The middle-class President

I’m working through the great New York Times Magazine interview with President Obama, between grading and lit-searching. And something struck me in this section on education. (A question by the interviewer, David Leonhardt, is in italics as in the original.):

My grandmother never got a college degree. … She went to work as a secretary. But she was able to become a vice president at a bank partly because her high-school education was rigorous enough that she could communicate and analyze information in a way that, frankly, a bunch of college kids in many parts of the country can’t. She could write —

Today, you mean?

Today. She could write a better letter than many of my — I won’t say “many,” but a number of my former students at the University of Chicago Law School. So part of the function of a high-school degree or a community-college degree is credentialing, right? It allows employers in a quick way to sort through who’s got the skills and who doesn’t. But part of the problem that we’ve got right now is that what it means to have graduated from high school, what it means to have graduated from a two-year college or a four-year college is not always as clear as it was several years ago.

There’s something awfully comforting about a President who (1) has a personal connection to a world where higher education is a genuine luxury and (2) has first-hand knowledge of the product of modern American education. Quite apart from any objections I had to his policy positions, I can’t imagine the previous President saying anything like this — his family has been assured of college degrees for generations, and he never had the opportunity (or, presumably, the inclination) to critically evaluate law students’ writing. I don’t necessarily mean that as a criticism of the former President; but now that we have Obama, it seems astonishing that this sort of contact with real Americans’ experience isn’t considered more important as a qualification for the Presidency.