During the general elections, we focus on the most trivial questions possible. Perhaps they are easier to comprehend. Governor Palin has religious convictions against abortion, Senator Obama takes a different view. We can all understand that, and agree or disagree; even though their personal views on abortion are unlikely to make any difference, we mistakenly believe that they will. The Democrats and the Republicans have (marginally) different views on health care, the economy, Iraq, drilling for oil, taxation, and a few other issues. We may not (and probably don't) understand the differences, but like to think that we do. We really like to have opinions, but understanding what is going on is, well, rather burdensome.
In this article, I will address one of the more trivial issues of the campaign: the formal education of the candidates, particularly Senator Obama and Governor Palin. I see little hope of laying to rest this non-issue, because it has assumed too much significance for that to happen. Most of us assume that an Ivy League education is per se far superior to an education at a lesser institution of "higher learning," I disagree.
I was sufficiently fortunate to have been graduated from a well regarded Ivy League university and a good law school. I did well and am proud of it. I am very grateful to my parents for making these things possible. I was lucky in this and in other respects.
Having been graduated from college in 1963 and from law school in 1966, a long time ago, I can't comment based on personal experience upon the alleged leftist tendency in current higher education. I have read that it exists, but don't really know.
What do, and what should, these things independently mean in the post election political arena? Very little. They should have comparable significance in the pre-election arena. Do they have much significance in one's understanding of life, the universe and everything? No. There is an old saw,
You can send a fool to college
But you can't make him think.
You can lead a horse to water
But you can't make him drink.
Do educational accomplishments suggest a better world view, or better preparation to answer the important questions which affect the survival of our society? Occasionally perhaps, but not necessarily. Do folks who did not attend top universities fare worse? Occasionally perhaps, but not necessarily. Does the fact that Senator Obama was the President (or Editor in Chief, depending on the source of information) of the Harvard Law Review mean much? He is said to have been a good leader there, although he is credited with only one comment, unsigned and unattributed, until recently. The lack of attribution is not unusual, since most short student comments are unattributed. That there was only one is rather unusual, since most Law Review members author more than one. I wrote about a dozen. Does that make a difference? I don't think so. Does the fact that President Bush did marginally better at Yale than did Senator Kerry (neither excelled)? Does the fact that Governor Palin finally got a BS degree from the University of Idaho after attending other colleges make a difference in her qualifications to become the Vice President? Or President? Does the fact that Senator McCain was graduated fifth from the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy mean much? No, I don't think so. President Truman didn't have a stellar educational background — he never even got a college degree — and he did quite well as President of the United States during one of her most difficult periods. Although kept very much out of the loop by FDR until the latter's death, Truman became, in my view, one of our very best presidents. Were he alive and in good health now, I would vote for him in a heart beat. He had good, common "horse sense," and his lack of a college degree didn't cause the United States, or President Truman, any memorable difficulties. President Wilson who, before becoming the President of the United States had been the President of Princeton University was, in my opinion, one of the worst; President Carter (59th out of his Naval Academy class of 820) was, in my view, less than exemplary as well. TR, who was something of an "elitist" when at Harvard University, nevertheless did quite well as a "populist" President. As I noted in a previous article,
TR was no egalitarian; At Harvard, he became quite “foppish.” He was of the elite, he knew it, and so did everyone who knew him. In his senior year he wrote to his sister, “I stand 19th in the class . . . Only one gentleman stands ahead of me.” Harvard was, of course, not [then] coeducational.
After being admitted to at least some of the very prestigious universities, it takes a bit of effort not to receive a degree. That was the case at the university which I attended, where relatively few freshmen failed to get through four years and to receive a degree. Many other schools tend to accept far more applicants than will ultimately be graduated. I offer no opinion on which is the better admissions philosophy, only the caution that acceptance by and "success" at some of the better universities are not necessarily indicative of diligent effort, profound understanding or much of anything else truly useful in a President. Somehow, I doubt that having received a baccalaureate degree from Harvard, Yale, Princeton or another of the Ivy League schools would much impress, for example, Mr. Putin. Being among those who manage to get through four years at, and to receive a degree from, a less selective school may conceivably be more significant — particularly if one has to hold down a job to finance one's own education. Of course, that probably wouldn't much impress Mr. Putin either.
I am currently reading a book by Eugene Franklin Clark, U.S.N., who became a commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy. He didn't complete high school, but achieved the highest enlisted rank. Based upon his service in WWII, he was commissioned and rose to the giddy rank of lieutenant (two bars, comparable to an Army, Air Force or Marine captain); he retired with the rank of Commander, the equivalent of a Lieutenant Colonel in the other services. As a Lieutenant, he led much of the on-site reconnaissance for General MacArthur's ultimately very successful, but initially very chancy, invasion of Inchon during the Korean war by investigating the several islands in the Flying Fish Channel and obtaining information on the Inchon landing site, where the mud flats and thirty foot tidal variations presented very difficult logistical problems. Lt. Clark had somehow developed an exceptionally good understanding of the people with whom he had to deal, with the difficulties he and they faced, and with the need for accurate information. Would a top graduate of the Naval Academy have done a better job? We will never know. Without the work which Commander Clark accomplished, the Inchon invasion would, in my opinion, have been doomed to abject failure.
I consider the highly successful Inchon campaign to be the high point of General MacArthur's very excellent military career. It went dramatically down-hill a few months later, with the retreat from the Yalu; egregiously poor intelligence gathering and analysis became his downfall. Excessive elation at his remarkable (and widely unanticipated by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington) success at Inchon probably contributed to his already ample hubris, and therefore to his subsequent failure. General MacArthur was graduated first in his West Point class of ninety-three. Is Commander Clark's book a literary masterpiece? Hardly. It is rather pedestrian. Does it get his points across well? Yes.
Another former enlisted man, Grayston Lynch (1923 – 2008) attained the rank of Captain in the Army and retired in that lowly grade to join the CIA. He was instrumental in preparing for, and was on the ground with, the Bay of Pigs invasion during JFK's presidency. Despite lack of an Ivy League education (BA, economics, University of Maryland in 1950), he was a lot smarter than either JFK or RFK in anticipating the consequences of rheir decisions (and indecisions) concerning the course to be followed.
Education is a wonderful thing, and is very important. I can generally figure out how to use singular nouns with singular verbs, and plural nouns with plural verbs, and occasionally use the rather archaic subjunctive. I know quite a few "two bit" words, and sometimes use them rather than "two cent" words. Probably, I should more often refrain from doing so. Were I to require surgery, I would select a surgeon who had done well in medical school and who had demonstrated substantial competence thereafter.
Being "smart," "clever," and "decisive" have little to do with having been graduated from a prestigious and highly selective institution of higher learning. If any correlation is to be made, it may be that those who lack those advantages often do better, rather than worse, than those who have them. Perhaps those who lack such advantages recognize that they have to work harder. Perhaps they had to work harder to get their degrees. Perhaps they are less likely to suffer from hubris, an unfortunately common failing among those who seek and attain high political office.
Character, humility and good old fashioned common horse sense are, to my mind, far more important than anything else in deciding for whom to vote. They trump a prestigious formal education. We tend to trust those with good old fashioned horse sense, and to distrust those who lack it. We should. Ivy covered ivory towers do not consistently inculcate good old fashioned horse sense or, for that matter, good character.
I do not intend to suggest that education is superfluous, or a detriment. I do mean to suggest that excessive focus on how well a candidate did in which college is not the key to determining how well he (or she) will do in high office. What he or she accomplishes later is a far better indicator of future performance.