Experience is education. Pa. is right to recognize it and elevate it | Heather MacDonald

Intelligence, competency, and merit are free to those who earn them. They don’t have to come from books or GPAs

February 8, 2023 6:30 am

Gov. Josh Shapiro and Lt. Gov. Austin Davis host a ceremony to sign their administration’s first executive order on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, at the Capitol in Harrisburg (Capital-Star photo).

On his first day in office last month, newly elected Gov. Josh Shapiro signed an executive order that seemed pretty straightforward: he removed the requirement of a 4-year degree for the vast majority of state government jobs.

Devoid of bombast and spectacle, this not only set the tone for the new administration, but also provided an artful counterbalance to the daily headlines coming out of Florida where Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has mounted a relentless, one-note crusade to rally his base around a central theme: anti-intellectualism.


Anti-intellectualism was famously summed up by Isaac Asimov, who wrote that “the strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”

Asimov goes so far as to call it a cult, and whether we realize it or not, this sentiment has subtly woven itself into our everyday lives in the form of covid denial, the demonization of experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, belittling  First Lady Dr. Jill Biden’s title, fake news, the Big Lie, book bans, and removing select curriculum from places of education.

These are all symptoms of the wider idea that experts and intellectuals are untrustworthy, and in many cases, the enemy.

The Inequality Factor 

The weaponization of anti-intellectualism is cheap and effective. “The elite” are a conveniently amorphous group currently cast as the villain and cause of the problems faced by a swath of the Republican base. *

A particular disdain for education has emerged in recent years.

Elite, woke, indoctrination. 

These often meaningless buzzwords derive their power from a small seed of truth.

The long-held belief that education was the gateway to stability, wealth, and upward mobility imploded as it became increasingly clear that not only were those rewards not guaranteed to be waiting on the other side of a degree, but the path through higher education itself will likely saddle you with enormous debt, effectively exposing the American Dream as a myth.

When the disadvantages of obtaining a 4-year degree begin to asymmetrically outweigh the opportunities, is it any surprise that the disenfranchised would gravitate to the comforting conclusion that their opponent is intellect rather than inequality?

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The acknowledgement that the accessibility of education had become unfeasible for many people is not confined to one particular political party.

In 2020, then-Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman gave an interview to Rolling Stone, where he pointed out the impracticality that formal education alone would be the solution to some key issues such as changes in natural gas production in Pennsylvania.

Fetterman wondered aloud what would happen to displaced workers if their jobs disappeared. 

“…. We would also have to do it in a way that acknowledges too that we all can’t work for Google, you know? I am a 51-year-old man, and I wouldn’t like it if someone sneered, and said go learn how to code,” he mused.

The Antidote to Anti-intellectualism 

The antidote to anti-intellectualism includes the democratization of education which crucially includes a redefinition of what it means to be well educated.

Alternatives to the traditional 4-year model of post-secondary education are only becoming more relevant as the workforce continues to shift post-COVID.

Community colleges and trade schools offer an education that is faster, more flexible, and a fraction of the cost of a 4-year institution.

Most have mutually beneficial ties to local unions or corporations that all but promise a well-paying job post-graduation. Lower barriers to entry replace exclusivity of education without sacrificing quality. This form of higher education effectively remedies the main causes of disillusionment that lead to anti-intellectualism.

Equally important is the elevation of experience. Shapiro’s first executive order showcases the trend of recognizing experience as education. An entirely new pool of potential employees of all of ages and backgrounds, who were formally bound together by one common trait, the lack of a 4-year degree, are now eligible to bring their valuable experiences to work for state government.

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It should be noted that Shapiro is not the first governor to come to the same conclusion. Former Republican Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland similarly removed the 4-year degree requirement for many state government jobs in the name of a first in the nation workforce development program.

The next phase of higher education is one that humanizes the pursuit.

Experience is education. Intelligence, competency, and merit are free to those who earn them. These characteristics are rarely earned exclusively through the right combination of textbooks and test scores, and our state is better off having recognized that.

*The irony of “the elite” being demonized by the Harvard/Yale-educated DeSantis is noted.

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Heather MacDonald
Heather MacDonald

Opinion contributor Heather MacDonald, of Camp Hill, Pa., is a co-founder of The Good Trouble Project, a central Pennsylvania real estate agent, and a former Democratic candidate for the 103rd House District.