Knowing a Few Things

It’s better to know things than not know things. That’s why parents want the children to get a good education, even if there will always be some dispute about what a “good” education is – and a lot of dispute about who should pay for that education. The dispute about who pays for it was settled a long time ago in America, at least for education through high school. Everyone chips in to support a public school system, through local property taxes, supplemented by state funding, and further supplemented by federal spending – we’ll get all our kids through high school, one way or another. That’s good for everyone, and the economy depends on a minimally educated workforce – so we have a history of compulsory education – and by the late nineteenth century we had state colleges and universities. Those weren’t free, but they were relatively cheap – because they were subsidized by states that wanted college-educated citizens in their state, making good money and thus paying substantial taxes, ensuring growth and prosperity. Out here in California, when Pat Brown was governor – Jerry’s father – we made state colleges and universities and community colleges free to all residents, and the economy took off.

California grew by leaps and bounds, as they say, and there was money to complete our massive freeway system and for all sorts of things – and our education system was the envy of the nation. And then we elected Ronald Reagan, who didn’t think the government should be doing what the private sector should be doing – providing education beyond the mere basics – so we cut funding of education at all levels, over and over and over again, in the name of freedom from an intrusive big-brother government or something – and now our primary and secondary schools are ranked as almost the worst in the nation and our state colleges and universities cost a whole lot of money, nearly as much as private universities, and they’re just limping along – but we’re free. Jerry Brown is trying to fix that, but this isn’t his father’s California. Globalization is part of that – California isn’t so special anymore – and the collapse of the whole nation’s economy at the end of the Bush years makes growth anywhere a bit iffy. And the GI Bill and the post-war boom, that fueled the prosperous fifties, were one-off events. That won’t happen again.

Don’t tell President Obama, as Jonathan Alter explains:

President Obama this month gave the best State of the Union address of his presidency but it was largely written in disappearing ink. Like the vast majority of presidential speeches, little of it lingers.

But one proposal in the speech could prove historic. While Obama’s $60 billion plan for two free years of community college is dead-on-arrival in the Republican Congress, it is very much alive in American politics, where progressives now have an aspirational, easy-to-understand issue to rally around. When it’s finally signed into law by President Hillary Clinton or another Democrat in the White House, we’ll look back on the idea as Barack Obama’s GI Bill, a powerful engine for restoring the American middle class.

That’s the idea:

“Free” is always a crowd-pleaser and the idea is already wildly popular. In Tennessee, an astonishing 90 percent of high school seniors are enrolling in the state version, designed under a Republican governor and now promoted as a prototype by a Democratic president. After Obama first unveiled his plan while aboard Air Force One on January 8, the video broke the record for most downloads from his website. Not bad, considering that the White House has released more than 2,000 such videos – including cute ones of the president’s dog.

The excitement isn’t hard to figure. Even at the depths of the Great Recession, unemployment was relatively low among college-educated adults. Young Americans understand that they need some kind of degree after high school to join or stay in the imperiled middle-class. Otherwise they’re road kill in the global economy.

The initial reaction to this was mixed – but there was the expatriate Ann Jones writing from Oslo:

Wherever I travel, Europeans, Asians and Africans ask expatriates like me to explain everything odd or troubling about the conduct of the United States. Polite people, normally reluctant to risk offending a guest, ask pointedly about America’s trigger-happiness, cutthroat free-marketeering, and “exceptionality.”

Their questions share a single underlying theme: Have Americans gone over the edge? Are you crazy?

Folks over there just don’t get it:

In the Scandinavian countries, long considered to be the most socially progressive in the world, a national (physical and mental) health program is a big part – but only a part – of a more general social welfare system. In Norway, where I live, all citizens also have access to free education from age six through specialty training or university; low cost, subsidized preschool; unemployment benefits, job-placement and paid retraining; paid parental leave; old age pensions, and more. These benefits are not a “safety net” – that is, charitable payments grudgingly bestowed upon the needy. They are universal: equally available as a human right, promoting social harmony.

Jones talks of free education through college in the Nordic countries, and Germany just made college free for anyone who shows up, even foreigners, but we seem to have a problem with that:

Earlier this week, Ann Coulter spoke with Florida radio host Joyce Kaufman about President Barack Obama’s plan to subsidize community college educations for millions of students across the country. Surprise, surprise – she hates it.

“If colleges are so confident that their students are going to go out and make all kinds of money, why is the taxpayer on the hook for this?” Coulter asked. “This is such a scam how middle-class Americans are being taxed to subsidize the most left-wing industry in America – that spends its days indoctrinating kids to hate Republicans.”

“And to hate white people,” Kaufman said. “The whole white privilege thing that’s going on there is killing me.”

“Yeah, and they’re never called to account for it,” Coulter said.

There’s nothing new here. Back in 2012, Glenn Beck was clear on the matter of universities in general – “We have been setting up re-education camps. We call them universities.” People go to such places and learn too much about other forms of government, like socialism, and other religions, like Islam, or even Buddhism. That sort of thing ruins you.

The problem was that in his 2012 campaign, Obama had said he wants as many kids to go to some sort of college as possible, which is why Rick Santorum called Obama a snob:

There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to the test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor trying to indoctrinate him. I understand why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image.

Hell, go to college and you might even end up black. Well, maybe not, but you’ll end up a snob, thinking that because you know lots of stuff, you know lots of stuff, because you know lots of stuff. No, wait – that can’t be right. It’s hard to tell just what Santorum was getting at here, but if folks resent Obama because he’s smart and knows stuff, they should vote Republican. Republicans aren’t snobs. They don’t look down on folks who aren’t that smart and don’t know much of what is going on, because those are the good folks. No, wait – that can’t be right either. But Mike Huckabee has a new book, because he running for president again, and that’s God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy – which makes the same argument. If your car breaks down on a country road, who do you want to fix it, a couple of good ol’ boys who know a thing or two about cars – or some college-educated dweeb who can’t help at all? There are educated people and there are people who know how to fix things. Education is fine, but it is of little practical value in the world Mike Huckabee knows. He doesn’t use the example of what happens if you develop a brain tumor and need a neurosurgeon. A good ol’ boy who’s right with Jesus and like grits may not be the guy to help you out.

Back in 2012, the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent saw a Paul Ryan vulnerability that Mitt Romney didn’t anticipate in such matters:

Obama is campaigning today in Ohio, where he is giving a speech right now hitting Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan on education. He’s highlighting Romney’s suggestion that students worried about tuition costs should “shop around” or borrow money from their parents, and slamming the Ryan budget’s cuts to education funding, Head Start, and Pell grants.

This highlights something that has gotten a bit lost: While there’s a ton of discussion about the political implications of the Ryan budget’s Medicare reforms, Dems also view its education cuts as a major target.

Those proposed education cuts were the ideal target:

Dems see the Ryan plan’s impact on education as absolutely central to their efforts to portray the GOP ticket’s priorities as dangerously out of whack for everyone but the wealthy. It’s also a key to Dem hopes of winning over key swing constituencies, such as independents, Latinos and non-college “waitress moms,” and central to firming up support among the “Rising American Electorate,” the Dem coalition of minorities, young voters and unmarried women.

That’s the other half of the country, the half that thinks education is kind of useful, and Team Obama simply did their homework, using a poll on the Ryan budget done in July by their research firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner:

The poll, which tested various messages about the Ryan plan, found that one of the leading voter concerns about the Ryan budget is cuts to education, particularly among key constituencies, and that those cuts raise serious doubts about Romney when voters are told that he supports the Ryan agenda.

Among white non-college women, 66 percent say the education cuts raise serious doubts about Romney. Among Latinos the number is 67 percent. Among independents it’s 61 percent.

“There’s a lot the voters don’t like about the Ryan budget, but education is at least as important to voters as the Medicare piece is,” Andrew Baumann, vice president of Greenberg Quinlan, tells me.

“Education is a core concern for middle income and working class voters that gets underestimated,” Baumann continued. “The idea that Romney and Ryan would gut education programs that those voters see as important to pay for more tax cuts for millionaires illustrates whose side they’re on.”

Education really is a core concern for middle income and working class voters – the Romney team didn’t know that. They assumed otherwise. They’d been listening to themselves a lot, assuming everyone thinks like them. It was the wrong assumption, but that’s ancient history now, and Scott Walker is the new Paul Ryan, of sorts, and from David Fahrenthold in the Washington Post, there’s this background:

Scott Walker was gone. Dropped out. And in the spring of his senior year.

In 1990, that news stunned his friends at Marquette University. Walker, the campus’s suit-wearing, Reagan-loving politico – who enjoyed the place so much that he had run for student body president – had left without graduating.

To most of the Class of 1990 – and, later, to Wisconsin’s political establishment – Walker’s decision to quit college has been a lingering mystery.

Not even his friends at Marquette were entirely sure why he never finished.

He just wasn’t into learning things:

Even in politics class, Walker could appear disengaged.

“He seemed utterly bored,” said Michael Fleet, who taught him in a class on the politics of the Third World. Fleet said he’d hoped to get Walker into debates with the liberals in the room. But it didn’t work. Walker would only give occasional short speeches that made conservative arguments.

“It wasn’t always on key. It wasn’t always in response to anything,” Fleet said. “He wasn’t engaged. It was like he came in with a script.”

Glenn Reynolds is fine with that:

A lot of people don’t know much about him yet, and he may not even be running, but if Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is elected president in 2016, he’ll immediately accomplish something that no other candidate being talked about can: He’ll lay to rest the absurd belief that you’re a nobody if you don’t have a college degree. And he might even cut into the surprisingly recent takeover of our institutions by an educated mandarin class, something that just might save the country. …

And that’s why 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.

Reynolds, a fully tenured law professor at the University of Tennessee, wants to go back to the good old days:

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. …

But the college degree – especially a degree from an elite school – has become an entry-level ticket into the educated mandarinate. … Today, the Supreme Court is composed entirely of Ivy Leaguers: five from Harvard Law School, three from Yale Law School, and one, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, from that scrappy Ivy League upstart Columbia Law School.

Likewise, you have to go back to 1988 to find a U.S. president who wasn’t a graduate of an Ivy League school – George W. Bush and Barack Obama upped the ante by having attended two each, Yale and Harvard for Bush, Columbia and Harvard for Obama. In Congress, 94% of the House, and 100% of the Senate, have college degrees of some sort. President Obama’s Cabinet is all college-educated, with just under half having an Ivy League undergraduate degree; almost 35% have an Ivy League graduate degree.

All this credentialism means that we should have the best, most efficiently and intelligently run government ever, right? Well, just look around. Anyone who has ever attended a faculty meeting should recognize that more education doesn’t produce better decision makers, and our educated mandarinate doesn’t seem to have done much for the country.

Ed Kilgore has an immediate reaction:

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?

The blogger BooMan is a bit more nuanced:

I don’t consider it an iron-clad requirement that the president of the United States have a college degree. There could be extenuating circumstances that make a lack of formal education less damning. In Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s case, he did receive a formal education even if he didn’t complete it. And he’s had extensive political and executive experience. We have many examples of highly successful people who have no college degree, although both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates did, like Walker, at least begin an undergraduate career before dropping out.

All things being equal, however, a thorough education should be considered highly preferable for someone being hired to be the most powerful person on Earth, and I can’t think of a single argument against this idea that makes any sense.

The problem is that being a college dropout is not an automatic asset:

The reason I want my president to have a thorough education is not because it’s a “class signifier,” nor because I prefer to have a mandarin class running our government. In fact, I have criticized the Obama administration for neglecting state schools and non-elite college graduates in their hiring practices.

A good president needs many skills and character traits, but a huge foundation of knowledge is extremely important because it makes them less dependent on their advisers. George W. Bush managed to get a couple of Ivy League degrees without learning much about the world, which was even less impressive when you consider that his father was, among other things, our unofficial ambassador to China, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, a two-term vice president with a national security brief, and the president when the Berlin Wall came down. Under the circumstances, you’d think that George W. would have learned enough by osmosis to dwarf the knowledge of someone like Bill Clinton, but he didn’t even know as much as Gary Bauer who was a lowly janitor’s son.

If you can acquire this broad base of knowledge outside of college classrooms, that’s preferable to not acquiring it within them. The important thing is that you have it. Without it, the foolishness of a Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld or Condoleezza Rice might be what counts for wise counsel, and where are we then?

We’re in deep shit, again, but at Salon, Jim Newell suggests that Scott Walker’s lack of a college degree is a non-issue that Democrats should avoid – after seeing Howard Dean mixing it up with the crew at Morning Joe, trying to say that Walker is not dumb but that’s he’s unknowledgeable:

Take heed, everyone else who’s considering levying this criticism at Scott Walker, of how quickly Howard Dean is sent on the defensive, looking like a snooty liberal snob jerk. And that’s after only the most modest pushback from the likes of Joe Scarborough and Willie Geist.

This isn’t just about the “optics” of bringing up Scott Walker’s lack of a college degree, either. If there was a strong criticism to be had that ran the risk of making someone sound like a jerk by saying it, then fine. But Scott Walker dropping out of Marquette before he completed his bachelor’s degree is not a strong criticism for why he shouldn’t be president. It is meritless.

It’s time to get real:

Why do people seek bachelor’s degrees? Because that’s the only way to be learned – or “knowledgeable,” as Howard Dean would say? Please. Most people who get bachelor’s degrees do so because it helps them get a good job. Some enjoy learning as much as they can, others just take the bare minimum in credits, but the goal is by and large the same: to certify themselves as employable via this imperfect credentialing process our society has settled on. If someone like Scott Walker has been able to achieve the career goals that usually require a college degree without having gotten that college degree, then more power to him. People who don’t have a college degree shouldn’t be relegated to lower-tier economic status because they didn’t spend four years as young adults reading Cliffs Notes. Scott Walker was able to get a good job without finishing his degree. If only everyone could be so lucky!

There might be something else going on here:

The idea that Scott Walker says dumb things about evolution or foreign policy because he didn’t complete the second semester of his senior year at Marquette is bogus. Anyone who doesn’t think it’s bogus – or thinks it’s a good political look for liberals to mock someone for not having a college degree! – should question the value of their own formal education. Bobby Jindal and Ted Cruz, to name just two of Walker’s potential rivals, have absolutely impeccable academic credentials, degrees up to their knees, and this certainly doesn’t prevent them from saying dumb things about evolution or foreign policy.

Perhaps we should give Scott Walker a pass on this, and see what he does, which seems to be stuff like this:

Gov. Scott Walker has cited his experience battling unions here four years ago as proof that voters appreciate a political leader willing to “go big and go bold.”

So as he woos supporters around the country for a possible presidential bid, Walker (R) is once again picking a fight against a powerful institution at home – public universities.

Walker’s new budget proposal would slash $300 million from the University of Wisconsin system over the next two years. That’s a 13 percent reduction in state funding.

This would ruin one of the best public university systems in the world, but he knows what he’s doing:

It is unusual for a governor pondering a presidential run to take on what could be an all-consuming political brawl at home – and a distraction from the coast-to-coast travel and fundraising required to build a national campaign.

But the university budget debate has a clear upside for Walker, who is shaping his political brand around the idea that he does not shy away from a fight. Whether or not he succeeds in transforming the universities, the battle itself, coming in the midst of Walker’s effort to rise above a crowded field of prospective Republican presidential candidates, is likely to play well with conservative voters who see universities as elite institutions and hotbeds of left-leaning activism.

In Wisconsin, university advocates say their schools could be a far more difficult target for Walker, with a broader and deeper base of support than the unions had.

He doesn’t care. He could do to Wisconsin’s educational system what Reagan did to California’s – destroy it – and then he really would be the next Reagan. It may be better to know things than not know things, but it’s better to be president.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Knowing a Few Things

  1. Rick says:

    First, there’s this hypothetical question — although paraphrased from Huckabee, I heard him say something similar to Jon Stewart recently:

    If your car breaks down on a country road, who do you want to fix it, a couple of good ol’ boys who know a thing are two about cars – or some college-educated dweeb who can’t help at all?

    That depends on what color you are. I bet more people have been lynched in this country by “good ol’ boys” than “college-educated dweebs”. Still, your point about brain surgery is even more on target.

    But I think to make an issue of Scott Walker’s dropping out, Democrats would have to also talk about the fact that he showed no interest in learning as a student, and that he instead seemed totally preoccupied with being a Young Republican — although that’s as hard a case to make as it was that Romney was a bully as a student, and that pretty much went nowhere.

    Still, I’ve always suspected that this conservative idea of universities being a hotbed of liberal yatta yatta may not travel well beyond the hardcore right-wing echo chamber. I don’t have numbers to back this up but I suspect that even most Republican voters aren’t as anti-college as the Republican party thinks they are. I bet they’re like my father, who, even though quite successful in life, never attended college at all, but absolutely insisted that all his kids would. I know because I tried to convince him to let me wait a year or so after high school before going to college, and he could barely contain his rage.

    And yet, I tend to think Obama’s college plan has a long row to hoe before coming close to succeeding. Even if it’s popular, I’m sure it will go nowhere because voters accept the fact that Republicans will do everything they can to make sure it never happens. When Republicans have power, even when they’re in the minority, they’re still so often able to keep good things from happening. It’s what they do.

    Rick

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