The presumptions that underpin our present scramble for diplomas are as follows: that it would be a good thing if more people went to college; that going to college is the best — or perhaps the only — way to get ahead in life, leading, as it supposedly does, to automatic improvement of one’s lot; that, irrespective of what it does to the job market and to productivity, our society is materially improved by having more people with paper degrees in their possession; and that, in consequence of all of these things, it represents a major scandal that people who wish to educate themselves further are obliged to pay to do so. Alongside these presumptions are a set of implications that, while rarely acknowledged openly, are present nevertheless: that those who do not go to college have in some way failed — or that they have been failed; that every time a person declines to attend college, he is making America a little stupider on aggregate; and, by extension, that people who lack college degrees but nevertheless are successful are not demonstrating an alternative way of living their lives so much as muddling through as best they can absent vital instruction from their superiors.
Back in 2015, Howard Dean suggested on MSNBC’s Morning Joe that Scott Walker, a man who at that point was in his second term as governor of Wisconsin, was not qualified to be president because he had not completed his college degree. “I think there are going to be a lot of people who worry about that,” Dean suggested, before explaining that he himself was concerned “about people being president of the United States not knowing much about the world.” That Dean was characterizing as ignorant and unqualified a man who had, by that point, been successfully running a large American state for half a decade was preposterous. But it was also well in line with where we were headed as a society.