In the aftermath of the violent assault on the nation’s Capitol, all I heard on the cable news shows was how well-educated Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley are. Cruz attended Princeton University and graduated from Harvard Law School. Hawley earned his undergraduate degree from Stanford University before completing his law degree at Yale.
Brian Williams, in particular, on his MSNBC show The 11th Hour, repeatedly invoked Hawley’s and Cruz’s elite educational pedigrees, perhaps not so much to praise them, but to highlight that somehow they ought to know better than to raise objections to the electoral college’s votes. They should have understood and honored the myriad court rulings that found no evidence of voter fraud; and they no doubt knew full well that their objections could not overturn the election, despite their encouragement of the violent “insurrectionist” behavior we all witnessed this week.
Their elite educational backgrounds have been invoked to scold them because they “knew better.”
We saw the flip-side of this kind of talk in last fall’s presidential debates when Donald Trump lit into Joe Biden, criticizing his University of Delaware education while declaring, “There’s nothing smart about you.”
The very worship of America’s prestigious universities and their graduates, exemplified in Williams’ scolding of Hawley and Cruz, is what makes Trump’s dismissal of Biden’s intelligence possible.
And let’s face it. We’ve all heard it; and many believe the hype that earning a degree from these elite universities signals one is superior to others in intelligence, “knows better,” and really somehow simply is better.
This kind of talk reinforces more broadly anti-democratic thinking that endorses strict social hierarchies, supports the ideas that some lives matter more and some people deserve more than others, and that some people are just more fit to rule over the populous rather than faithfully represent them in a government of, by, and for the people.
This type of thinking is what fueled the violence, which was animated by the belief that the will of the people didn’t matter and needed to be disregarded. While Trump was upset that these marauders looked like a “low class” bunch, we need to remember that they were effectively agents of a class of people who expressed disdain for our democratic processes and who often express a sense of their own superiority. Trump, of course, always reminds us how smart he is, letting us know he is “a very stable genius” and that he always has “the best words.” He, along with the highly “educated” Hawley and Cruz, incited the violent mob in the service of their anti-democratic agenda.
But in many ways these people and their anti-democratic demagoguery are endorsed by the broader and prevalent hierarchical thinking that valorizes Harvard and Yale educations.
Few really stop to consider that, to a large extent, our world is governed and managed by those educated at elite institutions, and the world isn’t doing so well.
Maybe these elite educations are not transmitting the knowledge and cultivating the skills necessary for effective leadership in creating a just and democratic culture and society.
Maybe the educators do, in fact, need to be educated, as a nineteenth-century German philosopher once told us.
In a New York Times op-ed last August, author Sarah Vowell noted that should Biden be elected president, he would be the first president since Lyndon Johnson to have graduated from an American state university.
Vowell identifies those she views as our current great leaders as belonging to a “club” comprised of those who were educated not at elite private institutions but at our public institutions of higher education.
This type of education, she suggests, tends to cultivate a higher knowledge mores suitable to governing for people in a democratic society. She writes:
“The democratic public university atmosphere lends itself to producing grounded, empathetic public servants.”
She cites Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottom’s empathetic response to a grieving nation after George Floyd’s murder, when she said, “When I saw the murder of George Floyd, I hurt like a mother would hurt.”
She writes about how Minnesota’s Attorney General Keith Ellison, who was prosecuting the Floyd murder, wrote in his memoir about his experience at Wayne State University, where many students were like him, working parents.
This type of education enables them to know and understand how people actually live in America and thus gives them insight into how our political and economic systems work — or don’t work — for everybody.
Recently, we have seen congressional leaders unable and unwilling to pass legislation for those in this country in dire need. We have heard Mitch McConnell, among many others, question whether people really are in need, even as the unemployment numbers and lines at food banks surge.
These leaders don’t “know better.” They seem to have no knowledge of how people live in America and how ineffective our institutions have been in addressing need.
The best government, the highest functioning democracy, is not about ruling people but serving them, working for them by representing their interests in ensuring we have fair laws and tax structures, quality education, safe neighborhoods, healthy environments, effective means of transportation, and so forth. To govern effectively by this standard, it stands to reason, one needs to actually understand how people live, to understand their lives and experiences through, in some way or other, standing in their shoes.
Empathy is important knowledge, not just some sentimental feeling.
Remember when Mitt Romney dismissed 47% of the population as unwilling to take responsibility for their lives?
Remember how Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez was dismissed by Trump and others dismissed her because she had been a waitress?
This type of thinking enables the anti-democratic impulses and energies we have seen at work in recent weeks.
I have spent a good part of my life teaching at a small urban state university that offers educational opportunity to those often most marginalized in our world. Because they couple their learning with a higher experiential insight into and knowledge of American reality, they graduate with the very education that Vowell talks about. Having taught briefly at a large research university and at a small “elite” liberal arts college, I can tell you these students I now serve are among the smartest and most insightful I have taught. And with their powerful intelligences they graduate wanting to use their knowledge to address the great needs of our world — because they know and have experienced that need in many cases and certainly because they recognize and understand how most Americans live.
Because they “know better,” they want to make the world better.
I am always reminded of Stephen Jay Gould’s quote when I reflect on my teaching experience:
“I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”
I can say with absolute certainty he is right. I’ve had the privilege of teaching such talent that could easily have been lost to the world.
A democratic culture enables us to identify and benefit from these talents. Racism, sexism, classism, anti-immigrant ideologies — these are all part of an anti-democratic elitism that hobbles us.
We have witnessed this elitism in many forms from our supposedly “best and brightest.”
In truth, though, it’s not very smart.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.