We live in a society that praises the virtues of degrees – but not lifelong learning.
In Springfield, we pay tribute to Abraham Lincoln, the native son of our state, who, despite his poor education, was able to educate himself and become our greatest president.
But today, when it comes to politicians, Americans have a different standard.
We haven’t had a president without a university degree since Harry Truman.
In 2020, the New York Times reported that 95% of current House members and 100% of Senate members have a bachelor’s degree or higher. But only about a third of Americans have college degrees.
According to the Congressional Research Service, more than a third of the House and more than half of the Senate have law degrees. About a fifth of Senators and Representatives have their Masters. Four senators and 21 members of the chamber have medical degrees and an identical number in each body (four, 21) have some sort of doctorate.
Does that mean we have a great Congress?
Well, I have seen little evidence over the past decade to support such a proposition. Whether led by Republicans or Democrats, our country’s legislative bodies have few independent thinkers. Group thinking and deadlock seem to prevail.
Things are not much different in Illinois. We haven’t had an unlicensed governor since 1932, when Louis Lincoln Emmerson left office.
Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Larry Ellison became tech titans without graduating from college.
Director Steven Spielberg didn’t graduate from college until 35 years after starting at California State University in Long Beach. He was famous and successful by the time he was handed his sheepskin.
Unfortunately, a college degree has become a litmus test for some voters as to whether they will support a candidate.
This year, two of the four Republicans running for the nomination of their party did not obtain a license.
If Sen. Darren Bailey, of Xenia, or Gary Rabine, of Bull Valley, won the governorship, it would be the first time in 88 years that someone without at least a bachelor’s degree has held the post. Rabine only has a high school diploma and Bailey has an associate’s degree in agricultural production from Lake Land College.
Their opponents in the primary have not only diplomas, but also dripping prestige. Former State Senator Paul Schimpf of Waterloo graduated from Annapolis and went on to earn a law degree from Southern Illinois University. And Jesse Sullivan of Petersburg has an MA from Oxford and Stanford.
There are things I like about Bailey and Rabine and things that I don’t like. But one thing I wouldn’t lose a minute of sleep on is their lack of degrees.
I am much more concerned with a person’s willingness to learn and their life experiences.
Look no further than the late US Senator Paul Simon of Illinois. He never graduated from college but had a long and honorable career in politics and higher education.
Even without a college degree, Simon was able to found the graduate program where I got my masters. He then founded what is now the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.
While Simon didn’t have a diploma nailed to his wall, he was well educated. He read Greek philosophers in his spare time. As a young man, he went into business and eventually owned a chain of 14 newspapers.
It is an education in its own right.
He was someone who not only read books, but wrote them.
Before Joe Biden, we had five consecutive presidents who graduated from Ivy League universities. And we still managed to get caught up in stupid wars, make incredibly stupid economic decisions, and witness personal moral mistakes in the White House that made us shake our heads.
Do I care if a politician has a college degree? No. But should we educate them? You bet.
Scott Reeder, editor for the Illinois Times, can be contacted at: [email protected]