The following is an excerpt from OpinionJournal’s “Best of the Web” at WSJ written by the editor, James Taranto.
“Several hundred students, professors and community activists converged at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on Saturday to protest Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed budget cuts, a demonstration during which participants cheered for the end of democracy,” reports David Hookstead, a student stringer for TheCollegeFix.com.
“Several in the crowd also poked fun at the fact Walker never graduated from college. Signs stating ‘too cool for school’ dotted the protest”- apparently not a reference to the “subzero temperatures and a windchill of -17 degrees” (global warming strikes again).
With Walker having emerged as a leading Republican presidential prospect, his lack of a college degree – he left Milwaukee’s Marquette University a semester shy of graduation – has been much discussed of late outside Wisconsin. Our own experience compels us to weigh in. As longtime readers know, this columnist, a contemporary of Walker’s, also left college without graduating (though not without material for a column).
“Scott Walker, were he to become president, would be the first president in many generations who did not have a college degree,” said Howard Dean (B.A., Yale; M.D., Albert Einstein) on MSNBC last week. “So the issue here is . . . how well educated is this guy?”
Some of Dean’s fellow liberals are quite discomfited by his remark. Salon’s Joan Walsh (B.A., UW-Madison) calls it “tin-eared.” New York Times editorialist Juliet Lapidos (B.A., Yale; M.Phil., Cambridge) observes: “Attacking Mr. Walker for dropping out of college (reportedly to take a job) can’t possibly be a winning strategy. It sounds snobbish.”
Dean’s comment exposes the basic cultural contradiction of today’s liberals: They are elitists who aspire to populism. Walsh’s piece is a hilarious illustration of the tension, starting with the headline, which combines left-populist sloganeering with obscurantist postmodern punctuation: “Fox News’ Phony 1 Percent Populism: Megyn Kelly Helps Scott Walker Solve (One of) His College Problem(s).”
Walker appeared Tuesday on Kelly’s high-rated show, where, as Walsh describes it, she threw him “a big fat softball”:
“You know,” Kelly told Walker after he mentioned Hillary Clinton, “she went to Yale.”
The Wisconsin governor saw it coming: “All the more reason to put someone in who’s a fighter, not just an Ivy Leaguer. Someone who’s a fighter.”
Kelly laughed, “As I say about my own Syracuse undergrad and Albany law school education, you know, we can see items clearly because we don’t have all that ivy in our eyes.”
And Walker went on:
“I think there’s a lot of Americans who have looked at some of the leaders we’ve had over the last few years who’ve come out of those Ivy League schools and said, ‘Maybe it’s time we got people who are in touch with people all across the rest of the America.’ ”
So this is Walker’s plan, with the his [sic] friends at Fox: whack back at “elitists” and pointy-headed intellectuals.
What’s funny about this exchange is Kelly’s invoking her own advanced degree in an effort to establish populist street cred. But Walsh misses the joke and instead joins in the one-downmanship: “I would challenge both Kelly and Walker’s claim to be among the huddled masses, since both attended expensive private universities, while I went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I paid under $400 a semester.” That’s a true humblebrag, since Madison is generally regarded as a better school than either Syracuse or Marquette.
It all reminds us of John Kerry’s (B.A., Yale; J.D., Boston College) infamous “botched joke” about uneducated dummies ending up “stuck in Iraq.” He later tried to explain he was referring not to soldiers but to the man then in the White House, an implausible explanation given that George W. Bush (B.A., Yale, M.B.A., Harvard) is better-credentialed than Kerry himself. The botch was so embarrassing because it pointed to the insincerity of Kerry’s “reporting for duty” pose as a champion of America’s fighting men.
Whatever else one might say about Dean’s remark, it did have a factual basis. Only one man in the 20th century, Truman in 1948, was elected president without a college degree. The last president elected without at least one Ivy League degree was Reagan (B.A., Eureka College) in 1984; and every Democratic nominee since Walter Mondale (B.A., J.D., University of Minnesota) has had at least one Ivy credential.
The three baby-boomer presidents all had advanced Ivy League degrees; the last two, Bush and Obama (B.A., Columbia; J.D., Harvard), are the only double-Ivy presidents (with two qualified exceptions: Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt, both Harvard graduates, both dropped out of Columbia Law, which awarded them degrees posthumously in 2008).
So there is a definite trend in presidential politics toward more-impressive educational credentials. As Lapidos notes, that is a mirror of society at large: “Defending Mr. Walker by saying college means absolutely nothing, as some have done, sounds out-of-it. Many employers expect or even require their employees to have graduated from college, and research suggests that the rate of return for a bachelor’s degree hovers around 15 percent.”
Foremost among those “some” is Glenn Reynolds (B.A., Tennessee; J.D., Yale), a law professor at the University of Tennessee who is best known for his InstaPundit blog. Reynolds, a leading critic of what he calls the higher-education bubble, opines in USA Today that “a President Walker would accomplish something worthwhile the moment he took office”:
Over the past few years in America, a college degree has become something valued more as a class signifier than as a source of useful knowledge. . . .
Electing America’s first non-college-grad president in many decades will serve to remind people that a college degree isn’t the be-all and end-all, and that accomplishments and practical skills are, in the end, more important than credentials. It would be educational.
Reynolds’s column drew hackles from Tufts professor Daniel Drezner (B.A., Williams; M.A., Ph.D., Stanford), who writes a blog for the Washington Post:
It’s one hell of a cognitive leap to go from “George Washington and Bill Gates never graduated from college!” to arguing that Reynolds’s readers should therefore disdain college as well. For one thing, folks like Washington and Gates benefited tremendously from being born into wealth. In a society where one’s parentage already determines an awful lot about one’s economic future, I’m not sure advising young people to disdain college is really the answer.
The Week’s Edward Morrissey, a college dropout, is generally sympathetic to Reynolds’s argument but agrees with Drezner on that point. “I never got that ticket—and I paid a price for it, too,” he writes:
After working for a few years in the aerospace industry myself as a technical writer, I found myself out of work when that sector began its shift away from defense to commercial application. Without a degree, work in my field eluded me. . . . Life turned out well for me—I am very blessed to make a living from my passion, writing—but the lack of a degree made it . . . more difficult to achieve that end.
Our own experience has been happier: As far as we are aware, our lack of a college degree has never held back our career. Yet we agree with Drezner and Morrissey: We’ve never advised a young person to forgo or quit college, and in today’s world we don’t think we would, absent unusual circumstances. Dropping out is not always a hindrance, but that doesn’t make it a help.
Nonetheless, our own experience leads us to see Walker’s dropout status as an argument in his favor. Early in our career we did not advertise our lack of a degree, on the theory that some would see it as a weakness. But once we were established, it became a point of pride. These days, when someone asks where we went to school, we invariably follow the answer with “and I never graduated.” We mean it as a boast, and that is how it is taken.
Why? Because in an age in which a college degree is, as Reynolds puts it, “an entry-level ticket into the educated mandarinate” that “dominates government, journalism and academia,” a successfulcollege dropout stands out as having mastered a difficult challenge.
At the same time, as college degrees become more common, their signaling value diminishes. Assuming she is the Democratic nominee, does anyone think Hillary Clinton (B.A., Wellesley; J.D., Yale) will put her academic credentials at the center of her campaign?
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