The Washington Post has a lengthy article on Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s college career and his decision to drop out of Marquette University during his senior year. I think this piece raises a pretty important question about his presidential campaign.
Namely: Who cares?
We’re talking about events that happened almost 30 years ago. None of them are illegal, or even, frankly, very interesting. (He got a D-minus in French!) So why are we talking about this?
This is not the first time I’ve heard that Walker’s college dropout status must mean there’s something wrong with him. Decent, hardworking, upper-middle-class people who write for good media outlets graduate from college. If Walker didn’t, that must tell you something ominous about his character.
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Now, maybe I’m partial, because I myself racked up a few D’s in college, and for much the same reason that Walker seems to have: I didn’t go to class enough. Unlike Walker, I pulled it together, got my grades up and got my diploma on time. But it was touch-and-go for a while.
Does that tell you something about my character? Yes, I think it does – at the age of 20. But I’ve changed a bit since then. When I was finishing my book, which involved a months-long stream of 18-hour days, my mother took me aside and said, “You have to stop working so hard. You’re wearing yourself out.”
All I could do was laugh, and after I said, “Mom, when I was 20, could you have imagined yourself saying those words to me?” She laughed, too.
My employers don’t have to look at my college record to assess my critical-thinking skills or my work ethic. I guess they could look at my grad school transcript, where I did pretty well, or better yet, they could look at the work I have been putting out pretty steadily since 2001.
Some folks who blow off college classes are destined for a career of lost jobs and permanent layabout status. Others just need a little time – and maybe a brush with hard reality – to get their act together.
There’s a lot of debate among economists over what education really does for us. I mean, we know what it does for us – helps us get better jobs – but economists are split over why this is the case. Some think it is mostly a signal that you’re conformist, intelligent and responsible enough to sit through four years of classes without flunking. Others think it mostly functions by imparting valuable skills that make people better workers.
That’s irrelevant to Walker’s candidacy. College genuinely may give you important skills – but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way to acquire those skills. I mean, Abraham Lincoln did manage to struggle along somehow.
Or college completion may be a signal of your character. But we have other, better signals about Scott Walker’s abilities – namely, his time as governor.
The fact that we seem so fixated on events decades past is its own dire signal – of the way that America’s Mandarin class is starting to think about college education not merely as the basic credential required for many of the best-paying jobs, but also the basic credential required for being a worthy, capable person.
This is not merely untrue, but also a giant middle finger raised to the majority of upstanding American citizens who also didn’t graduate from college.
Of course, if Walker does become president, it would be nice if he spoke better French. But on the scale of things that will matter for his presidency, that probably ranks only slightly above his bowling score.
Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist.