Education Bragging Rights
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.