Monday, September 15, 2008

Oral exams

My next big hurdle in grad school will be--you guessed it--orals. This won't be happening for nearly another year, but it's already looming large. So in true blogger-narcissist form, I was reminded of my own plight when I saw Sarah Palin struggle to come up with words to convey that the term "Bush Doctrine" rang a bell. I could imagine being nervous enough that someone would throw out, "Dreyfus Affair," and I'd say, "I've got nothing."

William Kristol (Harvard undergrad and grad alum, established journalist, and son of one of the fathers of neoconservatism) has a lot of nerve railing on about "establishments" and how thrilled he is to see them shaken up. If he's so enamored of all that is "refreshing," perhaps he'd like to offer his slot at the New York Times to one of the more promising staff members of a high school newspaper? Why should we ask less of our (vice) presidents than of our columnists?

But anyway, Kristol objected to "ABC’s Charlie Gibson, one of the most civil of the media bigwigs, unable to help himself from condescending to Palin as if he were a senior professor forced to waste time administering a Ph.D. exam to a particularly unpromising graduate student." While I of course agree with Kristol that the interview had the feel of an oral exam, the thought of what I'll soon be expected to know, versus how much Palin had to summon in order to satisfy her fans, was equally striking. And the fate of the world does not depend on how well I can explain the Damascus Affair, the 1905 French secularism law, or the works of Balzac. It does, however, rest on Palin's knowledge of the difference between the part of her body on which she sits and her elbow.

I was struck, when reading Kristol's pointless jibes at "the academic-feminist establishment," "feminist comp lit professors," and "[t]he politically correct wing of the academic establishment," by the fact that these apparent archenemies all had to pass rigorous exams, and that it can be jarring, if you're expected to know tons (about an academic topic, but also about whatever it is you do for a living, white collar or blue), to see the public conflating a demand that a job occupant have knowledge with 'elitism.' Knowledge--book-learnt or otherwise--is now presented as in and of itself a failing. (Even if Palin was unfairly depicted as ignorant, it remains frightening how many viewers of the video as it aired considered her responses satisfactory.)

I don't believe anyone's asking that Sarah Palin identify all the lettuces available at the Union Square Greenmarket, or to reflect on how accurately "Gossip Girl" depicts the lives of Manhattan private-school juniors. What's off-putting is the deification of ignorance, ignorance of material that would be central to her job if elected. It's not so much that she hasn't met foreign heads of state as that she lacks the sort of passionate knowledge of who those leaders are that you'll find among high school debaters across the country.


Miss Self-Important said...

I take your point about Palin's qualification problem, but I'm not sure the conflation of academic qualifications with governing qualifications is the direction we necessarily we want to go in. The kind of knowledge (primarily book learning) that makes a good professor of French history overlaps only marginally with the knowledge (experience, practical wisdom, instinct, judgment) of a good political leader. (The general knowledge of history should probably be shared by both.) You can take orals to determine your qualification for academia, but there is no exam for political skill other than the practice of it.

Phoebe said...

"You can take orals to determine your qualification for academia, but there is no exam for political skill other than the practice of it."

I agree that there's a difference, but I'm not sure if it's as great as all that. There are a sort of ambiguous people skills ('networking') that cut across all careers, and that make even the most erudite-sounding professions, today at least, available only to those who can combine book-knowledge with an ability to confront a cocktail party without fear. Taking orals helps determine if one is qualified for academia, but it's not the whole thing. Along those lines, Palin's judgment once in the office for which she's running is indeed unknowable (or, at any rate, determined by looking at her record in Alaska and not by her performance on ABC), but we can still assess part of her political skill by asking her if she knows some basic facts about global affairs.

Anonymous said...

Withywindle: Kristol also takes a swing at the Republican establishment, saying that McCain isn't part of it. This isn't quite right: he's more of a rebel prince than an uppity commoner, but it's true he gives the party elders heartburn. But you should keep in mind that he didn't just identify elites with Democrats or liberals.