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Does College Make Us Less Equipped to Change the World?

Some of the things we learned back at the Big U don't work at all on the political street.

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In this great meritocracy of ours, those of us who’ve made it through college are encouraged to feel like we’re something special. And it’s no doubt true that a university education confers certain intellectual (if not always economic) advantages. By the time you’re handed your BA or BS, you’ve sharpened your critical thinking skills; have learned to see big pictures; can write a decent essay on command; don’t feel lost in a museum, library or concert hall; and might even know enough of a second language to navigate the subway and get yourself to the nearest hostel. Furthermore: it’s called “liberal education” these days because generally, the more of it you have, the more liberal you tend to be.

All good and worthy stuff. But the more time I spend around political progressives, the more convinced I am that when it comes to doing good retail politics, our fancy educations get in the way almost as often as they help us. Specifically, there are things we picked up back at the Old U — biases, preferences, habits of mind — that are so reflexive we long ago lost any awareness of them, but that we’re constantly tripping over whenever we try to present our ideas to the rest of the country. 

It sounds weird and counterintuitive, but in my work with progressive organizations, I’ve noticed some specific ways in which the kind of thinking we learned in our classrooms actually makes us kinda dumb politically. Here are a few places college grads often seem to get led astray by their own educations.

Originality doesn't matter

In the academy, original thought that adds to the body of human knowledge is the most prized commodity there is. That, and only that, is what they hand out PhDs for. It’s also what gets you an A in most classrooms. Your professor doesn’t want warmed-over ideas pulled from the book or your classmates or the kids back at the dorm. She wants you to think for yourself — to exercise your brain, do some original analysis and synthesis, and come up with some fresh insights on the subject. Cribbing ideas from somewhere else is lazy at best; at worst, it’s plagiarism and it’ll get you kicked out of school.

After college, we go forth and become knowledge workers, usually in fields where our ability to think independently is our chief economic asset. Present us with a new idea, and we’ll take it apart, put it back together, moosh it up with other things we know, and look for a way to make it our own. Since that’s what we’ve always been rewarded for, that’s what we always do.

In politics, though, there are times when originality isn’t an asset. In fact, it can sometimes be an liability. Two examples follow, though there are plenty of others (and you’ll probably start noticing them now that I’ve pointed them out).

First, Americans like their politicians to re-affirm comfortable old truths far more than they appreciate being hit with new ideas. (And the newer and more radical an idea is, the more important it is to swaddle it thickly in old truths.) A politician who flies too far forward of the great mass of public opinion risks being seen as flaky, flighty, and generally untrustworthy. In our interactions with family and friends, a lot of us end up in the same position — because of our intellectual training, we’re the smart one who’s thinking so far ahead, so fast, that everybody else feels left behind and overwhelmed. On both the personal and national levels, this mismatch leaves people on both sides feeling uncomfortable and untrusting. Since trust is the basic currency of politics, it’s far more important for us to build trust with people than it is to be original (or even right).

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