After the violent attack on the nation’s Capitol, all I heard on the cable news broadcasts was the education of Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley. Cruz attended Princeton University and graduated from Harvard Law School. Hawley earned his bachelor’s degree from Stanford University before completing his law degree at Yale.
Brian Williams, in particular, repeatedly invoked Hawley’s and Cruz’s elite educational pedigrees on his MSNBC show The 11th Hour, perhaps not so much to praise them as to point out that somehow they should know better than objecting to the votes of the electoral college. They should have understood and appreciated the myriad court rulings that found no evidence of election fraud. and they undoubtedly knew full well that their objections could not overturn the elections, despite encouraging the violent “insurgent” behavior we had all seen this week.
Their elitist educational background was used to scold them for “knowing better”.
We saw the downside of those kinds of conversations in the presidential debates last fall, when Donald Trump approached Joe Biden and criticized his education at the University of Delaware while declaring, “There’s nothing smart about you.”
The veneration of the prestigious American universities and their graduates, exemplified in Williams’ scolding of Hawley and Cruz, makes Trump’s dismissal of Biden’s intelligence possible.
And let’s be honest. We all heard it; and many believe that the hype that graduating from these elite universities signals that you are superior to others in matters of intelligence, “know better” and really just somehow are better.
This type of conversation strengthens anti-democratic thinking in its broader sense, which supports strict social hierarchies, supports the idea that some lives are more important and that some people deserve more than others, and that some people are more suited to rule over the population, than to faithfully represent them in a government by, by, and for the people.
This way of thinking has fueled the violence fueled by the belief that the will of the people does not matter and must be ignored. While Trump was upset that these looters looked like a bunch of “low class” people, we must remember that they were effectively agents of a class of people who despised our democratic processes and often expressed a sense of their own superiority. Trump, of course, always reminds us how smart he is and lets us know that he is “a very stable genius” and that he always has “the best words”. Together with the highly educated Hawley and Cruz, he donated the violent mob to serve their anti-democratic agenda.
But in many ways these people and their anti-democratic demagogy are aided by the broader and predominant hierarchical thinking that values education at Harvard and Yale.
Few really think that our world is in large part ruled and administered by those trained in elite institutions, and the world is not doing so well.
Perhaps these elite educational institutions do not impart the knowledge or develop the skills necessary for effective leadership in creating a just and democratic culture and society.
Perhaps the educators actually need to be trained, as a 19th century German philosopher once told us.
In a statement from the New York Times last August, author Sarah Vowell stated that if Biden were elected president, he would be the first president since Lyndon Johnson to graduate from an American state university.
Vowell identifies those she sees as our current great leaders as members of a “club” made up of individuals trained not in elite private institutions but in our public universities.
She suggests that this type of education tends to cultivate a higher level of knowledge suitable for the government of people in a democratic society. She writes:
“The democratic public university atmosphere is ideal for producing grounded, sensitive public servants.”
She cites the empathic response of Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottom to a grieving nation after the murder of George Floyd when she said, “When I saw the murder of George Floyd, I hurt like a mother hurt. “
She writes about how Minnesota’s attorney general Keith Ellison, who prosecuted the Floyd murder, wrote in his memoir about his experience at Wayne State University, where many students like him were working parents.
This type of education enables them to know and understand how people actually live in America, thus giving them an insight into how our political and economic systems work – or don’t work for all.
Recently we saw that Congressmen are unable and unwilling to pass laws for those in this country who are in dire need of help. Among other things, we’ve heard Mitch McConnell questioning whether people are really in need even as unemployment numbers and lines at food banks rise.
These leaders don’t know any better. They seem to have no knowledge of how people live in America and how ineffective our institutions have been in addressing needs.
The best government, the highest functioning democracy, is not about governing people, it is about serving and working for them, advocating their interests to ensure that we have fair laws and tax structures, quality education, safe neighborhoods, healthy environments, effective means of transportation and so on. To govern effectively by this standard one must understand how people live, to understand their lives and experiences, by being in their shoes one way or another.
Empathy is important knowledge, not just a sentimental feeling.
Do you remember when Mitt Romney dismissed 47% of the population as unwilling to take responsibility for their lives?
Do you remember how Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez was fired by Trump and others fired her for being a waitress?
This way of thinking enables the anti-democratic impulses and energies that we have seen at work in the past few weeks.
I have taught for much of my life at a small urban state university that provides educational opportunities to the often most marginalized people in our world. Because they combine their learning with a higher level of experiential knowledge and knowledge of American reality, they graduate with the very education Vowell talks about. After briefly teaching at a major research university and a small elite liberal arts college, I can tell you that these students I now serve are some of the brightest and most insightful I’ve taught. And with their powerful intelligence they are graduating and wanting to use their knowledge to address the great needs of our world – because they know and have experienced this 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 a better place.
I am always reminded of Stephen Jay Gould’s quote when I reflect on my teaching experience:
“I’m somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people with the same talent lived and died in cotton fields and in sweatshirts.”
I can say with absolute certainty that he is right. I have had the privilege of teaching such talents that could easily be lost to the world.
A democratic culture enables us to identify these talents and benefit from them. Racism, sexism, classicism, anti-immigrant ideologies – all of these are part of an anti-democratic elitism that limps us.
We have seen this elitism in many forms from our supposedly “best and brightest”.
In truth, however, it is not very wise.
Tim Libretti is a professor of American literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A longtime progressive voice, he has published numerous 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, and the National Federation of Press Women and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.