My friend Elizabeth Scalia has an interesting column at First Things today on our over-dependence on academic credentials in the job market and elsewhere that is worth your time today. Here’s her opening.

He has authored over a dozen books, written a syndicated newspaper column and countless essays and articles covering a broad range of subjects—sports, politics, mobsters, union thugs, cultural touchstones, booze, and blades of grass—all of it written in a smart, literate voice of the casual sophisticate who takes his subject, but not himself, seriously. And in the summer of 2010, Pete Hamill finally received an honorary graduate’s diploma from Regis High School, a Jesuit-run prep school from which he dropped out 59 years earlier. “It was the last period when you could do that and still have a life,” Hamill told the New York Times. “Try getting a job on a newspaper now without the résumé.”

True. We live in an era where a well-educated journalist can declare the Constitution to be “over a hundred years old” and therefore difficult to understand, and remain credibly employed; it does seem that credentials matter more than ability. Demonstrating that one is able to conform to curricula currently trumps boldness; seat hours in the auditorium count more than audacity.

I wonder if that’s really good for America, though.

That’s a good question. Longtime readers of The Shack know my opinion on the matter, but I’ll give it again briefly. It’s not at all good for America. We’ve fetishized the college degree to such a point that we now require that students trade tens of thousands of dollars and at least four years of their lives treadmill in order to get a piece of paper so they can get a job that in no sane universe requires four years of higher education. More, though, we’ve swapped in a college education and devalued an iconic figure of American culture — the Renaissance Man.

Now, I know what you’re likely to say. Renaissance Men has been around since, well, the Renaissance, long before America even existed. That’s true. What is also true is that no society has adopted the Renaissance Man ideal like the United States of America. The qualities embodied in such men as Benjamin Frankin, Thomas Jefferson, or even Bill Gates — rugged individualism, a thirst for knowledge and success, and an unconventional route to both — are, in large part, what has made the country as great it has been. Many of our most storied characters were (or are) Renaissance Men.

Our over-reliance on college degrees has, however, taken that ideal and turned it on its head. Knowledge is only valuable to the job market when it is bought from tenured academics and has little to no value when it is gained from hand-on experience or self-study. The school of hard knocks gets short shrift compared to actual schools and I think we’re worse off for it.

That’s not to say that a college education isn’t a valuable thing. I would want to get an appendectomy from someone who didn’t have a sheepskin from a very good medical college hanging on their wall. Clearly, we need academics and the credentials they grant, and not just for highly-specialized fields like medicine and nuclear technology. Autodidactic polymaths (take that, community college!) owe a great deal to credentialed academics. We read their books, magazine articles, and white papers; visit their web sites; and listen to their lectures online. We don’t often get to meet them face-to-face, which is disappointing because we can learn as much from a brief conversation as we can from a ten-page PDF. But that would require them to shake hands with us and goodness knows what sort of working-class cooties they might catch from that.

I would like us to return to the balance between formal education and experience we used to have before we decided that the college degree was the new high school diploma. America needs more daring dreamers and innovators who read Virgil on their lunch breaks and think flying kites into thunderstorms would be a cool way of learning about electricity.

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4 Responses to “In Defense of the Renaissance Man”

  1. Tweets that mention In Defense of the Renaissance Man -- says:

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jimmie and Robert Bise, Blatherings. Blatherings said: RT @jimmiebjr: New Post: In Defense of the Renaissance Man [...]

  2. Peter says:

    With all due respect, Bill Gates is no Renaissance Man. What are his interests and specialties aside from computers? Is he a farmer, architect, writer, cook, statesman as well as inventor? I think not. Renaissance Man does not mean 'self-taught', as you present it; it means "A man who has broad intellectual interests and is accomplished in areas of both the arts and the sciences." Your point about college degrees may be valid, but your argument uses a false analogy.

    • Jimmie says:

      He is an accomplished software coder and businessman. He runs a huge philanthropic organization (which is different than running a business) that funds a variety of interests, including the arts. Gates himself is an amateur sportsman (I believe tennis and golf are his games). I think he qualifies.

      However, even if you toss that one example out, I have provided others that are not "false".

  3. bobbelvedere says:

    Well said, Jimmie. Parents waste so much of their hard-earned wealth getting that piece of sheepskin for their children. In many, many cases those dollars would be better spent supporting their children while they work through apprenticeships and/or attend trade schools or helping to finance their offspring’s start-up businesses.

    Quoted from and Linked to at:
    Of Little Value

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