The Audacity of Wonder – UPDATED

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Over at First Things, my Tuesday Column is looking at our mania for credentials and how it closes doors, narrows minds and holds wonder at arms length:

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.”
[. . .]
I wonder if that’s really good for America, though. To become educated is a marvelous thing; to have the opportunity to study is a privilege too many take for granted. But have we become a society that places too much weight on the attainment of a diploma, which sometimes indicates nothing more than an ability to keep to a schedule and follow a syllabus, and underappreciates the ability to wonder, to strike out on an individual path, and to learn on one’s own? When did non-conformists become so unromantic and undervalued?

I hope you’ll read it all – I bring faith into it in a way that surprised even me. I think we could have a lively discussion on this!

UPDATE: Ann Althouse has related thoughts on credentials. Apparently one needs the right credentials before one is able to opine on certain issues or people. (H/T Instapundit

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • SCSoxFan

    An excellent article, Ms. Scalia. But, as I noted in a comment at your First Things post, the problem goes beyond credentials. It’s overall elitism, the idea that, as I wrote there, only the cosmopolitans, the elect, are fit to lead or even to be taken seriously. until the 20th Century the ideas, thoughts, and values of average Americans, no mattter their education or station, were valued and taken seriously, even by the leadership. We’ve lost that, to the point where the Coasters (east and west) consider anyone outside of their circles to be ignorant bumpkins, whose ideas on the issues of the day are unworthy of consideration.

  • Joseph Marshall

    “One of my sons graduated a few years ago from a very good college at which he performed poorly. From his sophomore year forward, he hated college and seemed to work very hard at getting his parents to pull him out, but we were adamant about that degree. Since graduating, he has read non-stop—philosophy, economics, theology, mathematical theory;”

    He missed the point. I did exactly what he is doing, but I did it in my freshman, sophomore, and junior years in college. That’s what it’s there for unless you are so focused on a specific career [which you probably shouldn't be at + or - 20yrs of age] that you have to give all your time to it.

    For an intelligent undergraduate, college offers you three things. First, and best, a library. So you should stay in it, learn to use it [librarians love to show people how], and do what your son is doing now.

    Second, a chance to learn how to survive [and prosper] in a bureaucracy. The only serious reason to have a degree is to let your employer know that you can survive a committee meeting. For wherever you go and whatever you do, you will have to.

    We are a bureaucratic culture, and become more so with each passing year. We can’t fix that but we can learn how to use it. If you are clear in your mind that the goal is to keep the University from wasting too much of your time while you educate yourself, it’s fairly easy to do that.

    I spent my senior year obtaining a degree, but I chose my “major” based on how little time it would take away from my private reading. I spent the rest of my time there scheduling classes in the stuff I felt like reading that term.

    Third, a chance to find a mentor. College is a place full or learned men and women, people who actually know something well. Most people know things, but they seldom know anything well. Granted, most of these learned people are under the illusion that if you know something well, you know everything. But not all of them.

    A mentor is not necessarily a professor. A smart graduate student, or even that librarian, can do just as well.
    People in a college actually have the time to mentor and many of them want to. That’s what “office hours” are for. But you have to seek it out yourself.

    Most importantly, YOU have the time, if you are willing to defend it proactively and not waste it. You are not likely to ever have that much time again.

    As I say, I did all this. And the primary reason why I was able to do it is that I was a member of the Baby Boom generation. This generation comes in for a lot criticism on this blog for its “self-centeredness” and its “perpetual adolescence” but the truly intelligent of us knew then and know now that the most common lie anyone hears is, “We only want what’s best for you.” And if I didn’t know it then, I know it now that most people who say this to you are lying to themselves as well.

    “Don’t trust anyone over thirty,” meant don’t trust ANYONE over thirty, even the people you agreed with. I’ve been over thirty a long time and I know that what we meant was, “Don’t trust “the authorities”, ANY authorities. They do not want what’s best for you, even if they think they do. They want what they think would be best for them if they were you.”

    They’re not.

    Whether they know it or not, any member of “the authorities” is a cog in the bureaucracy, which is there to be used [and used quite cold-bloodedly if you actually want to prosper] but not kowtowed to.

    The knock on Generations X Y and Z is their willingness to kowtow to both “the authorities” they agree with and those that they are unsure about. [Nobody with any self respect kowtows to authorities they disagree with.]

    I was a professor myself in the 1980′s and 1990′s and I watched this transformation happen right in front of me out in the lecture hall or on the other side of the classroom.

    It was one of the reasons I left the professor business. People who kowtow to you are no fun at all.

  • Joseph Marshall

    “We’ve lost that, to the point where the Coasters (east and west) consider anyone outside of their circles to be ignorant bumpkins, whose ideas on the issues of the day are unworthy of consideration.”

    Case in point. I live in Ohio, I grew up Ohio, and I went to college in Ohio, in a University more noted for its famous former football coach than anything else. I’ve also spent time on both coasts. I’ve never concealed the fact that I’m from Ohio. I’ve also never concealed the fact that I don’t kowtow to the authorities. Nobody has ever had the nerve to call me an ignorant bumpkin whose ideas are unworthy of consideration.

    Had anyone done so, I would have told them to go climb a rope.

    This litany of “they” looking down their noses at “us” which I hear over and over again on blogs is basically the cognitive dissonance induced by a locked mental habit of kowtowing to authority, combined with a lack of self-confidence.

    “They” think they know more than “me”!!!!–and then a tiny voice whispering in the background: “Could it be true? Maybe they do. They seem pretty confident about it…..”

    Why do I say this? Because its almost always some nebulous “they” that is invoked: “Coasters”, “liberal-left”, “mainstream media” ect. ect.. In other words, nobody with a name, an address, a title, and a job, or even an Internet handle, who can be specifically skewered and told to go climb a rope. Nobody that anyone would have to muster the self-confidence to give them a personal bronx cheer to their face or on their comment page.

    There’s a simple little secret here. If YOU are confident that you have the right to speak, almost everybody else will concede that to you, whether they live in New York, San Francisco, Provo, Utah, or Coshocton, Ohio. Because almost everyone else has some of that same lack of self-confidence, and has that little voice in the background, and if you learn how to shut it up, YOU are suddenly “the authority”.

    How do you shut it up? You have to get over the anxiety that what you say might be wrong, and convince yourself that, even if it is wrong, you STILL have the right to say it.

  • tim maguire

    Joseph, I think the truth lies somewhere between you and the sox fan. Here in NYC, there absolutely IS a feeder system to the business and cultural elite. Believe it or not, it starts in kindergarten (going to the right kindergarten helps you get into the right elementary school, and so on up the line) and the longer you wait to break into the system, the harder it will be (because preference to the best elementary schools will be given to children who went to the best kindergartens).

    By the time you’re out of college, if you didn’t go to the right college, it’s virtually impossible. Not impossible, but virtually so. That’s because it’s based partly on credentials, but also on personal connections (those kids in the sandbox will one day be the leaders you want in your rolodex) and the earlier you go to the right schools, the more ensconced in the “right crowd” you will be.

    But that’s a local problem (finance industry, publishing, the things that get you invited to the best parties). The national credentialing problem is more of a CYA issue. Years ago, 60 Minutes did a story on investing. As part of the story, they built portfolios using different methods, from expert opinion, to throwing darts at the financial pages of the Wall Street Times. What they found is that the experts did no better than pure randomness (and, in fact often did worse than the S&P average).

    They then talked to some corporate portfolio managers. These managers admitted that the experts were expensive and offered no financial benefit. So why spend all that money? CYA. If your portfolio loses money and you are called on the carpet to explain it, telling the boss you chose randomly will get you fired, but telling the boss you relied on the best experts will get you out of trouble altogether.

    And that is the story throughout the business world–credentials are not to pick the best candidate, but to offer the best defense if something goes wrong. It doesn’t pay to take chances on someone who can offer nothing more than the ability to do a great job.

  • SCSoxFan

    Joseph, it’s not a matter of confidence in my right to speak or having a voice in the back of my head saying that maybe “they” are right (there isn’t one). Or in kowtowing to authority (I don’t). It’s that, when we do speak, we are treated like the ten year old who tries to join in conversation with the adults — “oh, isn’t that cute! He’s trying so hard, but of course he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

    You want names? How about almost every “talking head” on all of the networks. From the left, they call citizens who dare to stand up ignorant, racist, uneducated fools. On the right, they tell us that only those who have sat back and thought great thoughts, and read Hayek and Locke, are fit to lead. Then there are the politicians and “political professionals” who tell us that our ideas and values are outmoded, old fashioned, and will repel the “middle,” and “independents.” They are, all of them, telling us to sit down and shut up. That we may be good enough to vote (provided we vote the way that THEY tell us to), but God forbid we even dare to assume that we have any talent, competence, or right to try for leadership.

    I despise elitists and elitism with an absolute passion. The governing concept of the 20th Century was that average people were incapable of self-governance, that the educated elites, the professionals and experts, the “philosopher-kings” are the only ones fit to lead. And that is antithetical to the ideas and values that founded this country.

    I’ve said it before and will keep saying it. Leadership is a function of common sense, good instincts that are based on a firm understanding of the founding principles of this country, a strong will, and the ability to communicate your ideas and vision to the country in a way that they will understand and assent to. Political experience, detailed technical knowledge of issues and solutions are important and have a place. That place is in the STAFF of the leader. That was the beauty and genius of Reagan and we have forgotten that, to our peril as a country.