Stamp out Degreeism
Attribute to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise
One of the many interesting facts I learned by reading the splendid Judge Dee murder mysteries by Robert van Gulik, is that, in classical Tang Dynasty China, the authorities serving the Emperor didn’t have a clue how to test candidates for various qualities they regarded as desirable in government office-holders. But they had to test for something, or else what’s bureaucracy for? And so the qualifying tests that young men studied their hearts out for were on literature and poetry. You can’t rely on a magistrate, they believed, unless he can toss off a suitable sonnet or two.
Historically, the United States government inherited its method of organization from what Alexis de Tocqueville, even in the early 19th century, identified as “le systeme Chinois”—talk about an unfortunate case of “cultural appropriation”!—but it wasn’t until fairly recently that the system became plagued with a stultifying amount of what I will term here, “degreeism”, the requirement that a candidate for some position must have a college degree—any kind of college degree, including one in literature and poetry, I suppose—to qualify for employment. An individual with no more than a high school diploma might have started her career as a telephone receptionist, and worked her way up, one well-earned promotion at a time, over the course of thirty years, until she was the head of an office that brought millions of research dollars into the institution. She may have won award after award for excellence. Still, the next step was forbidden to her, even though she serve on one selection committee after another, unless she had acquired at least a Baccalaureate in Underwater Basket-weaving along the way.
I was brought up to be very skeptical about college degrees. My father was an Air Force officer who had never attended the Air Force Academy or Officer Candidate School, but had learned to fly in a decade just before World War II when they were using biplanes for flight training. He knew that somewhere between one and two years must go by before an Academy graduate can unlearn things that would get the new officer and the men around him killed. Things didn’t work any differently thirty years later, during the War in Vietnam, when my dad retired: look up “fragging” online. It’s an enlisted man’s way to avoid getting killed by the stupidity of an unseasoned officer.
About the same time, when I went to college—because I thought I had to, and I wanted to stay out of what was then the stupidest war America had ever fought —I tried to major in philosophy, chiefly because of the works of Ayn Rand that had already deeply influenced my life. I discovered that half of the “professors” in the Philosophy Department had never heard of her, and the other half were openly contemptuous toward this woman who had enlivened the discipline and interested more young people my age in philosophy than whole regiments of pipe-smoking, elbow-patched boffins had ever managed. They had no interest whatever, I discovered, to my great sadness, in discovering Great Truths, but in rehashing the dead past simply to achieve tenure. The true purpose of philosophy in academia is to create more academics.
So, influenced almost as much by the works of Nathaniel Branden as I had been by those of Ayn Rand, and attracted by the promises of Behaviorists, like B.F. Skinner (not to overlook Penny Paterson and Koko the Gorilla), to convert psychology from something closely resembling astrology and prayer meetings into an experimental science, I switched majors. It took longer this time, but I eventually discovered that it was the same old con-game as before. The dead giveaway was the emphasis they laid on statistics. Austrian-school observers of human nature held that the first tenet of that study is that you can’t quantify human nature, and I believed that with all my heart and soul. Psychologists said, in effect, that may be true, but quantify anyway!
At this point, by a stroke of extremely good fortune, I happened to be studying human evolutionary history as a sideline, a sort of hobby. I had always been fascinated with it. At this point, the field was dominated by three gigantic—and yet surprisingly humble—minds whose work still guides me every day. Desmond Morris, author of The Human Zoo and The Naked Ape is a zoologist and a surrealistic painter. Robert Ardrey, author of African Genesis and The Territorial Imperative was a playwright and screenwriter.
But my hero of heroes, the intellectual’s John Wayne, the man with the burn of the African sun on his face and the dust of the Olduvai Gorge itself on his shoes, was Louis S. B. Leakey, who more or less created the field of paleoanthropology and foreshadowed the study of pre-Clovis artifacts in America (as usual, every “expert” in the field thought he was crazy.) This man was possessed of an integrity and daring intellect—right to the end of his long life—that I would dearly love to believe that I manifest, as well.
All of these great guys had academic degrees of one kind or another, but they never let it get in the way if their pursuit of what really interested them, even when the discipline didn’t exist yet lor they found themselves opposing “older, wiser heads”. I left college when the war ended, started a business, and began writing. Some years later, I decided it might be nice to have a degree in English, so I asked a professor about it, a man whose classes I sometimes lectured.
“Don’t be stupid!” he replied, “You have fifteen degrees that everybody on the English faculty envies”! That’s how many novels I’d written and had published by that time. Which leads to a question: where does a guy without any kind of academic degree, whose father was a humble airplane mechanic and whose mother was a stenographer, get off writing over thirty books that some people tell him changed their lives?
The answer, obvious to me, is that this is America, not Europe or some other stagnant place where rituals and fetishes—like needing a college degree—can keep you from pursuing your life’s goals. Or they couldn’t at one time, anyway. There needs to be a new civil rights movement of those who have allowed themselves to be educated by life, but who have been unjustly barred by inferior intellects from rewarding themselves for their efforts. Within libertarian principle, they must find a way to put an end to that corrupt practice.
Equally obvious, to me, at least, is that this once-great nation is now ruled by Harvard graduates, Yalies, and Princetonians, none of whom can think their way out of a wet paper bag, and most of whom are criminals, in one way or another—idiots who have allowed themselves to be influenced by every big-time phony who ever lived, from Karl Marx through John Maynard Keynes to Saul Alinsky, the sociopolitical phrenologists.Their “genius” gave us (just lately, mind you) Drug Prohibition, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and the policies that led to all our troubles with the Middle East. The world was a vastly happier place before they came along.
It will be happier without them.