Reflections of a Humanist


Why a college degree matters

Now that this bogus anti-union bill has been passed in Wisconsin, at the insistence of GOP newcomer (to the national scene) Scott Walker, and the campaign to recall him as soon as it's legally allowed is well underway, it might be time to pause and ask the question, does it matter that he never got a college degree?  Does having a college education really make a difference in one's qualifications to hold a state's highest elective state office (or Senator, for that matter)?

It's not a question of Walker committing fraud - he never claimed to be a college grad, and never sought to give the impression that he was.  But nor was he ever seriously challenged on the issue.  During the years that he occupied the post of Milwaukee County Executive, and seriously weakened both mass transit and worker satisfaction, no one confronted him with the idea that his lack of a college degree was in fact a serious bar to performing the job the voters expected of him.

But the fact is, it was, and is.  Here's why.  An executive of a large, democratic bureaucracy such as a major city's county, or a state, must be able to bring to bear on the problems s/he faces an active and informed intelligence, a healthy curiosity, and a working knowledge of a number of fields of study that directly relate to the job's challenges: history, sociology and psychology, an acquaintance with the methods of science (and engineering), at least a rudimentary grasp of accounting and finance principles, and so on. 

Most of these are best acquired, not through hasty, adventitious, on-the-job apprenticeship, but by diligent study over a period of years, that allows time for reflection, for trying out competing ideas and getting feedback from professors and fellow students, from stretching one's brain to produce new and potentially fruitful insights and ways of gaining them. This is what college students DO, which is why we as a society value their degree more highly than the high school diploma of those who didn't follow them to the groves of academe.  It is why any serious applicant for a white collar job in America today - journalism, government, education, banking, Wall Street, engineering, research, medicine, and so on - either shows a college sheepskin or hits the road.

In college, one is challenged to learn to think.  Not by the rote memorization that is often our lot in high school, but rather the encounter and struggle with various. often competing, approaches to any subject matter, requiring that we find our way through them to ways of weighing often confusing facts and arriving at convincing clarity.  In college we learn to thread our way through thickets of confusion to reasoned explanations that make sense.  We learn to formularize solutions to challenging problems, to generate, in other words, what in public service will be called "policy".  A good policy must make optimum use of available resources, point toward solutions that please the largest number of stakeholders, and preserve the values our democracy most highly esteems - equity, freedom, choice, value, honesty (as in honoring contracts), fairness (as in bargaining in good faith).

These seem to be things Scott Walker doesn't fully comprehend.  Why should he?  There's a reason that virtually no corporation - in the private sector Republicans say they esteem so highly - will hire a manager, or any staff, who has not obtained at least a bachelor's degree.  Finishing college, meeting the graduation requirements, gives at least prima facie evidence that an individual has mastered the skills, including thinking clearly through a complex problem, which college teaches.  Former Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker doesn't make the grade.