Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Credentials Question

Since he entitled his book The Cult of the Amateur, we should not be surprised that Andrew Keen has a thing about qualifications and credentials and that, given his interest in the current Presidential campaign, he should now be casting his jaundiced eye upon candidate Sarah Palin. His latest sources of aggravation appear to be a piece by American Enterprise Institute Fellow Steven Hayward, appearing in the latest issue of The Standard, which suggests that Palin may be the second coming of Harry Truman, and a Wall Street Journal column by Bret Stephens entitled "Palin and the Experience Canard," which also offers Truman as a model for her "small town inexperience" (probably Keen's words). Keen's rant quickly comes to a boil:

Why do well educated people in the most sophisticated and powerful place on earth pine for an inexperienced president? Hayward, for example, seems to think that there's something healthy about the fact that Truman didn't go to college -- even though the very foundations of America's meritocracy is built upon the idea of an openly competitive educational system. While Stephens tells us that "qualifications" don't matter much for a vice president because "the job is political."

What Keen appears to have missed is that those "very foundations of America's meritocracy" were grounded in demonstrated qualifications, rather than any set of approved credentials. Thus, I suspect that Keen would blanch at the suggestion that one could be a Full Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) without a doctoral degree, preferably matched by a significant thesis and a substantial publication record. Yet, during my undergraduate years at MIT, the Chair of the Electrical Engineering Department was Carlton Tucker, who never held a degree higher than Master of Science. On the other hand in his youth Tucker had been responsible for providing the entire state of Vermont with their telephone switching network. (At least that is how I recall the student lore, which probably included the "tall tale" element of his building that network single-handed.) Needless to say, this kind of qualification said nothing about how he would perform in a university classroom; but it was enough to get him into the academic system, after which he could (and did) build up further qualifications. Like Truman, Tucker was a man who rose on the strength of his accomplishments, rather than the framed sheepskin documents he could hang on his wall.

By the way, getting "into the academic system" at MIT was liberal in more ways than one. As I discovered in my freshman year, one did not need a high school diploma to matriculate there. There was actually a high school dropout down the hall in my dorm, who kept getting junk mail for programs offering a Graduate Equivalency Degree. I later discovered that one did not need a Bachelor's degree to enter graduate school, and I had a friend in the lab where I did my doctoral research whose only degree was his doctorate!

I found myself thinking about this matter this morning while reading a piece on the BBC NEWS Web site, which mentioned, in passing, that Tony Blair would be teaching a course on "faith and globalisation" (BBC spelling) at Yale. (What this remark was passing was the "news" that Blair would be appearing on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart the day before starting work at Yale.) Remembering Tucker, I decided to consult the Wikipedia entry for Blair to check out his academic qualifications. His academic career was not a particularly distinguished one, and his credentials were not much better. Nevertheless, Yale seems to have decided that his accomplishments were sufficient to justify his being appointed to teach a course there, even if his personal road to New Haven happens to take him through the sound stage for Comedy Central.

This is not to suggest that there is any merit to that argument that Palin could be the next Truman. Like just about everything else the media offers, that argument is a product of selective cherry-picking that does little more than tear the semantics of "experience" to shreds. What bothers me is that precious little time seems to be going into promoting Palin on the basis of those "demonstrated qualifications," which leads me to believe that they are not substantial enough to make for much of a promotion!

1 comment:

michael said...

I like the voice of soundness and composure that runs through your post and distinguishes it from many others.