Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Tuned-In Dropout

The recent slew of obituaries following the death of Peter Jennings, the most debonair and least smug of all primetime anchormen, brought to light the fact that he was not only a heavy smoker, but also a high school dropout.

With his helmet of hair and ambassadorial bearing, it's hard to imagine a squarer peg hanging out in the back lot with the heavily-bandanaed stoners who dropped out of my high school.

In fact, P.J. probably clocked very little time behind his school as he reportedly quit early on to take a full time job in radio.

The extent to which lack of formal education failed to limit his ability to effectively "discuss world events with the great leaders of our time" and deliver the evening news, leads me to wonder about the value of formal education.

In practical terms, a good education is supposed to provide a kid with the math, language and technical skills that he or she will need to succeed in a competitive job market. But that's just professional training on par with what police academies and flight schools provide.


In a larger sense, an education is supposed to produce that fair-minded, cotton-clad urbanite you see in New York Times ads asking, "Isn't it time you subscribed?" Well-traveled and able to converse intelligently (in at least two languages) on topics ranging from medieval art to current events, an educated person is, above all, supposed to be able to think for him or herself.

The reality is that American universities routinely issue B.S. degrees to laconic thugs and bimbos who differ from their dropout counterparts primarily in being able to afford getting wasted in high-rent neighborhoods. This may help to explain why celebrities currently hold sway over our collective cultural imagination.

Like lots of Americans, scads of celebs are unhindered by the tedious constraints of education. Their (base) desires and (occult) preoccupations are easy to understand and that may be why we feel so simpatico toward them.


A quick gander at the list of celebrity dropouts on www.angelfire.com/stars4/lists/dropouts reveals not only the obvious bad seeds (Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Capriati, Kidd Rock) but also a who's who of A-list Hollywood stars. That's right, neither Tom nor Nicole, Johnny nor Jude, Colin, Keaneau or any of Charlie's Angels ever sweated through the SATs. Tom Cruise will spout off about psychopharmacology or anything else L. Ron Hubbard would approve of on national TV, and no high school civics jazz is gonna stop him. I blame society.

On the one hand, I'm turned off (and bored) by the glut of public ignoramuses, ranging from L.A. creampuffs on TV talk shows to political pundits on the radio. On the other hand, it's interesting to see that institutionalized education really isn't that important after all.


In many cases talent (David Bowie), style (Diana Vreeland), family connections (Diana Spencer), exhibitionism (Courtney Love) and drive (Demi Moore) have delivered high school dropouts to positions of such wealth and influence that their lack of academic credentials seems trivial. I'm all for that, and anything that affirms the triumph of the individual over a mediocre culture. What I object to is the routine nature of public stupidity, which amounts to a steady stream of reminders that America is blowing it.

Peter Jennings life was an affirmation of the fact that a person doesn't need a college degree to think for him/herself, just a conscience and a brain. This is not to say that higher education is without value. Elegance of mind is one of the worthy things that a good education can result in. The fact that P.J. seemed to have attained that too, without the benefit of even a secondary education, is why he was true star.

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posted by cherrybomb @ 8/09/2005 04:57:00 PM |

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