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Scott Walker and the Politics of the Diploma

Graduating university isn't evidence of leadership. Neither is not graduating.
Scott Walker after winning the Wisconsin GOP gubernatorial primary in 2010. (Photo: Commons)

Scott Walker after winning the Wisconsin GOP gubernatorial primary in 2010. (Photo: Commons)

Mark Hemingway, whose prose (I use the term with some reserve) is still available on the pages of the Weekly Standard, has become a keen advocate for not graduating college. The inspiration for this wisdom derives variously from rising tuition and student debt, stagnant wages among college graduates, and the authority of PayPal founder Peter Thiel, who equates a university diploma to “a dunce hat in disguise.” In truth, Hemingway's muse is Scott Walker, the Wisconsin governor who left Marquette University in his fourth year and never earned his degree. As Walker moves toward a 2016 presidential run, the Washington Post and Howard Dean have taken notice. Says Dean: "I think a lot of people are going to be worried about this."

Hemingway is far from worried, as we see in the Web headline of his Friday column: “Scott Walker Didn't Finish College—and That's a Good Thing.”

“Why,” Hemingway asks, “is the Post implying that his lack of a college degree is some sort of liability?” The columnist proceeds to note the disadvantages of higher education:

There's a reason why the lack of a college degree is practically celebrated in Silicon Valley. Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are all college dropouts.... Sixty-three of the people on the Forbes 400 don't have college degrees.

Sixty-three out of 400 hardly suggests happy odds for degree-less entrepreneurs, but the parables of Zuckerberg-Jobs-Gates remain appealing to pundits such as Hemingway, and to politicos such as Walker who wish to slash funding from state universities and community colleges. Walker's $150 million reduction in his state's university system this year—a move that will freeze the budget in its current parlous condition at least through 2016—has drawn understandable howls, not least because Walker's antipathy toward that university system seems visceral rather than reasoned—conservative scorn leading to anti-intellectualism cloaking itself in the austere robes of fiscal responsibility.

Wisconsin is, of course, not the only state where executives are deriding bachelor's degrees and the liberal arts. Shortly after taking office in 2013, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory leveled harsh words at the “educational elite,” mocking women's and gender studies (“If you want to take gender studies that’s fine, go to a private school and take it”) and, what is more curious, the teaching of Swahili: “What are we teaching these courses for if they are not going to help get a job?”

One must suppose McCrory has little interest in the techno-minerals that the West excavates with such glee from Swahili-speaking countries. The governor's cell phone or laptop probably contains coltan from mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The job-creators at the multinationals that mine those minerals probably employed someone who spoke the local dialect. Is it elitist to mention all of this? I think not.

The seemingly populist notion that a governor with little geopolitical education is somehow more qualified to direct America on the world stage is little more than inverse snobbery and a mess of false equivalencies.

If McCrory and Walker wish to eliminate any college course that does not lead directly to employment, that's one thing; but perhaps they should consider who they're serving by cutting funding to—and openly scoffing at—the study of language, international relations, and identity questions that, like it or not, will become the purview of the next president—even a President Walker.

There is democracy, and there is democratic fantasy. The seemingly populist notion that a governor with little geopolitical education is somehow more qualified to direct America on the world stage is little more than inverse snobbery and a mess of false equivalencies. Bill Gates discovered the 21st century in a garage, and Lincoln taught himself to read in a log cabin. Walker meanwhile sits in his State House, where he has proven himself loath to meet with anyone not already committed, in a public sense, to the Walker program. Never has he demonstrated a curiosity about world affairs or the autodidactic instinct. He is not, in other words, Harry Truman the self-taught statesman; he is a political operative with more answers than questions, a walking cautionary tale about the limits of a closed mind.

Never mind the double-standard here—i.e. that the Weekly Standard hounded Obama for refusing to release his Columbia transcripts, his senior undergraduate thesis on nuclear disarmament, and evidence of his achievements at Harvard Law School—the largely unspoken presumption is that Obama matriculated at Columbia and at Harvard purely out of affirmative action, a neat cognitive reversal whereby a university education becomes a cause for distrust.

That cognitive reversal is part of the larger bait-and-switch in conservative critiques of higher education. The script: College is overrated; let us therefore cut funds; colleges thereby become worse, proving that they were terrible to begin with. The slash-and-burn won't mean the death of the American university so much as its reversion to a domain for the rich.

By fetishizing politicians who are untainted by higher education, we partake in a cultural dismantling of education in all its practical ideals. A curriculum in liberal arts—artes liberales—is called such because it is meant to provide the technical and moral schooling necessary to freedom. If public universities keep getting rogered by governors such as Walker and McCrory, the only recourse will be to private universities, where tuition is increasing even faster. Walker himself attended a private university, where he elected not to see out his final year. If only every American had such luxury—skipping college by choice rather than by necessity.

The Classroom is a regular series on the issues facing both students and teachers of higher education.