Degrees Don’t Make Leaders

Highly educated and well educated are not the same thing. It is easy to forget, at a time when a college degree is a requirement (formal or not) for most positions of power and influence, that going to college and getting good grades does not necessarily equip people to lead. It is certainly a great way to learn new subjects, question long-held assumptions, discover new interests, and make connections that can further a person’s career. But it can also breed arrogance, a sense that a formal credential makes the bearer better leadership material, and a temptation to think less of the leadership abilities of those who have merely graduated from high school. As this time of year would normally be one of great celebration for newly minted college graduates, it is worth remembering some of higher education’s limits.

The unprecedented ethnic, gender and religious diversity of the current Congress is very healthy for American democracy. A country that is so often polarized benefits greatly from being led by a wide range of people. In terms of educational attainment, however, Congress is far less representative of the population. Just over one third of American adults have a bachelor’s degree, compared to all hundred Senators and nearly 95% of Representatives. The disparity is even starker when it comes to advanced degrees: some 13% of adults have a degree beyond a bachelor’s, but 77% of Senators and 68% of Representatives do. Holders of law degrees alone account for more than a third of the House and more than half of the Senate. This is not healthy.

For all the social, economic, and other benefits higher education brings, we mislead ourselves if we assume that leadership ability is necessarily one of those benefits. There are many ways to become a good leader, a successful negotiator, a skilled synthesizer of disparate interests and opinions into a cohesive approach to a task. People can acquire these skills on the job, in the community, in political activism, or in any number of other ways, as easily as in academia.

If two-thirds of the population is extremely underrepresented in their national legislature — as well as generally more economically vulnerable than the one-third that is over-represented — their perspectives are all too likely to be overlooked, and not only on questions of education policy. Those who make decisions on their behalf will have too many incentives to stick with policies favored by the more highly educated voters on both left and right, whether progressives supporting free college, or conservatives favoring free trade despite its impact on their blue collar supporters. They will talk about apprenticeships and industrial policy, but not much will be done about them. It will thus not be surprising if working class discontent (across racial and ethnic lines) continues for a long time.

Jordan Peterson is spot on here. While he has repeatedly (and in my view convincingly) defended the value of IQ as a measure of a person’s cognitive abilities, including the ability to succeed in college, he also points to the limits of pure intelligence in making a person good. In one Q&A, when asked to tackle the extremely thorny issue of ethnic differences and IQ, Peterson essentially ducked the question (it’s hard to blame him). But he said something very important about intelligence (19:50): “we confuse intelligence with value.” He reminded the audience of something that ought to be obvious: “being more intelligent doesn’t make you a better person.” At another event, he illustrated this truth by recounting the story of a woman who, despite not being intelligent, demonstrated profound wisdom and compassion. (It’s worth taking seven minutes to watch Peterson relate the story and discuss intelligence and wisdom with Bret Weinstein).

Electing more people without college degrees to Congress would bring some well-needed insights to Capitol Hill. This does not mean a BA, MS, or other degree should be a strike against a candidate. A person’s character and their beliefs about what government should do matter more than where a person went to school (or didn’t). It does mean, however, that campaign strategists, activists, party officials, and the electorate as a whole, should keep their eyes open for talent and leadership ability that does not come with a degree attached. When selecting candidates, parties would do well to look at those in their ranks who haven’t been to college. Maybe someone acquired terrific leadership ability as a union official, a small business owner, a foreman, an active PTA member, an NCO in the military, or for that matter a stay-at-home parent.

There are other measures Americans can take to bring more educational diversity to Congress, particularly just by bringing more people into Congress. We could expand the size of the House; apart from adding a few seats when Alaska and Hawaii joined the union, it has been stuck at its current size since 1911, when the U.S. population was about 92 million. Today the population is nearing 330 million. Keeping the House the same size while the population expands continuously widens the distance between the people and their elected leaders year after year, another thing that is not healthy for the world’s most powerful democracy. Term limits would also help. There is value in people serving together for a long time and learning to work with each other, but there is also a point at which the system needs young blood, a time when a person has spent too much time inside the Beltway and has become complacent and myopic. But a good start would be for those of us in politics and policy with fancy credentials to remember that the lack of a costly piece of paper does not equal a lack of the ability to govern.

A moment from the early days of the Cold War illustrates how sound judgement often does not require high formal education. In The Wise Men, their book about six Americans who played key roles shaping U.S. foreign policy after World War II, Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas discuss a meeting where one of the six, Dean Acheson, met with President Harry S. Truman, to convince him to pressure the Soviet Union to pull its troops from Turkey. Acheson, the Under Secretary of State, was a graduate of Groton, Yale, and Harvard Law School. Truman, the last President not to have graduated from college, had succeeded to the office when Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Groton and Harvard alumnus, died a year earlier. It would have been understandable for Acheson to think little of a simple man from Missouri, so often ridiculed as a political hack, and to think that he could not possibly understand why it was vital that the Soviets not be allowed to dominate the eastern Mediterranean.

Whatever doubts Acheson may have had, Truman dispelled them when he opened a desk drawer, pulled out a map of the region, and explained to his advisors, military and civilian, why the eastern Mediterranean had been geopolitically significant for millennia, and why it was indeed vital to confront the Soviets in that part of the world. Truman was, note Isaacson and Thomas, a “self-taught history buff.” In his book Warrior Politics, Robert D. Kaplan notes that he was an avid reader of Plutarch, and imbibed the wisdom of antiquity. Although Acheson was well-known for his arrogance, he saw how well the President understood the world, how he was savvy about foreign as well as domestic politics. As Under Secretary, and later as Secretary of State, Acheson worked with Truman to contain Soviet power, rebuild postwar Europe, and convince a skeptical American public of the need to engage with the world. And he saw that his boss did not need a college degree to be smart.

The coronavirus pandemic has shown how much our society depends on people without college degrees. While doctors and nurses are vital, so are retail workers, truck drivers, first responders, and many others who may never have even contemplated college. When things get closer to normal, we can show our thanks to them by looking for the best leaders among them, and trusting them with real power.

I am an analyst, writer, and editor. I write about liberalism, U.S. national security, and the threats to both. The views expressed here are mine alone.

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