Palin, Intellectualism, and the "Degree Fetish"

Michael Knox Beran

What does an Ivy League education get you? I’m not talking about jobs. I’m focusing now on what happens to a person when he receives this prestigious education.

Michael Knox Beran—lawyer, author, and commentator—has an essay in National Review that asks the question. Yet the question didn’t arise from nothing; he took his cue from Sarah Palin.

When questioned by Bill O’Reilly on whether she was intellectual enough to be a leader, Palin commented, “I believe that I am because I have common sense and, . . . the values that are reflective of so many other American values. And I believe that what Americans are seeking is not the elitism, the kind of spinelessness, that perhaps is made up for with some kind of elite Ivy League education.”

Beran then contrasts the way in which the media treated Palin and Obama, based on their educational background.

His intelligence was never questioned. Hers was, repeatedly. Undoubtedly his two Ivy League degrees (from Columbia and Harvard) helped him. Her want of prestigious education hurt her: It made it easier for those who didn’t like her to say she was stupid. This presumption of stupidity was in the air before the interviews with Charles Gibson and Katie Couric. Those interviews resembled ambushes, orchestrated by people who were already convinced that she was a moron.

He talks about how our country has developed a “degree fetish” and adds, “if in the future the only means of obtaining intellectual credibility in America should be through an accumulation of degrees, the country will almost certainly become stupider.”

The biggest problem, Beran concludes, has to do with the character this mania produces.

But the greatest evil of degree fetish is the arrogance it nourishes, an intellectual snobbishness that stifles nonconformity and homespun intelligence. Whitman suffered this condescension. So did Lincoln, and so did Reagan. Emerson, the Harvard man, said that Lincoln was a “clown.” Clark Clifford, speaking ex cathedra for the Washington establishment, called Reagan an “amiable dunce.”

Beran doesn’t dismiss the significance of an education that brings to light the best thinking in the history of the world for the purpose of learning what has come before us. But he believes that’s no longer what a student receives at the typical Ivy League university.

Let me add here that I too value a solid education—that’s why I’m teaching at a university. Yet I know that what Beran says is true: too little of our “education” is education in the classic sense; too much of it is trendy indoctrination.

His summary?

The culture wars that have lifted Sarah Palin to prominence are best understood as an expression of popular frustration with a dwindling supply of cultural goods. The social state has banished a variety of these goods from places (such as schools) where they once traded briskly. Education in the West has traditionally been the process by which grown-ups civilize the young by introducing them to their moral and cultural heritage. America’s public schools have abdicated this role; traditional methods of cultural initiation have been replaced by vapid forms of “social” study. Social education, Paul Goodman said, is founded on the belief that children are “human social animals” who must be “socialized” and “adjusted to the social group.” The Faustian disavowal of the moral imagination, together with an embrace of a barren philosophy of acultural socialization, has resulted in ever more culturally vacuous public schools.

If you would like to view the entire article, go here.

One more point: too many people think that the only way to receive a good education is to be accepted at a “prestigious” university. I don’t believe that. Many of the best professors can be found at educational institutions–many of them evangelical–that never make a list of top colleges. Keep in mind who makes those lists, and you will know why.