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Recently I’ve been intrigued by reports about the importance of high-status higher education in the work world.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m a big fan of credentials, particularly when I don’t have the ability to judge the quality of someone’s work before they show me. For example, when my wife had some medical issues the fact that her specialist’s credentials included Harvard and the Mayo Clinic was a plus. If I’m asking the taxpayers to pay someone to rebuild the transmission on a $500,000.00 road grader, I’m very fond of knowing they went to a good school to learn how to do it.

But what made me laugh out loud was the report that shows over 50% of the writers at the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal had degrees from elite universities.

As my grandmother would have said, “What does that have to do with the price of tea in China?”

To be fair, it’s a saying I don’t fully understand, but you get my drift.

Here’s a little secret. To be a good writer, you need two things. You need to be able to write and you need to have something to say. That said, a good editor should be able to figure out those two qualifications within about three hundred words.

I’m a poster child for lack of qualifications. I studied hard enough in high school to not get yelled at, went to Hamline University until I ran out of money and then attended the University of Minnesota until I got bored. I went home, became a hog farmer and enjoyed it for twenty years, and then one morning I thought to myself, “I wonder if I’m a writer?”

As it turned out, I was, and I made a living from it for the next twenty-five years. I even won some awards. Despite my failings, I must have done okay, because over the years people paid me to go to six continents and send back stories.

I’m not the only one whose writing career had somewhat dubious beginnings. Carl Bernstein began working as a journalist when he was sixteen. He was forced to attend college as a work requirement but flunked out. Despite the prerequisites, he seems to have done okay.

Dan Rather got his college degree from Sam Houston State Teacher’s College, but Walter Cronkite dropped out.

Hunter S. Thompson not only didn’t finish college, he spent a couple months in jail before starting his career.

Edward R. Murrow did get a college degree, from Washington State College in Pullman, Washington, which is a long way from Yale or Harvard in many, many ways.

Joseph Pulitzer (some award is named for him) not only didn’t go to college, he also couldn’t speak English until he was in his twenties.

I could go on, but I think you get my point.

I would submit to you that Carl, Hunter, Ed, and Joe brought something to journalism that can’t always be picked up at Harvard - something important.

There’s a lot to be learned at a good school, even more at a great one. But there’s so much, much more we need to learn that has nothing to do with the crest on your class ring.

How did we forget that?

Copyright 2023 Brent Olson


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