A Presidential Education

One of the issues raised by Scott Walker’s quick ascendancy to the top tier of presidential candidacy in the 2016 Invisible Primary is the phony scandal of his lack of a college degree. I call it a “phony scandal” because while there have been a few liberals (notably Howard Dean) to cite it as a disqualifier for the presidency, there have been far more conservatives raising lusty cries of Palinesque defiance of the godless lefty elites who think brainwashing at godless liberal universities is blah blah blah bark bark woof woof. Glenn Reynolds (a university professor, of course) gives this ancient George Wallace meme the old heave-ho at USA Today:

[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. When Democratic spokesman Howard Dean (who himself was born into wealth) suggested that Walker’s lack of a degree made him unsuitable for the White House, what he really meant was that Walker is “not our kind, dear” — lacking the credential that many elite Americans today regard as essential to respectable status….

[T]he college degree — especially a degree from an elite school — has become an entry-level ticket into the educated mandarinate. In his important book, The New Class Conflict, Joel Kotkin calls it the “clerisy” — that now dominates government, journalism and academia. And as a result, an America that once prided itself on real-world achievement and practical good sense now runs largely on credentials.

Kotkin, of course, is a conservative intellectual beating a conservative anti-intellectual drum that’s not “new” at all; it goes back for many decades, not just in pointy-headed conservative circles but among politicians, particularly in the 1960s when “university” was identified with “spoiled hippies” on the Right. It’s a shame for people like Reynolds and Kotkin that Spiro T. Agnew was forced to resign the vice presidency in disgrace; nobody will ever surpass his denunciation of liberals as “an effete corps of impudent snobs.”

In any event, I guess progressives will have to dutifully line up and confirm that no, we do not consider a college degree a requirement for the presidency. Like an awful lot of things, educational credentials are a data point, and to that extent, conservatives touting Walker should admit not finishing college (after all, if elected Walker would be the first president born after 1884 to have no college degree) isn’t some sort of positive accomplishment. If it was, then maybe Republicans should find a candidate who didn’t finish high school, or who is illiterate; they’d sure be immune from all that Marxist propaganda, wouldn’t they?

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.