Education Bragging Rights

College Diploma Is there a statute of limitations on touting college degrees as a measure of achievement?

I ask because I’ve noted quite a bit of chatter about the educational attainments of the presidential candidates and wonder why they matter so much to people all these years later.

Barack Obama must be smart, after all he was president of the Harvard Law Review! John McCain sure is dumb, why he graduated near the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy!

Obama’s young by presidential nominee standards, to be sure. Still, he’s been out of law school since 1991. And, goodness, McCain graduated Annapolis in 1958 — before Obama was even born. I mean, I know we threaten school children with putting things on their “permanent record,” but this is ridiculous.

I value education as much as the next guy. I went to grad school, got my PhD, and spent several years teaching college. Preparing young minds for their future lives is immeasurably important. But, at some point, the “Education” section gets moved to the bottom of the résumé.

It’s not just in politics, either. I’ve been amazed at the number of fairly senior level jobs I’ve applied for where they want to see my undergraduate transcripts. I got my BA in 1987. There are quite literally courses that I got A’s in that I don’t even recall having taken. I’m sure the coursework contributed in some small way to teaching me to think, improving my analytical skills, and the various other things that higher education is supposed to do. But the facts that I learned in most of those classes are buried somewhere deep in my subconscious.

Indeed, I’m past the point where my PhD-level courses much matter beyond the credentialing process. If I haven’t taught a class or written an article on the subject, the fact that I took a class about it way back in 1993 is, no pun intended, purely academic. The converse is equally true: If I’ve taught a subject or done research on it, I’m probably qualified to teach it to undergraduates regardless of whether I actually took such a course once upon a time.

I’m pretty sure that Barack Obama is a man with a formidable intellect who enjoys grappling with ideas. We can tell that by the way he lives his life. That he was an excellent student as a 20-something is hardly relevant.

That John McCain was more interested in sports, partying, and chasing the girls as a midshipman back when cars still had fins has been rather obviated by half a century of public life since then. He’s demonstrably a very bright guy. As we might have expected from his educational achievements — he never went on to graduate school (no, I don’t count the National War College), even though that’s the norm for military officers — he’ not a policy wonk. But I don’t need to look at his grades at Annapolis to know that, I can listen to his speeches.

We’ve had very good and very bad presidents who fit both of those profiles, incidentally. I’m always reminded of Ronald Reagan’s telling people that he was a “C” student in college and musing, “I’ve often wondered since, if I’d spent more time and worked harder as a student how far I might have gone.”

Correction: The original had McCain going to the Naval War College; he went to the National War College, the joint equivalent, instead. Further, I should note that while I don’t consider professional military education, which is primarily training, as equivalent to a civilian graduate program, it’s simply a matter of them having different aims and methods rather than one being “better” than the other.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2008, Education, , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Hal says:

    Well, at issue is what exactly does McCain have in the way of evidence that he has any smarts at all? I mean, fine. You can cast away the school You can cast away the grades. You can cast away the achievements. What’s left? His time as a POW? Um, his affair on his former wife? Um, his marrying an heiress to finance his political career? Um, his involvement in the Keating 5?

    Fine if you don’t want to use traditional measurements, but at least lay out some frickin’ metric, rather than just saying “but see? Reagan was a C student and became president!” It’s completely irrelevant.

  2. anjin-san says:

    That he was an excellent student as a 20-something is hardly relevant.

    If you buy this argument, you can also argue that the fact McCain showed he is a tough SOB during his time as a POW is hardly relevant.

  3. just me says:

    By the time you are in your 30’s and beyond life experience counts for far more than what degrees you collected.

    As for Annapolis-the Naval Academy is very demanding and intensive and somebody who isn’t all that smart isn’t going to survive four years there. It is very math and engineering intensive. I would suspect that the graduates at or near the bottom of the class still know more and out perform more than many other college graduates.

    I have no doubts that Obama is a smart man, but I know plenty of smart people who couldn’t manage their household budgets.

  4. anjin-san says:

    I have no doubts that Obama is a smart man, but I know plenty of smart people who couldn’t manage their household budgets.

    Well Obama is a self-made millionaire, and McCain, who’s wife is quite wealthy, apparently has six figure credit card debt, so your point is unclear…

  5. just me says:

    My point is that just being smart doesn’t equal capability.

  6. I’m not all that certain being at the bottom of your class at the Naval Academy (which, last I checked, was a very selective institution) is supposed to be embarrassing in some way. Someone has to be at the bottom even at the best schools.

    On the transcript thing, James, I think employers increasingly want them as proof you have the degree(s) you claim to have, not because they care what grade you got in World Civ. I won’t say transcripts are impossible to forge, but doing so is probably beyond the wherewithal of most resume frauds.

  7. mannning says:

    This brings up the point that it is what you know and can do now that counts in the job of president. Just what metric can we use? There is no qualification test for the job that we can all read. Being in the Senate for decades may help some, but I am not quite sure of that.

    We seem to elect our leaders on sheer presence, verbal gymnastics, and a not too squalid background, and then hope that it is enough when the trials begin, such as 9/11 or Pearl, or what have you? This time around, we may get someone with a truly squalid and communistic background. What sense does that make?

  8. Fence says:

    McCain’s story line tells us that we can’t rule out that he might be really smart, whereas Obama’s tells us that he is really smart. So it may be too much to focus on academic failures if a later record shows strength, but I think top-notch academic accomplishments remain relevant in that one can reasonably assume that the type of brilliance shown then doesn’t just go away. And being at the top of the class at Harvard Law (if he was, I don’t know how they pick Law Review editor there) is just such an indicator — it isn’t comparable to straight As at Respectable State undergrad.

    I’m not all that certain being at the bottom of your class at the Naval Academy (which, last I checked, was a very selective institution)

    Yes, very selective in which sons of Admirals it accepts (sorry, couldn’t resist).

    Oh, and it pains me how you refer to 1991 as ancient history. Yikes.

  9. Our Paul says:

    Totally independent of attainable grade in scholastics (a measure of IQ, study habits, and other elements) are three factors: adherence to ideology, adherence to religious convictions, and judgment. Rigorous adherence to ideology or religious conviction seriously impairs judgment. I suspect James Joyner would not quibble with this formulation.

    The issue between McCain and Obama may in part revolve around those factors that relate to grades in scholastics, such as study habits, choice of mentors, synthesis and evaluation of ideas, etc., but the ultimate determinant is, and should be judgment.

    Of the two, McCain is clearly an ideologue. In his agreements with many of President Bush’s positions, he shows that ideology has impaired his judgment. His rigid and uncompromising position on abortion and other women rights issues is both ideological and religious; it will not change, compromise is not possible.

    Obama? Well, in a previous thread today James Joyner painted him as a liberal, gasp, a zombie whose mind was totally controlled by ideology, and thus by inference, his judgment seriously compromised. I don not quite buy that, there are other reasons, with graver implications, to question his quest for the Presidency.

    Unlike many, I view the Presidency of Ronald Reagan as an American tragedy, and as an American disaster. I will take James’ supercilious Reagan quote:

    I’ve often wondered since, if I’d spent more time and worked harder as a student how far I might have gone.”

    And change the last few words: ‘how far I might have gone.” To “how different I might have done things.” Let us never forget. The Great Communicator broke the leveling effect of Union negotiations, started the inexorable climb of the National Debt, and with his demonetization of taxes has lead to what now is an inexorable income disparity in this country…

    Sorry about that James. Reagan was a “C” President, Bush a “C” student will be an “F” President, McCain, at best a “C” student, will be a “D” for Disaster President.. What Higher Education is supposed to instill is a dispassionate approach to problem solving, and a love and thirst for knowledge and disparate views. If you did not gain that in college, you will not gain it acting in B movies, or flying jets.

  10. Leo says:

    I remain unconvinced that being extremely smart, unless offset by some other factors, is a good thing in a president. I read a few years ago (probably a lot of years ago) that Jimmy Carter was the smartest (IQ) president in the last 50 years. This may be true. I remember at the time I thought he was involved in “paralysis by analysis,” even though I was in High School at the time.

    It’s my personal opinion that having a vision and the ability to judge the people that work for you are much more important. I look at Eisenhower and TR and see more of that quality than anyone in the last 40 years.

    BTW, pilots need a lot of on the feet mathematical skills, so to speak. Any idiot who flies a jet has a very good chance of not surviving. That goes for both McCain and W.

  11. James Joyner says:

    James Joyner painted him as a liberal, gasp, a zombie whose mind was totally controlled by ideology, and thus by inference, his judgment seriously compromised.

    Uh, no. Just as a liberal. Which, within the American context, he certainly is.

    Ideology isn’t a disqualifier unless it’s an odious one. Obama’s not exactly a Stalinist. He’s not even a European-style socialist. But he’s left of center, probably more than McCain is right of center.

  12. ... says:

    Any idiot who flies a jet has a very good chance of not surviving. That goes for both McCain and W.

    Too bad then that Bush didn’t actually fly more times when he was supposed to.

  13. M1EK says:

    Obama’s not exactly a Stalinist. He’s not even a European-style socialist. But he’s left of center, probably more than McCain is right of center.

    Evidence?

    One way to think of this is that the center was demonstrably pretty close to Al Gore in 2000 (yeah, 2004, but confounded by war president issues). You think Obama’s a lot more liberal than Gore?

  14. James Joyner says:

    One way to think of this is that the center was demonstrably pretty close to Al Gore in 2000 (yeah, 2004, but confounded by war president issues). You think Obama’s a lot more liberal than Gore?

    I think McCain is more centrist than Bush and that Obama is left of Candidate Al Gore if probably not Post-2000 Civilian Al Gore. Remember, Gore was a Southern Democrat and DLC guy positioning himself as a Clintonian pragmatist with morals.

  15. M1EK says:

    McCain is not more centrist than how Bush actually ran in 2000. And Gore was clearly not as much of a DLC true-believer as was Clinton. Despite this, the national popular vote favored Gore – indicating the center being closer to him than Candidate Bush.

    Candidate McCain in 2008 is, in my estimation, running a bit to the RIGHT of Bush 2000. It’s still more centrist than how Bush actually governed, of course.

  16. Our Paul says:

    Quite right James, and I shall quote you:

    Ideology isn’t a disqualifier unless it’s an odious one. Obama’s not exactly a Stalinist. He’s not even a European-style socialist. But he’s left of center, probably more than McCain is right of center.

    I agree. Ideology is not a disqualifier, unless woven into its fabric are elements that are indeed odious, mean spirited, or religious in nature.

    Woven into McCain’s conservatism is a strongly held belief of American Exceptionality, i.e. that we are somehow “chosen” (by God?, circumstance?, whatever) to lead the world, spread our brand of democracy, and fight what ever “evil” we perceive or define. This view can be found in his speeches, in his writings, and in his persistent references to patriotism and honor. In my book, that is an odious strand; who are we to tell the world they have to cow-tail to our brand of democracy?

    His adherence to “strict constructionist” judiciary not only speaks to his quasi religious mean spirited anti feminism, but to a judiciary that errs when it does not fallow his rigid ideological precepts.

    And thus his contemptuous response to the Supreme Court recent habeas ruling was predictable. In his mind, its paramount that we depose despots, defend against terrorism by invading countries, spend treasure and sacrifice American lives to promote democracy, and yet not grant a fundamental right, a corner stone of democratic government, to “foreigners”… To me, that dishonors what this country stands for, rule of law and equal justice.

    Perhaps it is my age, perhaps it is my exposure to other cultures and languages, perhaps it is that as a physician I have seen the inequities of American medicine, but when somebody states: “He’s not even a European-style socialist” obvious signs of inflexible ideology are starting to bubbles up…

    So tell me James, when a free populous, fully informed, vote to implement a system where the government provides educational benefits and equal medical care, are those folks living in a democracy, or is that government (gasp) “socialist”? Oh, the horror of it all!!! Free people actually demanding that their government provide health care and education equally to all the members of their society. Kind of like what, government by the people and for the people?

    Times are changing James, it is silly to argue whether McCain is more of a “centrist” than Obama. The good, as well as the odious strands of conservatism are being thrown on the funeral pyre of Iraq and the wanton dribbling away of life and treasure by a self styled “compassionate conservative”…

    Centrism is not a ticket that will get you on an express train to the White House, it will not even parley a seat in the House or Senate. And when President Bush end-runs the Senate to establish permanent bases in Iraq, all he is doing is adding more wood to that funeral pyre. Times are changing James, the day of the lemming is coming to an end.

    All indications are that anything close to Bush is toxic, the citizens are ready to take back their country.

  17. James Joyner says:

    So tell me James, when a free populous, fully informed, vote to implement a system where the government provides educational benefits and equal medical care, are those folks living in a democracy, or is that government (gasp) “socialist”?

    The two aren’t mutually exclusive. To the extent government controls the means of production, the economy becomes more socialist and the people become less free. But people in democracies sometimes prefer to trade off some freedom for more security.

    Free people actually demanding that their government provide health care and education equally to all the members of their society. Kind of like what, government by the people and for the people?

    That’s a non sequitur. “Government” can’t provide services to “the people” without confiscating the money of “the people.”

    Times are changing James, it is silly to argue whether McCain is more of a “centrist” than Obama.

    As times change, so does the definition of “centrist.” It’s a moving target.

  18. Our Paul says:

    Gadzucks, how do you respond to somebody who is able to string cogent sentences together at 7:09 AM?

    Well, first of all you point out that “European style socialism” is a code phrase that should be shortened to Eurosocialism. It then can be consecrated, and in a ritualistic fashion fed to all true believers. The possibilities are endless for we all know that Europeans are ingrates and Socialism is the bastard son of Communism…

    Quickly now… How do you tell the difference between a valid tax and when the government is “confiscating” the money of the people?

    Got me by the socks. It strikes me that in a democratic society the people would deal harshly with any government that is “confiscating” their money. Maybe that is happening here now, as folks contemplate the expense of the Iraq war.

    Said it before, will say it again: Rigid adherence to ideology impairs judgment and impedes problem solving. Close to 70% of the American people list health care as one of the three main issues in the coming election.

    Bleating about socialized medicine, or “confiscating the money of the people”, is not a “Centrist Position”. A rational solution to the problem has to be presented. The “moving target” is not going side ways on the shooting range, it is moving away from you. Soon it will be out of range…

  19. James Joyner says:

    Bleating about socialized medicine, or “confiscating the money of the people”, is not a “Centrist Position”. A rational solution to the problem has to be presented. The “moving target” is not going side ways on the shooting range, it is moving away from you. Soon it will be out of range…

    It’s still a centrist position, although perhaps for not much longer. I fully agree that, in a democratic society, it’s easy to sell the idea of free things paid for by “the rich.” It’s why the Framers feared democracy and institutionalized a Republic instead. Most of those institutions are gone, however, and populism and class warfare are the predictable outcomes.

  20. Name Withheld by Request says:

    Upon checking the news about the 2008 Naval War College graduation exercises, I came across your rather unflattering comments about the Naval War College. Thank you for being dismissive – and spreading something of a canard – about my new alma mater and for somehow trying to take something away from the many officers and civilians who have worked very hard to understand the strategic and operational level implications of national security.

    Also, you may want to double-check your comments. Are you sure you didn’t mean that John McCain went to the National War College?

  21. James Joyner says:

    I came across your rather unflattering comments about the Naval War College. Thank you for being dismissive – and spreading something of a canard – about my new alma mater and for somehow trying to take something away from the many officers and civilians who have worked very hard to understand the strategic and operational level implications of national security.

    I did nothing of the sort. It’s a fine institution that does a superb job of its mission, preparing the Navy’s top field grade officers for higher command. It’s an excellent capstone PME course.

    It’s simply not the same thing as a civilian master’s degree, in the same way that a law degree isn’t really a “doctorate” and medical school and a PhD program aren’t the same thing. They’re just different animals.

    And, yes, you’re right: McCain attended the National War College at McNair rather than his service school.

  22. Our Paul says:

    Bit of good/bad news James. Summer has hit with full force. In five days we will be off to Sweden for three weeks, thereafter it will be the summer cabin, where the nearest “hot spot” is 15 minutes away. The ability to briefly tap into the net remains, but exploration of any topic in depth will be lost.

    Perhaps it is for the best, I am a slow thinker, and a dismally slow writer. The task of helping a fellow citizen understand the proper function of government weighs heavily on these frail and stooped shoulders. It thus pains me when I am unable to fully respond to your distress:

    I fully agree that, in a democratic society, it’s easy to sell the idea of free things paid for by “the rich.” It’s why the Framers feared democracy and institutionalized a Republic instead. Most of those institutions are gone, however, and populism and class warfare are the predictable outcomes.

    Sigh, class warfare. I would not go there James. Obama’s political genius was discerning that the great unwashed, the populous, was tired of the conservative movement exploiting wedge and hate issues.

    Behind the “free things paid for by the rich” lies what I have floated up in previous discussionslass Blues), the issue of income disparity… If one examines the “Gini coefficient” (a measure of income disparity) of different countries, what is apparent is that those that provide government backed health care have less income disparity than what exists in the US. I do not know the significance of that observation. Perhaps in the future I will be able to come up with a snappy comment.

    Rest assured that silence on my part is not disinterest, for I will be tapping in when possible. Your voice, and that of your cohorts, informs, entertains, and stimulates to further thought.

  23. Name Withheld by Request says:

    By the way, the Naval War College awards a Master of Arts in National Security and Strategic Studies in addition to the PME, if you wish to pursue it. It is even accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. There is an aspect of training to this education; we even held a comprehensive wargame at the end of Joint Maritime Operations. However, if you were to review the syllabi of the courses offered you would readily see that this program is a rigorous graduate education. I would judge myself, and most of my colleagues, at least as capable of high-level policy discourse as a student at a civilian policy school such as SAIS, Georgetown, JFK, Chicago, etc.

  24. James Joyner says:

    However, if you were to review the syllabi of the courses offered you would readily see that this program is a rigorous graduate education. I would judge myself, and most of my colleagues, at least as capable of high-level policy discourse as a student at a civilian policy school such as SAIS, Georgetown, JFK, Chicago, etc.

    Sure, you’re highly intelligent military officers in your mid-to-late 30s whereas most of the grad students at those schools are in their mid-20s. You’ve got worlds of experience over them.

    Then again, the services allow several students to attend masters programs at Tufts, Kennedy, and other policy schools in lieu of the war colleges.