Wednesday, February 18, 2015

On Scott Walker and his "college diploma" problem

Over at Race 4 2016, the astute SouthernDoc argued that back-and-forth over Walker and his college dropout status is indicative of an age-old divide in US politics:
The Walker college degree issue is really a proxy for one of the great recurring fights in American politics: Hamiltonian elitism vs. Jacksonian populism. Who should govern and who governs best? Do we rely on the professionals, specialists, and highly educated who are overwhelmingly the products of elite and established families to lead us or do we turn to those who rose out of the mass of society through initiative and personal merit even though they often lack both refinement and structured learning.
I disagreed as follows, and welcome your thoughts:

One can glean some insight from Walker’s decision to leave school (that he was in a hurry, ambitious, maybe a bit myopic–-issues that would surface again in his first few months as governor), but it does not prove that he fails to meet the standards of the office. That he is not "among the brightest.” I’ve known too many college grads without smarts, and vice versa.

The real import, though, is not what the decision tells us about Walker the man. It is the political liability that will be his achillies heel throughout the cycle, based on perception as much as anything else.

We live in a country where college graduates are no longer “professionals, specialists, and highly educated,” and who are no longer “overwhelmingly the product of elite and established families,” as SD mentions.  Rather, we live in a country where a Bachelors degree is a fairly commonplace occurrence, with about 1/3 of the population having obtained such a degree.  Not like in the first half of the 20th century, where that figure was 5% or thereabouts.

Is it a sign of some intelligence? Sure. Also of having enough discipline early in life to see it through.  In the case of someone like Walker, who by all accounts was aspiring to a political career from the jump, it would also have been indicative of prudence (to not leave a glaring weakness on his CV). 

But college is no longer about “elitism” and whether we surrender our sovereignty to elite families. We’re no longer in the era of FDR living in in a private townhouse, surrounded by other trust fund students adjacent Harvard’s campus, to ensure they never mix socially with the masses. Rather, in today’s world, almost anyone who can see his way through H.S. can find a college somewhere that is willing to give him or her an opportunity.

This reality is reflected in our job market.  Grade school teachers where I live are required to have a bachelors degrees.  Many districts expect an M.S. within a set number of years.   Federal agents need a BA plus work experience, but can place out of the work requirement with an advanced qualification (often a JD or other graduate degree).  Police officers in NYC are required to have multiple years of college.  FDNY firefighters are required to have at least a bit of college under their belt, unless they meet an exemption. These are not professions populated by the Hamiltonian elite. And yet college is a pre-requisite for them.

The gulf between the reality of today’s workforce and the Walker campaign’s position (no one cares about that, what have you done for me lately), is just too wide to wish it away. Nor can they demonize as elitists those who have come to accept such credentials as a basic and typical hurdle for many (less important) jobs.  Why?  Because too many regular people have sacrificed too much–time, money, etc.–for them to accept that the President deserves to be held to a lower standard.

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Always sniffing for the truth

Always sniffing for the truth

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