There’s a difference between being smart, which I’ll define as having a broad range of knowledge and the capacity for rational thought, and intelligent in a particular subject, such as the person who is a brilliant physicist but can’t figure out how to change a tire. Both of them might have a college diploma, even a graduate degree or more, because smart people are more likely to obtain degrees.
It’s not the degree that makes them smart, although it might reflect their being better educated in a particular subject because they’ve studied it in depth. One of the constant arguments about lawyers is that a lot of us aren’t all that bright, which is true, though most of us have a functional knowledge of how law works. This is sufficiently specialized knowledge to distinguish lawyers from non-lawyers when it comes to legal matters. It’s not that non-lawyers aren’t just as smart, if not smarter, than lawyers, but they lack the foundation necessary to understand law. And since Congress does law, that knowledge can come in handy.
Over the last few decades, Congress has diversified in important ways. It has gotten less white, less male, less straight — all positive developments. But as I was staring at one of the many recent Senate hearings, filled with the usual magisterial blustering and self-important yada yada, it dawned on me that there’s a way that Congress has moved in a wrong direction, and become quite brazenly unrepresentative.
No, it’s not that the place seethes with millionaires, though there’s that problem too.
It’s that members of Congress are credentialed out the wazoo. An astonishing number have a small kite of extra initials fluttering after their names.
If this sounds like the opening speaker at a Trump rally, that’s because the right and left share a basic failing in grasping logical fallacies. Correlation does not imply causation.
According to the Congressional Research Service, more than one third of the House and more than half the Senate have law degrees. Roughly a fifth of senators and representatives have their master’s. Four senators and 21 House members have M.D.s, and an identical number in each body (four, 21) have some kind of doctoral degree, whether it’s a Ph.D., a D.Phil., an Ed.D., or a D. Min.
But perhaps most fundamentally, 95 percent of today’s House members and 100 percent of the Senate’s have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Yet just a bit more than one-third of Americans do.
This 95% number is surprising. Not that it’s so high, but that it’s not 100%. Getting a bachelor’s degree just isn’t that big a deal anymore, and not to knock public education, but is someone who maxed out with a high school degree sufficiently knowledgeable to vote on laws? Or is it the other way around?
“This means that the credentialed few govern the uncredentialed many,” writes the political philosopher Michael J. Sandel in “The Tyranny of Merit,” published this fall.
There’s an argument to be made that we should want our representatives to be a highly lettered lot. Lots of people have made it, as far back as Plato.
The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be any correlation between good governance and educational attainment that Sandel can discern.
Jennifer Senior then goes into Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest,” about how many Harvard Ph.D.s does it take to change a lightbulb in Hanoi, and from there to the mess made of our economy, environment, incarceration rate and inequality. And unironically, she blames the Democrats for what Sandel calls “the valorization of credentialism.”
Both parties are to blame for this. But it was Democrats, Sandel wrote, who seemed especially bullish on the virtues of the meritocracy, arguing that college would be the road to prosperity for the struggling. And it’s a fine idea, well-intentioned, idealistic at its core. But implicit in it is also a punishing notion: If you don’t succeed, you have only yourself to blame. Which President Trump spotted in a trice.
A recurring theme here is that if you ask the wrong question, refuse to consider what the real cause of a problem is, you end up with the wrong solution. Sandel has a point that credentials aren’t the equivalent of being smart, and indeed, become less so daily given the intellectual poverty of increasingly woke higher education combined with the specialization in such utilitarian subjects as grievance studies.
But Senior’s complaint isn’t that credentials alone fail to serve as a proxy for being smart or possessing any of the vague characteristics that are used to justify idiosyncratic expectations and demands, like justice, morality, decency, equity and dignity.
It’s hard to say whether more socioeconomic diversity would guarantee differences in policy or efficiency. But it could do something more subtle: Rebuild public trust.
“There are people who look at Congress and see the political class as a closed system,” Carnes told me. “My guess is that if Congress looked more like people do as a whole, the cynical view — Oh, they’re all in their ivory tower, they don’t care about us — would get less oxygen.”
Senior makes a point, though it’s not the one she was trying to make. If credentials alone have failed to correlate to good governance, that doesn’t mean lack of credentials, “Congress looked more like people do,” would produce better governance. The fact that most people are uncredentialed doesn’t make them smart, and their inability to reason logically doesn’t make illogical assumptions a viable “guess.” Is that how government should be run, by “I dunno, I guess”?
The nature of a republic is that the people elect representatives to Congress because they believe they will serve their interests. If we elect people who do a lousy job of it, that’s not exactly a reason to make them more like the lowest common denominator of smart. As I keep admonishing, the alternative to bad isn’t necessarily good; it can always get worse.
The road to worse is dumb arguments like this which conflate credentials with smart, qualified elected officials who also possess integrity and the sense of duty to put the welfare of a nation ahead of party and self-interest. Whether they come from Harvard or Nassau County Community College is up to the voters, and a few carpenters in Congress would probably be a huge boon to decent craftsmanship. But if they can’t grasp law, governance or, say, economics, they’re not qualified for the job. On the other hand, a few letters after their name without integrity isn’t good enough either. Nobody gets a diploma from Harvard in integrity.