Consider the often-expressed (and misguided) discomfort over the fact that every one of the nine current justices of the U.S. Supreme Court holds degrees from either Yale or Harvard. Far from indicating the domination of our most powerful legal institution by members of an American aristocracy, the background of the reigning justices demonstrates the effective operation of an educational meritocracy. Not one of the jurists on the high court (with its six Catholics and three Jews) arose from the old-line, blue-blood, WASP establishment; two of them (Clarence Thomas and Sonia Sotomayor) grew up in abject poverty, while most of the others came from modest circumstances and immigrant families. They attended Yale and Harvard not through family connections (a charge that could accurately be lodged against presidential candidates Al Gore, John Kerry and George W. Bush) but due to academic excellence and scholarship aid.
No one can question the reality that the nation’s most prestigious educational institutions opened up to “unconventional” but able applicants in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s (prominently including Barack Obama), and reserved far fewer spaces to legacy students and prep school products. This means that populist rage focused on Ivy League degrees now amounts to resentment of educational achievement, or even intelligence, rather than inherited privilege. In that context, Sarah Palin’s well-advertised battle against various elites has more to do with her carefully-constructed and distinctive “Going Rogue” persona than with her position as a self-annointed outsider, her religious faith, or educational background.
No one, for instance, questions the presidential qualifications of Mike Huckabee – despite the fact that the former pastor’s Evangelical Christian commitment is every bit as fervently outspoken as Palin’s, and his undergraduate degree (from Ouachita Bible University) is no more prestigious than Palin’s communications BA from the University of Idaho. Huckabee, however, served 10 years as Governor of his state (and three prior years of Lieutenant Governor) and in his eight books, weekly TV broadcasts on Fox News and innumerable public debates he demonstrates a mastery of public issues and political ideas that impresses even those who disagree with him.
Huckabee’s example indicates that the populist instinct is correct in disregarding the idea that a Yale or Harvard education is a necessary pre-requisite for national leadership, but it goes wrong if it suggests that blue chip academic credential should count as a disqualification of any kind.
Most Americans can agree that elitism that favors well-born, powerfully connected individuals counts as hateful and undemocratic. But an elitism that favors those who are smart, capable and impressively trained is reasonable and, to some extent, inevitable.