June 14th, 2011


state legislators and (the lack of) college experience

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...