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Does the Culture Rely Too Much upon Credentials?


He has authored more than 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 “more than 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. 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?

In the wake of the press’ post-Tucson attack on Sarah Palin, James Taranto, the puckish and observant editor of the Wall Street Journal’ and a member of that paper’s editorial board, suggested that Palin’s humble bachelor’s degree from the University of Idaho has contributed to the overt hatred the credential-obsessed media consistently betray whenever the subject of Palin arises. In sympathy, Taranto informs the reader that he possesses no college degree at all. “For the record,” he notes, “our high school diploma is a GED.”

Well, for nearly 60 years a GED was more than Pete Hamill possessed. Or, for that matter, the late Peter Jennings, who managed to forge a distinguished journalistic career without a diploma. NBC news anchor and managing editor Brian Williams attended—like Sarah Palin—several universities in pursuit of a degree. Unlike Palin, he never did acquire one. Nor did Thomas Alva Edison, withdrawn from school after only a few months, and then home-schooled by his mother.

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