This op-ed piece in today's PI caught my interest because the term "elitist" gets thrown around a lot during presidential (and other) elections. The author, Steven Roy Goodman, is discussing getting an Ivy League education and whether it can hurt you should you choose to run for office later in life.
(Please note: I'm NOT looking for a fight or even a discussion about right versus left, liberal versus conservative. I'm trying to start a discussion about education and what it means in American life.)
I grew up at a time when many adults hadn't gone to college and most parents dreamed that their children would go on to college. It was the ultimate American parent dream that your children would live better than you (based on the belief that a college education would allow you to do better).
I also remember, vaguely, the huge gap between who went to Vietnam and who got to stay home (and some of that was about having a college deferment). This was viewed as largely unfair and the obvious dividing line between socio-economic classes. There was some degree of hostility towards college students as well as because of the huge numbers of students who protested against the war. They tended to be viewed as naive (remember WWII - the Good War?) and protected (easy to protest if you aren't the one singled out to go fight).
From the article:
"As a citizen, though, I understand the general public has mixed feelings about those with degrees from prestigious universities. Our ingrained support for the underdog forces political candidates with high-status diplomas to convincingly explain how they are still of the people."
I would say (and I heard McCain even admit this) that working in Washington does tend to isolate you and makes it harder to "get" everyday challenges of Americans. (I mean if we had a driver take us everywhere and hadn't gone to a supermarket or even handled money on a daily basis, we'd be a little out of touch ourselves. It's likely that many in Congress especially Senators are likely to be in this category.) I think the key is keeping in touch. One thing that many professors get every year is a list. At the top is the birth year for incoming freshman and the list tells them what their students' reality is. Things like ALWAYS having a computer, cell phone and knowing George Foreman only as the grill guy. It sounds funny but it's there to help the professors ground their dialog so they can reach their students. It would be great if every member of Congress got a list, twice a year, stating what the price of a gallon of milk is in their state, the price of a gallon of gas, the average housing price, etc.
The op-ed piece said a couple of other valuable things:
"Think about the messages about success that children hear while growing up. We encourage middle-class students to be proud of where they come from. Be proud that you are from your hometown, even if you later learn that it was on the wrong side of the tracks. And, no matter how successful you may become, don't get too big for your britches."
"Our ambivalence about educational success mirrors how we think about newcomers to a neighborhood or social group. We welcome you as long as you fit in and you don't become too rich or too poor relative to those around you."
I think not forgetting where you come from is very valuable advice. It helps ground you and make you count your blessings. On the other hand, if you move beyond what your childhood was, there can be a mixed message later in life for you.
You get raised as an American - "go to school, do well, get a scholarship, aim for the stars, go to a good college". Okay, you do that but if you run for office, then suddenly it's viewed with suspicion. That somehow going to college, especially an elite one, fundamentally changes you.
Do you lose common sense by going to college? But, on the other hand, are you better equipped to understand the complexities of life in the 21st Century if you do have a college education?
I find it puzzling to hear politicians and educators wanting all students to have the opportunity to go to college and yet then you see candidates on all sides being put down for their educational choices.
In the end, everyone gets to vote for a candidate based on whatever criteria they deem important. It can just be a "gut" thing. It could be because someone has common sense (whatever that means to you).
But I'm with Jon Stewart; I honestly want a candidate that I perceive to be smarter than me. I do want someone who I feel has a true grasp of what he or she is facing as an elected official. I don't really care what college or university they went to (although I will show a prejudice towards someone I believe had to work hard to get to a college or university) or if I would want to have a beer with that person.
Most of all, I do want someone who cares about public education and champions it.