What educational background is best for a president? Even though most modern presidents have an ivy league education or its close equivalent (Jimmy Carter, for example, attended the Naval Academy at Annapolis), it is possible that this factor, too, is overestimated, or at least cannot provide a clear filter for presidential performance. Woodrow Wilson, our only Ph.D president, was certainly consequential on account of World War I, but he remains highly controversial as to how wise or successful a president he was. The first President Bush was a Yale man; he was ousted from office by a Yale law graduate (Clinton). Our last president, George W. Bush, had a Harvard MBA; President Obama has a Harvard law degree. Should Mitt Romney become our next president, he will boast both Harvard degrees. These three men are very different, and not just in ideology. Is the seeming Harvard monopoly on the White House right now reassuring or troubling?
Perhaps we should embrace the contrarian idea that presidents from even our most elite institutions are likely to conform to conventional thought rather than be the independent and imaginative presidents who provide the strongest leadership. Ronald Reagan attended tiny Eureka College, but when it came to his political ideas, he was largely self-taught in mid-life, both through study and experience. The most interesting case study among modern presidents is probably Harry Truman, the only 20th century president without a college degree. Yet Truman had a curious mind, and was a voracious reader of history. Similar to Reagan, he was a self-taught man, and his self-education went a long way toward defining his character and decisiveness in an office he never sought for himself.
Truman and Reagan, along with Eisenhower and a few other underrated presidents, always fare poorly on the social science screens for intelligence (though Reagan is said to have had an IQ of 142 in Simonton’s assessment), but we might wish for more unconventional presidents like them, rather than another drearily conventional product of the establishment.
Steven F. Hayward is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide™ to the Presidents: From Wilson to Obama.