Michael Medved

(Appeared in USA Today, November 3, 2009)

‘A nation that proudly offers fresh starts and open doors regardless of old world titles or family connections should reject snobbery based on either academic attainment or aristocratic ancestry.’

The poisonous polarization of the culture has produced some ill-considered attacks that call into question one of the most fundamental American values: the notion that each individual deserves to be judged on ability, not background, and evaluated on performance rather than credentials.

For instance, some of the pre-emptive dismissal of Sarah Palin's upcoming book Going Rogue — with its massive first printing of 1.5 million — represents an elitist attempt to disarm a political combatant by questioning her qualifications. Echoing themes from the 2008 campaign, the former governor's many detractors focus contemptuous attention on her teenage participation in beauty pageants, youthful ambitions as a sportscaster and checkered academic career (transferring among four colleges before finally finishing a journalism degree at the University of Idaho).

Some of the nation's most influential commentators face similarly sneering criticism based on educational background. I recently received an angry letter from a Texas teacher who despised all of conservative talk radio. "You're a pathetic joke, just like all the other professional blowhards who pollute the airwaves with their rants," he cheerfully opined. "Look at the biggest clowns in your business Limbaugh, Hannity, Glenn Beck. How many college degrees among all of them? The answer is zero. You're just a bunch of ignorant boobs who think that if you shout loud enough no one will notice you have nothing to say."

It's true that my colleagues Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck all failed to earn university degrees, but they've won huge audiences based on undeniable skill as persuasive communicators. For those who are entertained, provoked or inspired by an opinionated figure on radio or TV, academic distinction is entirely irrelevant.

Cronkite, Novak, Safire

The public recently mourned the loss of three universally respected journalists — Walter Cronkite, Robert Novak and William Safire. No one questioned their brilliance, or their contributions to the culture, despite the fact that they all dropped out of college short of graduation. By the same token, sophisticated computer geeks may feel disdainful of Microsoft products, but they don't boycott that company because Bill Gates left Harvard without earning a degree.

Cronkite, Novak and Safire rose to fame in an earlier era, when far fewer Americans graduated from college. In 1960, only 8% of adults 25 or older had earned university degrees. Today, the percentage of college graduates is nearing a third of all adults. In the election of 1948, the voters paid scant attention to the fact that President Truman never attended college. But today, with college education far more common and accessible, no politician could run a credible presidential campaign without some post-high school diploma.

Ironically, the emphasis on intellectual elitism has become far more pronounced on the left than the right, despite the long-standing association of Democrats as "the party of the people." In 2008, college graduates voted decisively for Obama, and he won even bigger majorities of those with post-graduate degrees — not surprising for a candidate with credentials from Columbia and Harvard.

Not only do studies indicate a considerable liberal tilt in college faculties, but Democrats support increased government spending for institutions of higher learning. Because progressives attach greater significance to universities, it makes sense that they judge the educational backgrounds of candidates (and commentators) accordingly: In the past six presidential elections, every one of the Democratic nominees held degrees from Harvard or Yale.

This liberal infatuation with Ivy League affiliation, going back to the Harvard-trained Roosevelt and Kennedy families, also protects prominent progressives from doubts about their "unserious" early careers. Conservatives note that Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., spent most of adulthood as a comedian,or that New York Times columnist Frank Rich was a drama critic, or that MSNBC firebrand Keith Olbermann gained fame as a sportscaster. Liberals respond to such objections by insisting that whatever previous professional paths, their stars boast solid academic qualifications: Franken and Rich graduated from Harvard, and Olbermann got a degree from Cornell.

Illogical attacks

In that context, I've received personal attacks because of the 12 years I spent as a full-time film critic (reviewing movies for PBS and the New York Post) before launching my daily political talk show 13 years ago. The same correspondent who objected to the prominence of Limbaugh and company because of their lack of university diplomas suggested that my books and radio commentary deserved no attention because "you're a dummy movie critic with no qualifications at all." As a matter of record, I graduated from Yale with honors and attended Yale Law School, before working as speechwriter and campaign aide for senatorial and congressional candidates, and writing an acclaimed history of the White House staff.

Of course, these achievements will do nothing to help my latest book if it's inarticulate or unpersuasive, just as Sarah Palin's early life struggles should in no way discredit her best-seller if it's riveting and insightful. Attempts to disregard messages by attacking the background of the messenger count as not only illogical but also un-American. A nation that proudly offers fresh starts and open doors regardless of old world titles or family connections should reject snobbery based on either academic attainment or aristocratic ancestry.

For Palin, as for any candidate or commentator, the public will appropriately judge performance, not personal history, and should by all means read the book, not the r?sum?.

Michael Medved, a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors, hosts a daily radio talk show and is the author of 12 books, including The Shadow Presidents and the forthcoming The 5 Big Lies About American Business.

Michael Medved

Michael Medved's daily syndicated radio talk show reaches one of the largest national audiences every weekday between 3 and 6 PM, Eastern Time. Michael Medved is the author of eleven books, including the bestsellers What Really Happened to the Class of '65?, Hollywood vs. America, Right Turns, The Ten Big Lies About America and 5 Big Lies About American Business
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