because it is exactly that: unwarranted. This, after all, is a country built by dropouts, eccentrics, and rebels — “the round pegs in the square holes,” in Sydney Smith’s famous formulation. Outside the public sector, this is understood rather well. What do we suspect are the chances that our headline’s author would take to his keyboard and denigrate the scholarly credentials of Steve Jobs (Apple), Bill Gates and Gabe Newell (Microsoft), Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz (Facebook), Michael Dell (Dell), Larry Ellison (Oracle), Matt Mullenweg (Wordpress), Arash Ferdowsi (DropBox), Aaron Levie (Box), Evan Williams (Blogger, Twitter), David Karp (Tumblr), Pete Cashmore (Mashable), or Daniel Ek (Spotify) — all of whom thumbed their noses at academic certification and elected to do something that didn’t require it?

What, too, do we presume is the likelihood of creative types’ being subjected to the epithet “dropout”? Would it be thrown with such abandon at Walt Disney, Bill Cosby, Al Pacino, Ralph Lauren, Lady Gaga, Wolfgang Puck, Tom Hanks, Ted Turner, Elton John, or David Geffen — dropouts all? How about our literary luminaries — F. Scott Fitzgerald, Harper Lee, Charles Dickens, Jack Kerouac, William Faulker, Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells — some of whom didn’t even finish high school? Doubtful. In government, however, the prejudice is rife.

Credential-focused snobbery has always been unseemly, the grim consequence of conflating individual ability and institutional imprimatur. But it is especially perplexing to see it rearing its head now, when higher education is yielding such questionable returns. All across the world, universities are churning out parades of people who are processed through their halls less for didactic betterment and more because attending college for four years has become a rite of passage — “what one does” between high school and the real world.

In a significant number of cases, would-be students have not yet noticed that their enthusiasm for a college placement is predicated upon a fatal misconception: that a degree will inexorably lead to a better life. Often, it will not. As Occupy Wall Street demonstrated rather cruelly, the hardest-hit victims of the Great Recession have been the students — the millions of young people who believed that their educations would insulate them from the undulations and vagaries of the market. “I have a degree!” many were prone to whine down in Zuccotti Park, when asked what ailed them. “Okay,” one might have responded. “So bloody what?”

The instinct is rife. So taken in by this notion was a dear friend of mine that he steadfastly refused to take work for half a year until he could find what he described as a “graduate job.” Like me, my friend has a degree in modern history. What exactly constitutes a “graduate job” for somebody who knows quite a lot about the French Revolution, nobody really knows. But we all seem to agree that the graduates deserve one. “I went to college,” the unemployed generation tells us. And we all nod, with pity.

Why more young people have not noticed that they are being sold down the river is a mystery. Why the modern Left is so keen to funnel the nation’s teenagers through the university system, on the other hand, is not. Put harshly, its survival as a dominant political movement demands it. In part, the urge is structural. Woodrow Wilson, quite the worst of America’s presidents, hoped not only to centralize power and to do away overnight with the array of checks and balances that his predecessors had so painstakingly established but also to establish a regimented bureaucracy that would be staffed by the best and the brightest of citizens. The federal government, Wilson argued, should seek to “open for the public a bureau of skilled, economical administration” that would be populated by the “hundreds who are wise” and who would have the explicit intention of thwarting the “selfish, ignorant, timid, stubborn, or foolish” instincts of the voters.

How to ensure that those skilled administrators had the right ideas, and that the voters didn’t rebel? Take over the system, of course. The 1962 Port Huron Statement, written and issued by Students for a Democratic Society, called for the Left to “distribute” itself throughout the nation’s higher-education system — which, the document’s authors noted clinically, “is located in a permanent position of social influence.” The “educational function” of the university, they continued, “makes it indispensable and automatically makes it a crucial institution in the formation of social attitudes. . . . In an unbelievably complicated world it is the central institution for organizing, evaluating, and transmitting knowledge.”

It is the central institution for organizing and evaluating people, too — especially those who are to be entrusted with the affairs of state. Americans, it seems, are allowed to leave the school grounds to become great entrepreneurs or creators, but they are in no circumstances allowed to reject school in order to get a job at the DMV or at their local public school. In most cases, in fact, apostates may not leave to get a job with the government at any level unless they possess the right credentials. Acquiescence to the regime is the price of a place within it.

It’s all depressingly Prussian — the end result of a century-long American fascination with a German model that really doesn’t suit the Anglosphere too well. Ellwood P. Cubberley, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, a contemporary of Woodrow Wilson’s, and the architect of much of the United States’ educational bureaucracy, was impressed with the Teutonic approach precisely because it ran contrary to the instincts of the republic. Once upon a time, what now seems normal was thoroughly foreign: mandated attendance, prescriptive testing for teachers and students alike, and a national curriculum that guaranteed that the price of literacy was submission to the prevailing prejudices and interests of the state. Now, these are uncontroversial. “Our schools,” Cubberley wrote with characteristic honesty, “are, in a sense, factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life.” Somewhere, Otto von Bismarck smiled.

America has long operated on the presumption that a citizen can rise from a log cabin to the presidency, a beautiful conceit that has lost little purchase as the republic has matured. There can be no greater enemy of this principle than an establishment that rejects as an outsider any American who has not been through the system in the manner the incumbency approves. Leadership, intelligence, creativity, and focus can all be augmented by higher education; but, colleges having a tendency to breed conformity and requiring submission to hierarchy, they can be ruined and diminished, too. Let us ask many harsh questions of our representatives but ensure that among them is not “So, where did you go to school?”

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