Practicality Vs. Utopia In 2016

AP Photo/Andy Manis
AP Photo/Andy Manis

Writing at USA Today, Glenn Reynolds looks at liberal snobbery toward Governor Scott Walker and predicts the Wisconsinite’s potential 2016 presidential run could “lay to rest the absurd belief that you’re a nobody if you don’t have a college degree.” It would be a revolution in the way Americans look at higher education that “might even cut into the surprisingly recent takeover of our institutions by an educated mandarin class, something that just might save the country.”

Reynolds adds:

Of course, some of our greatest presidents, from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln to Harry S. Truman, never graduated from college. But the college degree as class-signifier is, as I note in my book, The New School, a rather recent phenomenon. As late as the 1970s, it was perfectly respectable for middle-class, and even upper-middle-class, people to lack a college degree. And, of course, most non-elite Americans still do: 68% of Americans, like Scott Walker, lack a college diploma. But where 50 years or 100 years ago they might not have cared, many now feel inferior to those who possess a degree.

But without much reason, as many college degrees don’t signify much besides a limited ability to show up on time most of the time, and avoid getting so falling-down-drunk that you flunk out. Nor does attendance at college necessarily even produce a leg up economically. Some studies suggest that attending college can actually increase economic inequality, as graduates emerge with no better prospects of employment, but heavy student loan debt. Many students also don’t learn much: In Academically Adrift, a study by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, researchers found that 36% of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” over four years of college.

Ed Morrissey at The Week takes an even higher-altitude view of the Walker story and suggests his presidential run could lead to the long-overdue downfall of “credentialism,” the belief prevalent among our elites that resume bullet points matter more than actual real-world achievements:

Walker has been in public life for 25 years, running for a seat in the Wisconsin state legislature at age 22, and winning a seat in 1993. After nine years in the assembly, Walker won election as Milwaukee county executive, serving in that position for eight years before winning the gubernatorial election in 2010. Walker has built his career in public service on his own actions, not on the strength of his college education, and has done well enough to win re-election not once but twice for the top spot, thanks to an ill-fated recall election prompted by his reforms in public-employee union collective bargaining.

By this point, Walker’s college track record is as irrelevant as anything else not related to his public service, and certainly less relevant than the educational records of those with less experience in executive management. Walker jokes that he has a master’s degree in “taking on the big-government special interests,” but in truth he has 13 years in high-profile public-sector executive jobs, including more than four years as governor. That is far more experience, and a much more predictive track record, than others have had before running for governor or president, including the current occupant of the White House. Much was made of Barack Obama’s Ivy League credentials, but as the disastrous ObamaCare rollout and the collapse of his foreign policy show, voters should have paid less attention to the papers on his wall and more attention to his lack of experience.

Let me take this great glass elevator of context all the way into orbit, and suggest that what 2016 should be about, whether or not Walker is the GOP nominee, is the choice of practical reality over utopian theory.

A great deal of what the Left does, especially under Obama’s leadership, amounts to conjuring prosperity by chanting magic spells. They have a set of theories that should produce widespread prosperity, equality, and social justice, without costing anyone except the uber-rich a dime. Those theories were designed by people with scads of impressive credentials. It’s all supposed to work, and faithful liberal rank-and-file types don’t understand why it doesn’t. (The actual goals of their leadership often involve long-term transformative plans that must be kept secret from voters on both Left and Right until it’s too late for the transformees to do anything about it. Those leaders aren’t really surprised when ObamaCare turns into precisely the expensive disaster they needed it to be.)

The recommended life-track of expensive college educations followed by automatic career success is a perfect example of utopian thinking. You spend years in college, racking up six figures in debt, and then you get a high-paying, interesting, emotionally fulfilling job, just the way it works in the “Life” boardgame. The possibility that those overpriced college degrees aren’t powerful enough to distort market reality doesn’t occur to unsuspecting utopians until it’s too late. No payload of credentials is sufficient to create jobs where opportunity and demand do not exist. American companies are increasingly turning to outsourcing and imported labor for high-tech jobs because they don’t want to pay what American college graduates demand, or don’t find their work ethic appealing.

Our political culture’s faith in education as a ritual that brings prosperity raining down from the heavens is positively religious in its intensity. Obviously a good education is enormously important to career success, as well as good citizenship and personal fulfillment, but we ended up viewing education as an expensive blended fuel to be poured into the engines of life – the more of it people get, and the more expensive it is, the further they’ll go.

The American people were long ago bludgeoned out of demanding value for their education dollars, to the point where college is now a hugely expensive remedial education for all the subjects high school and grade school didn’t teach well – a point that will be driven home all the more forcefully if President Obama’s fantasy of “free” community college comes true. “Free” community college would amount to a couple more years of high school, protracting adolescence and making those hyper-expensive advanced degrees even more of a class signifier. Instead of turning high school into a six-year affair, we should be asking very tough questions of our highly-compensated educational bureaucracy about why our kids aren’t emerging from the public school system with the well-rounded education they need to make solid practical decisions about the next steps in their lives.

Another aspect of ritualized utopianism is our loss of respect for vocational education and the “dirty jobs” celebrated by TV host Mike Rowe, who campaigns for young people to investigate skilled trade work. There are solid careers out there in trades where employers perpetually complain about a shortage of hard-working, eager apprentices, even in times of chronic high unemployment. In a recent Facebook post, Rowe talked about an early TV hosting job on the QVC home-shopping network:

Here’s what I didn’t understand 25 years ago. QVC had a serious recruiting problem. Qualified candidates were applying in droves, but failing miserably on the air. Polished salespeople with proven track records were awkward on TV. Professional actors with extensive credits couldn’t be themselves on camera. And seasoned hosts who understood live television had no experience hawking products. So eventually, QVC hit the reset button. They stopped looking for “qualified” people, and started looking for anyone who could talk about a pencil for eight minutes.

QVC had confused qualifications with competency.
Perhaps America has done something similar?

Look at how we hire help – it’s not so different than how we elect leaders. We search for work ethic on resumes. We look for intelligence in test scores. We search for character in references. And of course, we look at a four-year diploma as though it might actually tell us something about common-sense and leadership.

Obviously, we need a bit more from our elected officials than the instincts of a home shopping host, but the business of determining what those “qualifications” are is completely up to us. We get to decide what matters most. We get to decide if a college degree or military service is somehow determinative. We get to decide if Howard Dean is correct.

Anyone familiar with my foundation knows my position. I think a trillion dollars of student loans and a massive skills gap are precisely what happens to a society that actively promotes one form of education as the best course for the most people. I think the stigmas and stereotypes that keep so many people from pursuing a truly useful skill, begin with the mistaken belief that a four-year degree is somehow superior to all other forms of learning. And I think that making elected office contingent on a college degree is maybe the worst idea I’ve ever heard.

(The reference to Howard Dean concerns his assertion that Scott Walker was unqualified to run for President because he lacked an advanced degree.) The belief in credentials over competence has profoundly failed America over the past few years, costing us an ocean of money and inflicting terrific damage upon the fabric of our society. An emphasis on practicality would bring us back to demanding value for money – a demand most politicians insist we abandon, because their noble intentions and comprehensive theories are supposed to matter far more than grubby calculations about how much we’re spending on government, and what we’re getting for it.

I would advise Democrats to be deeply concerned about how successful Scott Walker has been at encouraging Wisconsin voters to demand value for their money, and Republican candidates to work on emulating him. The era of “because I said so!” and “don’t you realize who I am?” is over.


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