I was way out of town when the “Scott Walker Doesn’t Have a B.A.!!” brouhaha began. I see that despite my best efforts to ignore it, the meme is still persisting, with the report-and-rebuttal-dance proceeding as scheduled.

The latest salvo comes from law professor and Instapundit blogger Glenn Reynolds, who penned the following in USA Today:

Though Walker attended Marquette University, he left before graduating, which has caused some finger-wagging from the usual journalistic suspects. After all, they seem to believe, everyone they know has a college degree, so it must be essential to getting ahead. As the successful governor of an important state, you’d think that Walker’s subsequent career would make his college degree irrelevant, but you’d be wrong.

Reynolds makes a trenchant point here: The notion that a sitting governor of a medium-sized state who’s won three statewide elections is somehow less qualified to be president because he’s a semester short on credits seems really ludicrous. I might have my doubts about, say, Walker’s education policies, but I don’t doubt that he’s qualified to run for president. Walker has a clear record of achievement, and that’s what matters. Heck, achievement should be the primary thing that matters when assessing anyone over the age of 30 who’s not applying for an advanced degree somewhere.  When If Walker runs for president, the things that should really matter are his policy platform and his record as governor of Wisconsin.

[And as it turns out, at least some people on the left agree with Reynolds: “Scott Walker dropping out of Marquette before he completed his bachelor’s degree is not a strong criticism for why he shouldn’t be president. It is meritless."]

So that’s a fair and worthwhile point. The trouble comes when Reynolds glides from that point to his next one:

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And that’s why a President Walker would accomplish something worthwhile the moment he took office. Over the past few years in America, a college degree has become something valued more as a class signifier than as a source of useful knowledge….
Of course, some of our greatest presidents, from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln to Harry S. Truman, never graduated from college….
Already people can point to tech pioneers like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs as evidence that a college degree isn’t essential to getting ahead. But just as electing America’s first black president had a resonance that no other achievement did, so, perhaps, electing America’s first non-college-grad president in many decades will serve to remind people that a college degree isn’t the be-all and end-all, and that accomplishments and practical skills are, in the end, more important than credentials. It would be educational.

Yeah, this is where things go off the rails and straight towards the ongoing War On College.

Reynolds tries in his column to argue that the only reason that a college degree matters is credentialism. And I’m not so blind as to argue that credentialism doesn’t exist in American society.

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But Reynolds and others need to acknowledge two things. First, maybe, just maybe, college students pick up a fair number of useful analytical skills while earning their degree.

Second, and more important, it’s one hell of a cognitive leap to go from “George Washington and Bill Gates never graduated from college!” to arguing that Reynolds’s readers should therefore disdain college as well. For one thing, folks like Washington and Gates benefited tremendously from being born into wealth. In a society where one’s parentage already determines an awful lot about one’s economic future, I’m not sure advising young people to disdain college is really the answer.

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For another thing, pointing to exceptions and claiming that they prove the rule about some chimera of higher education seems really stupid. Telling people to draw inspiration from Zuckerberg and Gates is the equivalent of telling them that they will be the next Zuckerberg or Gates. No, actually, it’s worse: It’s intimating to them that unless they drop out of college, they will fail to be the next Zuckerberg or Gates.

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To use an academic term, this “lesson” is insane. For every entrepreneur who dropped out of college, I can point to many more who have done just as well after graduating. That Walker didn’t need to pick up his B.A. to become a governor hardly means that this should be the general lesson we divine from his political ascent. As to whether Walker’s idiosyncratic pathway through college has affected his recent and controversial education policies in the state of Wisconsin, I’ll defer to others).

This isn’t rocket science. The lesson that Walker, Gates, Zuckerberg et al should offer is that it isn’t necessary to graduate from college to become a successful politician, CEO or entrepreneur. But the lesson that everyone else offers is that it really, really helps in one’s quest for a better life.

So my advice to young people is that if you want to make something of yourself, you should probably go to college. Just don’t get a PhD. That way lies madness.

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