Celebrating the rough-hewn natural man is a two-century-old tradition in American politics. The nineteenth-century classicist and statesman George Bancroft praised Andrew Jackson as “the unlettered man of the West, the nursling of the wilds, . . . raised by the will of the people to the highest pinnacle of honour.” The learned Whig Daniel Webster invoked his older siblings’ childhood in a log cabin to drape himself in Davy Crockett authenticity during the 1840 elections: “That cabin I annually visit, and thither I carry my children, that they may learn to honor and emulate the stern and simple virtues that there found their abode.” (Webster’s parents, alas, had moved to better accommodations by the time they raised the young Daniel.)
Now a natural woman has burst onto the political stage, eliciting the same tropes of authenticity—shootin’, skinnin’, ridin’ (in this case, a snowmobile), and, for the first time, jumpin’. And, as the tradition requires, the glorification of Sarah Palin’s status as “ordinary mom” is accompanied by contempt for the sissified products of an elite education. The conservative commentariat hangs prestigious college degrees around the necks of the media and political liberals like so many dead coons. Charlie Gibson? “Princeton ’65,” sneered one Wall Street Journal columnist. Barack Obama? “Columbia and Harvard Law,” guffaws Ralph Peters in the New York Post. Many of those heaping scorn on the hypereducated elites have a Yale or Cornell degree in their own closet, as was the case in that first burst of Jacksonian populism.
This derision for the contemporary academy is unquestionably deserved. I am as depressed as anyone by the university’s descent into ignorant narcissism and victimology over the last 30 years. And yet I fear that the enthusiasm for Sarah Palin’s anti-elite status risks spilling over into a rejection of intellectual life and serious study tout court. I know that the Palin enthusiasts do not intend to knock rigorous liberal education per se, only its current deformity. But in all the fulminations against Harvard, wouldn’t it be possible to signal that it’s not just paying the mortgage, pumping the gas, and enjoying her husband and children that qualifies a working mom for the vice presidency, as one commentator has suggested, but that the study of history and political thought might help, too? Such study can be accomplished at the University of Idaho no less than at Princeton.
I am not suggesting that having an Ivy League degree, or indeed any kind of degree, is a prerequisite to occupying the White House. I would have been delighted if a businessman who had created a successful enterprise were on the ticket, no matter his academic background. But the wisdom of the past offers its own lessons for political leaders; the Founders, who peppered their advocacy for the Constitution with discussions of the ancient Greek Amphictyonic council and the Holy Roman Empire, would have been surprised to see that resource so gleefully dismissed.
Many conservatives are working hard to restore traditional scholarship in the universities. I am proud that the Manhattan Institute, my employer, has launched an ingenious initiative to support the nonpoliticized teaching of great texts. But who, exactly, do we think should benefit from that teaching—just future Ph.D.s, and not future presidents? Many university programs supported by conservative academic reformers promote their work as vital to democracy. Without a grounding in Western thought and history, these programs announce, participants in our ongoing democratic experiment will be less able to protect that experiment from dilution and betrayal. Is all this justification for classical study just so much verbiage?
Obviously, learning needs to be merged with experience and common sense to result in political wisdom. The Palin populists are right to point out that many highly educated people make idiotic decisions. Political wisdom can derive from everyday experience and common sense alone. But the populist message at times seems to carry a subtle implication that learning is itself a disqualifier. At a time when historical and literary ignorance is at such a high, an occasional hint of the value of serious study would be most welcome.