Periodically, an agitated exchange breaks out in the placid comments section of this blog, usually occasioned by my remarks on politics [although sometimes the accessibility of the umlaut is sufficient to excite the commentariat.] I should like to address two aspects of the recent kerfuffle. Let me begin with the dispute about wisdom versus foolishness, stupidity versus intelligence [and, I might add, ignorance versus knowledgeableness.] In a later post, I shall move on to the tendency of some people in America to vote against what others perceive to be their interests [The Thomas Frank problem.]
I distinguish sharply between the acquisition of academic credentials and the possession of either intelligence or knowledge. It is of course true [indeed, it is what logicians used to call a miserable tautology] that people who do not have college degrees have fewer educational credentials than those who do have college degrees. But a long lifetime of experience as a university professor equips me to say authoritatively that there is very little demonstrable connection between possessing educational credentials and being either smarter or more knowledgeable than someone not possessing them. To be sure, getting a college degree is likely to make someone more knowledgeable about some things [although even this is less obviously true than I, as a teacher, would like to think], but I rather doubt that the total number of things known by a person with a college degree is greater or less than the total number of things known by a person without a college degree. However, the knowledge one manages to acquire in college, along with the habits, social traits, and stigmata left by the college experience, greatly increase the probability that one will get a job with good pay and benefits and no heavy lifting.
I am the product of a family that valued book learning [my father was a high school teacher], and my entire adult life has been spent in the upper middle class of American society, where what I know and what I can do are richly rewarded. But I am reminded of the 2010 movie Company Men in which Ben Affleck plays a successful corporate executive who is laid off and eventually is forced to take a job with his carpenter brother-in-law [Kevin Costner] laying sheetrock. Affleck is just awful at it, despite having the full panoply of educational credentials that his brother-in-law lacks.
I am reminded of the old joke about the counter-cultural Scholastic Aptitude Test, one question on which is “Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?” All the kids from the toney up-scale schools get it wrong, but all the ghetto kids get it right. [The correct answer is, “Yo’ mama.”]
More seriously, I call to mind the debate on the left in South Africa about whether township residents, after liberation, should be awarded educational credentials for the things they had learned quite well without the benefit of access to the nation’s rigid, highly traditional English or European oriented universities. Black men and women who had for years run the shadow township governments of Soweto or Alexandra had acquired thereby a great deal more usable knowledge about Political Science than their white age cohorts who had studied the subject at the University of Capetown or Stellenbosch University.