Earlier this week White House Press Secretary Jay Carney responded to a question about the release of President Obama's college transcript:
"This is the Donald Trump question... It is preposterous, this is from the guy who insisted that he didn't believe the president was born in the United States."
There are times, however, when even ill-intended or even conspiracy leaning egotists have a point. Such is the case of those, including many disappointed or disbelieving birthers, who have shifted their focus to demanding the release of President Obama's college and law school transcripts. Mitt Romney, who initially hesitated on releasing his tax returns, has apparently released his transcripts. Hopefully, his vice president will as well. Such transcripts, like tax returns and medical records, and some criminal records, are private by law unless voluntarily waived. American voters, however, notwithstanding the motives of some advocates, have an overriding interest in transparency for objective, even old, information about the formative adult years of those seeking the highest office in the nation. I would add that it would serve the public interest if in addition, Supreme Court nominees as well as congressional and other candidates did the same. Why is it that so many positions of far less import, in both the public and private sector, with far smaller constituencies often call for the presentation of a transcript, but not the most sensitive job in the world?
It is a testament to our nation that included among our most noteworthy founders were some of the greatest thinkers the world has ever known. And among their most significant contributions to our fledgling society was the establishment of universities to create an educated citizenry to serve the public good. The founding of a public university was so important to Thomas Jefferson's legacy that he mandated its placement on his epitaph:
Here was buried Thomas Jefferson Author of the Declaration of American Independence Of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom & Father of the University of Virginia.
Similarly, Ben Franklin, founder of what is now the University of Pennsylvania, sought in 1749 to create an institution to prepare the area's youth for, among other things, citizenship:
The idea of what is true merit, should also be often presented to youth, explain'd and impress'd on their minds, as consisting in an Inclination join'd with an Ability to serve Mankind, one's Country, Friends and Family... which Ability should be the great Aim and End of all Learning.
While there are certainly plausible reasons to keep personal information about public figures private, in this case disclosure serves compelling purposes. It fills in an informational void about a candidate's educational exposure, inclinations and performance. It also sends a message to those now in college, that their efforts are recognized. Society, as the founders intended, should put a high degree of importance on education as an important building block for citizenship itself. It also gives the voter an idea of what basic knowledge the candidate may have in areas they consider relevant to presidential service. Such classes need not only be directly "pre-professional" courses like accounting, economics, or international relations or a foreign language, but others that make a person connected to the greater world around them, like literature, art and history.
To be sure, there are millions of people who serve the country or achieve success for themselves and their community in a variety of ways without a college degree at all. Admittedly, in an increasingly information-based society one's job prospects without such a degree are decidedly more tenuous than they were in previous decades. The point of this blog post is not to argue for some minimum requirement for presidential service, as the Constitution merely sets native born citizenship and a minimum age of 35.
There are billionaires like Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs who never obtained degrees. Two of our most beloved leaders, Abraham Lincoln and Harry S. Truman, never earned degrees, although I don't think that, barring some extraordinary credential, a non-degreed candidate would be electable today. It used to be that military service was considered a critical prerequisite for high office to much of the electorate. Over the last two decades service in a field of active conflict has not been as pivotal as decorated veterans like Senators Dole, Kerry, and McCain and President George H.W. Bush might have hoped. However, when there is an important thread to a person's life, be it military service or education, that becomes a key part of the tapestry of their public narrative and the candidate should be forthcoming about it.
President Obama, with degrees from Columbia and Harvard, has an extraordinary record of academic achievement. He should establish a clear standard for himself, as well as for future candidates and contemporary students, that one's scholastic efforts mean something, not just for getting a credential, but for being a descriptive part of the narrative of who they are for years to come. With all the sometimes dubious information swirling around about the candidates, their college and grad school grades are something the public should be trusted with. There are few areas where educators like myself, the Daily Kos and the Wall Street Journal agree -- releasing these transcripts is one of them.