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Did you hear? Americans are so exceptional that we don't need no high-fallutin' education to make us better than we are. Anyone can be president. Even if that person is an eighth-grade dropout with no meaningful expertise or knowledge that makes him any more qualified to occupy their chair than any of the thousands of people who weren'e elected.

Okay, it's not quite that bad, though at times it seems like my country is definitely running in that direction. The latest piece of evidence that has me thinking along these lines is a relatively minor news story I stumbled across today:

Arkansas Legislators Lag Nation in College Experience

This story is about a ranking of representatives to the state legislatures in each state that don't have a college degree. Nix that - that have never even attended college. Arkansas holds the dubious distinction of having 25% of their state legislators with no college experience. (The national average is 8.7%, according to the study.) That's not even what bothers me so much. I know what it's like in rural areas especially in the south, where a lot of people don't go to university and get by pretty well without it. You can be a good person, you can be industrious and smart and all that without a college education.

What you can't be, really, is educated. At least not educated in the way I want my legislators to be. Yes, you could read every book in the library but if you don't have the communal learning experience that college offers. And you don't have exposure to people whose job it is to help you learn. That means that you probably don't have the intellectual skills to evaluate a report, to read and interpret a primary document like a legal statute, or to follow logically the implications of something. You certainly don't have the exposure to other vantage points and the experience working with people who hold them. (College is different from high school, not only in that you have more exposure to a greater variety of people but in that you are expected to function as adults.) With rare exceptions, a college education is at least a necessary step toward being a leader. Or it should be, for shame.

That is what really has me hot under the collar. I am sure there will be the rare exceptions, like Mr. Willis of Ohio, the U.S. Senator who only has a high school degree and earned it at night school. In the West Wing episode by the same name, Mr. Willis's wife - who was well-educated, seemingly - died and her husband had to take over her seat. But Mr. Willis recognizes that he isn't on the same footing as a lot of the politicians, in his intellectual background. He is going to do his best, and he actually does pretty well; but he also knows that he is out of his depths, in large part because he is (as he puts it) a "dummy."

Let me be perfectly clear: I don't think people who don't go to college are necessarily "dummies." They're not. But people who think that they are better equipped to run a county or state or whatever than people who actually have gone to college, have exposed themselves to the knowledge and learned how to assimilate that knowledge from the experts - those people scare me. To say that such people should be legislators because they better "represent" the population as a whole (Arkansas is also rock-bottom according to how many adults have attended college) is a bit of an outrage to me.

I would never dream of allowing someone to be middle-management of a large corporation without a B.A. Let alone without any college experience at all. And a state is much more complex, and involves many more restrictions on action, than a corporation does. Thinking common sense should outweigh what the Constitution and existing laws requires, that's a recipe for disaster.

Yet another reason why we need a robust public university system: without it, the people who actually represent the majority will be unqualified to lead them. As if we needed another reason...


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 14th, 2011 04:45 pm (UTC)
I'm seeing a rather disturbing movement of anti-elitist populism in political discourse these days. *sigh* I'm not sure when it happened that "educated" became synonymous with "elite and out-of-touch", but I suspect it was around the sane time that talk radio became the loudest political voice in the country.

I agree with your point about education generally, but IMO, for most jobs (including managerial ones), life experience us generally a good substitute for college education. For example, I have no trouble believing that a 30-year old single mother who has been working hard to raise her family and pay her bills is better suited to a position of financial responsibility at a corporation than a 22-year old woman who just graduated from college. *shrugs* On the other hand, that same women is significantly less suited than a recent college graduate to work as a research chemist, for example.
Jun. 20th, 2011 10:00 pm (UTC)
I agree that there's a trend toward thinking someone with advanced education is too snooty or pretentious or what have you to be elected, and that there's a move toward trying to seem as average and ordinary as possible. I think it's really ridiculous, especially when I don't personally want Joe Blow from the block running the country; I want someone exceptional. But I disagree that people without a college degree are incapable of a level of critical thinking or are unable to parse legal jargon or analyze information.

What I remember most about that episode of the West Wing is that out of the three lawmakers in the room it was Mr. Willis that understood what Toby wanted to do, that his lack of education didn't stand in the way of anything. I'm not saying that we should be looking for politicians who don't have a college degree, but I also don't think a college degree gives people intelligence. We had a president for eight years who I think epitomizes the idea that you can be as thick as a brick and still have a college education.

I agree with roh_wyn that in most work environments you're able to learn on the job and become qualified for managerial positions without having to have an MBA or any kind of higher education. In the past men (I'd say people, but I think it's safe to say it was just men) have done the whole work-my-way-up-from-the-mail-room-to-the-boardroom thing and it should still possible to do that today if there wasn't such a high premium placed on college degrees. The combination of a thirty-something's life experience and on-the-job training should be taken into consideration and not overlooked in favor of some 22 year old who's only worked at Arby's or had internships. And I will admit to a lot of personal bias here. I have no college education and I it's very frustrating to see ad after ad for positions I know I'm qualified for that all require a BA. I just don't think college is the only thing that imparts knowledge.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )



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