Sometime in the slew of Republican debates to come, a journalist will lock eyes with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and, in tones of gravamen laced with condescension, demand to know whether his lack of a college degree disqualifies him for the Presidency. Walker is likely to reply, as the better part of tactical wisdom indicates he should, with a cocktail of populism and anti-intellectualism. The more admirable response would be a paean to elitism lost. Virtually no one in public service today, including most of the degree-holding candidates with whom Walker will share a stage, possesses what would actually be useful for the endeavor: a classical political education that cultivates the Aristotelian and Burkean virtue of prudence.
This is not, to a certain extent, their fault, since few institutions still provide one. When Walker says he got into college largely to get a job and got out early to take one, he speaks for the vocational ethos that governs higher education today. It is the product in no small part of political rhetoric that encourages universal college in the same tones in which it speaks of universal preschool: as the pathway to prosperity.
Education as an End, Not a Means
It was not this way at James Madison’s College of New Jersey, later Princeton, or the candle-lit cabin in which the self-schooled Abraham Lincoln read Bunyan and Shakespeare. These were educations in pursuit of beauty and truth. Along the way they formed citizens and statesmen.
Graduates of the nascent Princeton could translate Virgil and Tully with facility, because doing such was a condition of admission. Between freshman and senior year they studied authors ranging from Xenophon to Cicero to the cutting-edge Scottish common-sense theorists. The gamut of topics included theology, moral philosophy and natural philosophy. There is no evidence of courses in policy analysis.
Yet graduates of Princeton and like institutions staged a Revolution, crafted a Constitution for the ages, and launched it into operation. They wrote The Federalist Papers. They did all this without being trained in any technical or literal sense to do so. That so many did so at such remarkably young ages suggests their education—an education in enduring truths—had something to do with it. They explored such qualities as prudence and impulsiveness, statesmanship and demagoguery, amid the permanence of history, philosophy and poetry. They were not taught Aristotelian phronēsis in any linear, literal sense. They encountered it, imbibed it, learned it. Thus, when James Madison endeavored to diagnosis the ills of the Articles of Confederation, he began, methodically, with an analysis of the Lycian and Amphyctionic confederacies.
It was not an academic exercise. Or rather it was; the word “academic” simply had not yet been sullied with the connotations it now carries. A candidate who replied to a question about current events with such an assessment today would be chased from the race with prejudice both instantaneous and extreme. Yet might a historical analysis have enlightened decisions regarding the invasion of Iraq? Might some insight into the permanence of human nature be helpful in assessing the proper response to ISIS? Could a recurrence to enduring political principles, rather than an invocation of transient power, reveal something about the proper balance between branches within the constitutional system today?
What’s the Proper Pedigree for a President?
It is true, and it matters, that—at least insofar as it is certified by a degree—Scott Walker lacks this kind of political education. It also matters that virtually no aspirant to the Presidency, including those who hold advanced degrees, possesses this kind of political education. Ted Cruz likely comes closest, but between his populist appeals to subject Supreme Court justices to retention elections and demagogic warnings about the country tumbling “off the cliff to oblivion,” he is not making good use of it. Meanwhile, candidates who have gone to law school have been trained to be lawyers. Those who have gone to business school have been trained to crunch numbers. At most institutions, those with political science degrees have, at best, been trained to analyze policy.
This limits the utility of checking the bachelor’s-degree box as a qualification for the White House. It would be more useful to ask a Presidential aspirant to explain his or her favorite Shakespeare play or Federalist paper, or to pose some other question designed to assess engagement with enduring ideas that transcend momentary issues.
That is important partly because the issues before the country in the debates of 2015 and 2016 are almost certainly not the issues that will confront the next president from 2017 to 2021, just as al-Qaeda was not an issue in 2000, nor ISIS in 2012. Campaigns are poor predictors of actual governing choices. Ideas endure. Candidates can readily memorize position papers. Explaining the algorithms and prisms through which they will filter information to make decisions on issues yet unknown is another matter.
Questions about ideas are also important because they reveal the candidates’ disposition toward intellectualism itself. That Scott Walker did not complete a four-year degree may not be important in itself. It would be significant, however, if he chose to justify that with an attack on the pursuit of enduring ideas, especially in an environment in which anti-intellectualism increasingly flourishes.
His undermining of tenure—a concept that may or may not deserve reform, but that should not be spoken of merely in terms of updating academic programs to meet market demands—at the University of Wisconsin thus raises more questions than his personal lack of a degree. There may not yet be market demand in the traditional sense for the formation of citizens. There is nonetheless an urgent need. Perhaps political leadership should speak for it, and alter both rhetoric and incentives so the few colleges that still emphasize liberal education in the classical sense can flourish.
Walker’s lack of a degree would thus matter more if, as one wishes were the case, degrees mattered more. In some places they still do, just not in the sense the media means when, for example, Howard Dean asked of Walker: “[H]ow well educated is this guy?” Dean intended the question, whose premise equated a college degree at a typical institution of higher education today with an education, to be contemptuous. Why, though, ask it of Walker alone? In the era of technical training masquerading as education, a four-year degree should not shield others from that inquiry. Stand all the candidates next to Madison or Lincoln. In a serious, classical and enduring sense, how well educated are any of them?