Is Education Level, Alma Mater the Measures of Ability?

My grandfather was a high school dropout. After ending his formal education, he joined the U.S. Army. The Army taught him how to drive a truck and how to repair them. After his service to our country, he put those skills to work, taking care of my grandmother and their five children. His 10th grade education and the skills he obtained allowed him to pay the mortgage, cloth and feed his family, and generally love the middle class American dream. Sure, money was always tight, but they found a way.

My grandfather took great pride in not trusting “college boys.” When my mother brought home my dad, a 24-year-old doctoral student, for the first time, my grandfather couldn’t fathom how one could be 24-years old and still in college. My grandfather had obtained his education though his life experiences, and education on the streets (and highways).

Coming out of the 2016 elections, I’ve often thought about my grandfather and what he would have thought about this election. He was a loyal Teamster, and often voted as the union leadership instructed their truckers. In all likelihood, he would have been part of Trump’s America, embracing an outsider, someone who would stick it to the man, and someone would pledged a commitment to hard work and the good ol’ days. He would have pointed to Trump’s successes as a businessman, particularly his ability to get things done, to complete projects on time, and the perception that Trump was always getting the better end of the deals he negotiated.

I also thought about my grandfather in reading Shaun King’s latest for the New York Daily News. In it, King laments how we are likely facing the least-educated presidential administration in recent times. Donald Trump will be the first president in more than two decades to “only hold a bachelor’s degree.” He is nominating potential cabinet members who also hold only lowly bachelor’s degrees as their highest educational attainment. And even worse, some of those attended non-Ivy League colleges!

King longs (channeling a Ta-Nehisi Coates interview on the topic) for a cabinet of Nobel Laureates and Ivy League Ph.Ds. We all have our vision of who makes the best leaders. But when one sees educational attainment (including from which institution obtained) as the ultimate measure of ability and success, aren’t we again projecting a sense of entitlement? And in the process, aren’t we discounting the skills and abilities of some to fit the preferences and prejudices of others?

There is no Ivy League Ph.D. program, law school or MBA coursework, that prepares one to be president (or even a Cabinet secretary). A former Nobel laureate Energy Secretary may go down in history as one of the worst at the position. In fact, one could argue such academic accomplishments (and the Ivy towers that come with them) ensure that individuals are not prepared for effectively leading large bureaucracies or owning the bully pulpits that come with being a politician on the national stage.

Many have taken school choice advocate Betsy DeVos’ nomination as Education Secretary as a sign of what is wrong with the system. As King and many others have noted, DeVos “only” holds a bachelor’s degree from Calvin College. She’s also been attacked for having never worked as a public school teacher or for having never worked in K-12 in general (among other criticisms).

But many of the same people who criticize DeVos for her lack of education pedigree are the same who were uber-critical of Rod Paige when he was named EdSec in 2001. Dr. Paige held a doctorate. He had been a K-12 teacher (though in a subject that many dismissed), a school superintendent, and had worked in higher education. We dismissed those experiences as well, saying he shouldn’t be the EdSec, because we didn’t like the schools he attended or the subjects he taught. He didn’t fit the pre-conceived perceptions that many had for an EdSec.

I’d remind folks that those who think teaching experience is a pre-requisite for being EdSec, such a filter would have denied us EdSec Richard Riley, perhaps the most successful Secretary since the creation of the Department in the Carter Administration. And for those who think an advanced degree is a requirement for becoming president, it would have kept us from Presidents Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan (just to name a few).

What is of even greater concern is the focus on where the degrees of nominees may be from. We discount Trump’s B.A. from a lesser Ivy like UPenn, and folks are having a field day with DeVos’ Calvin College. Here in America, we tell our kids that a college education is the most important investment they can make. Almost as frequently, we tell them where they attend doesn’t matter (as long as it is accredited) as long as they work hard and earn their degree.

But the scorn that is now being displayed for the Trump administration on its attainment levels and alma maters tell a very different story. We are telling our kids that if they only get a bachelor’s degree, they can’t be a true success (I guess we will forget Bill Gates dropping out of school and such). And we’re telling them that that undergraduate degree from an affordable state college isn’t worth as much as one from an elite private school charging $75,000 a year. 

Even worse, we are telling our kids that one’s success is measured by the letters after their name and the public recognition of the college bumper sticker on their car, not by what they have achieved in their lives.

Sure, I know that isn’t what King is intending to say. But it is how it can come across to so many. We should measure our leaders (and everyone else) by what they know and are able to do. It should be about earning success and demonstrating achievement. A graduate degree can be one measure of that. So can military service. So can experience building a non-profit organization or serving as a community leader. So can a whole lot of things that just aren’t measured by a sheepskin.

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