Scott Walker, and the problem with valuing credentials over competence
"Whatever you do, make sure you finish college. You'll regret it if you don't have a degree."
My father offered me this advice once. Actually, he offered it to me thousands of times (as did my mother), as often as the subject came up, or even if it didn't come up. This started at about the time Star Wars premiered before my sophomore year in high school. It didn't end until the middle of the next decade, when it became clear that I had other ideas.
My father hadn't followed his own advice. He dropped out of the University of Arizona much like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker did later at Marquette, closer to a degree than I ever got, for personal reasons unrelated to academic achievement. He went into the aerospace industry and spent 29 years working on the space program, from Gemini to Apollo to the space shuttle. Dad was and still is an auto-didact, a man whose curiosity drove his intellectual growth, and he became a specialist in quality engineering, especially in non-destructive testing.
But the world had changed a bit since he started out in aerospace, and both of us knew it. More people went to college and got degrees, and my father saw how a lack of credentials put people in his industry at a competitive disadvantage. "All that matters is getting that piece of paper," he'd tell me when my distinct lack of interest in studies manifested itself in academic problems at college. "That's the ticket that opens doors. Once you're in you can do whatever you like."
I never got that ticket — and I paid a price for it, too. After working for a few years in the aerospace industry myself as a technical writer, I found myself out of work when that sector began its shift away from defense to commercial application. Without a degree, work in my field eluded me, and I took a couple of odd jobs — driving a cab for a couple of months in the Los Angeles area, which was interesting in a cold-sweats-and-nightmares kind of way, and picking up a shift as an overnight operator in an alarm call center. That job turned into an interesting and fulfilling career that would put me in middle management for a number of years, before the blogging revolution eliminated the credentialism of the writing and commentary fields and turned them into achievement-oriented environments.
Like any son who locks horns with his old man, I'd like to be able to argue that Dad turned out to be wrong. He wasn't. Life turned out well for me — I am very blessed to make a living from my passion, writing — but the lack of a degree made it that more difficult to achieve that end. Credentialism became a hurdle to overcome at the start of my professional life, one that took me a decade to overcome in one career and two decades in another.
Still, the lack of a degree speaks to beginnings, not outcomes. Some who have leapt to Walker's defense have derided the Ivy League degrees of those currently in power and suggested that a lack of a degree might provide an improvement. But that also misses the point. There is undeniable value in finishing college and getting a degree. It provides the graduate with a good start in life, in both the education it administers and the credential received, which at least attests to some degree of commitment in one's youth.
But that's all it signifies, at least in the context of politics. Walker has been in public life for 25 years, running for a seat in the Wisconsin state legislature at age 22, and winning a seat in 1993. After nine years in the assembly, Walker won election as Milwaukee county executive, serving in that position for eight years before winning the gubernatorial election in 2010. Walker has built his career in public service on his own actions, not on the strength of his college education, and has done well enough to win re-election not once but twice for the top spot, thanks to an ill-fated recall election prompted by his reforms in public-employee union collective bargaining.
By this point, Walker's college track record is as irrelevant as anything else not related to his public service, and certainly less relevant than the educational records of those with less experience in executive management. Walker jokes that he has a master's degree in "taking on the big-government special interests," but in truth he has 13 years in high-profile public-sector executive jobs, including more than four years as governor. That is far more experience, and a much more predictive track record, than others have had before running for governor or president, including the current occupant of the White House. Much was made of Barack Obama's Ivy League credentials, but as the disastrous ObamaCare rollout and the collapse of his foreign policy show, voters should have paid less attention to the papers on his wall and more attention to his lack of experience.
Getting the best possible start in life is a great idea, even more so today than it was 30 years ago for me, or 60 years ago for my dad. It's the life that counts, though, not the start. When it comes to choosing the next commander in chief, that is the credential that will be the most predictive — and voters will likely grasp that as well.
As for my son, he's working on his doctorate, which means I have to admit that he's smarter and more disciplined than his old man. That's as difficult to do as admitting that my father was right. So please, do me a favor — don't forward this to either of them.