Of the preceding question, of course you’re going to hire the person with the degree. Same thing with a dentist or lawyer or doctor or nipple-hair-removal specialist. It’s not that it’s impossible to learn how to do these jobs through trial-and-error or apprenticeship, it’s just that when you’re dealing with the really important things (i.e. where you poop; your nipples), you want the security of a vetting process.
None of us has time to do the vetting process ourselves, so we have to rely on others to do it for us. In the absence of a direct recommendation from a friend, we use trusted institutions. That’s really what a college degree or a union certification is, a big rubber stamp that says “we stake the reputation of the Vidal Sassoon academy on this guy: go ahead and let him wax your taint.”
If we all accept this premise — that you want someone pre-vetted for quality over someone who’s not — then let me ask you a follow up question:
Why the hell do we allow our political commentators to fill our heads with opinions without applying to them the same standards we have for plumbers or hair dressers?
Let’s take a look at some top political analysts and their educations, shall we?
Rush Limbaugh: Dropped out of college after two semesters.
Glenn Beck: Took one college theology course, but didn’t finish it.
Sean Hannity: Dropped out of two colleges.
I know, I know, I’ve already gotten you angry. My guess is that the last few paragraphs will set off two types of indignant commenters.
To the first group: yes, these are all right-wing politicos. Unfortunately, for the kind of faux-equivalency I usually like to maintain in these pieces, the left-wing is pretty well-educated. That said, you can console yourself with the knowledge that the three men listed above hold sway over far, far more people than the entirety of MSNBC combined.
(One thing of note I discovered in researching this piece: Ann Coulter has a law degree … in evil.)
The second offended group might not be offended on political grounds, but they subscribe to a more universal — and dangerous — American ideology. That is, they are loathe to indulge the idea that someone’s education should enhance the quality of his opinions.
I say that this is an American ideology in the sense that our pop culture continually reinforces it. How many TV shows and movies have you watched where the so-called “educated” man is taught a lesson or two by the good-natured, salt-of-the-Earth types?
TV Tropes has a couple of names for this. My favorite? “The Almighty Janitor” (caution, clicking on this link will instantly rob you the next five hours of your day). Americans love to subvert the idea that an education actually teaches you anything. Just judging from the TV shows and movies we watch, it’s clear that no book-learnin’ can compete with hard-won, real-world wisdom.
Except, no, that isn’t right at all.
Let’s go back to the example at the start of this column: if you wouldn’t take advice about your toilet from a self-taught plumber, why on earth would you base your vote on the advice of a high-school educated radio personality?
I think there are two reasons why we do. The first is that radio and TV are such powerful mediums that we assume the vetting was done for us. We think to ourselves, “That guy has to know something, I mean, he’s on TV!”
But the only trait that matters to the executives deciding which people get on air is how well those people perform as broadcasters. Looks, voice, charisma, the ability to keep the show moving — it’s all covered pretty well in Broadcast News, so let’s not rehash it here.
The second reason we take their advice is simple: we already agree with it.
FOX News and MSNBC have self-selecting audiences. You’re not watching FOX News if you call it Faux News and you’re not flipping over to The Rachel Maddow Show if you spit a little every time you say “liberal.”
So when you hear an opinion, regardless of how baseless or uneducated it is, if it coincides with your own, you assume whoever said it must be pretty smart. This is why ratings are a poor argument for the validity of an opinion. If 20 million idiots agree with you, it doesn’t mean you’re right, just that you’re loud.
We’re left then with a major problem: there are many people on TV talking about current events without any real, substantive knowledge about them. But, the simple fact that they’re on TV makes us assume that they must know what they’re talking about. Further, when they say something we agree with, we assign them credibility that they didn’t actually earn.
The result of all this is lots and lots of shouting.
Here’s my solution: Every major college in America should start a program that combines elements of journalism, communications, mass-media, world history, geography, political science, and ethics into a TV Punditry major.
Then, when someone appears on TV to talk politics, either as a host or a guest, the “TVP, Ph.D.” or whatever should appear after his name. If it doesn’t, you can write off whatever they say. If it does, you don’t have to agree with everything that comes out of their mouth, but you can at least be relatively assured that the person isn’t a raving lunatic.
Now, of course, four years (or six or nine) would never be enough to make someone an expert in everything they have to know about to talk intelligently about all the news of the day, but hopefully it would be enough time to teach them that they don’t know everything. That if someone asks them a question and they’re unqualified to answer, they’ll say so. That while strong opinions make for good TV, they make for bad political policy. And so on.
Doing so might actually stop things like this from happening.
Yeah, I know, I’m offering a solution that has no chance of actually happening in the real world. I don’t think this little blog post is really going to change things all that much. One thing I do hope it does, though, is get you to think just a little bit about what the qualifications are of the people you listen to. Just how much does Bill Maher really know about the dangers of vaccinations (SPOILER ALERT: not very much)? Just how much research does Glenn Beck really do on Woodrow Wilson? Just how nuanced is Sean Hannity’s understanding of the Middle East?
All valuable questions to ask, so, you know, I hope you ask them.
(P.S. Let me undercut one more snarky comment I’m sure to get: just what qualifies me to criticize any of them? I think a little thing called a B.A. in English from The College of New Jersey! You read me right: The College of New Jersey. That thing you just felt? It’s called a facepalm.)