Education Pedigrees

A recent dinner with old college friends led to an interesting conversation aboutdipoma education and academic pedigree ….  I said very little.

….My conclusion: an educational pedigree is best served at Happy Hour where most lies are told and curricula vitae are swapped. But when people head for the door are they secretly wondering if you’re really as good as your diploma says you are?


A recent dinner with old college friends led to an interesting conversation about education and academic pedigree. While all of us graduated from a small New England liberal arts college, the two principles in this dialogue are pretty accomplished in their own right; one as a CEO and successful entrepreneur, the other as a department chair at a large university in New England. Each spoke glowingly of the student intellect and advanced curriculum at their respective graduate and doctoral programs. They put forth the case that an education from an Ivy League level institution had few, if any equals with respect to the caliber of graduate it produced. One friend even lamented receiving his undergrad degree from our college as it had presented a stumbling block throughout his career. I said very little. In an effort to be polite in a restaurant with friends of 35 years I felt the other patrons would not understand if I suddenly slapped them on the back of their heads in an effort to get real.

My lifelong experiences and observations have given me a far different perspective. While I love these guys like brothers, hopefully when they read this they allow me some leeway in the disagreement, albeit coming from an old roommate who doesn’t have an MBA or PhD from a formidable institution. What I do have is an adult life of small business, blue collar rank and file, and global corporate white collar leadership experience.

Their lives have been set for the most part in an elite academic environment. They have circulated in a world of truly brilliant people. Their frame of reference has been either academia or the board room where airs of enlightenment receive oxygen. I get it but have general disdain for those that perceive themselves as …. “smarter than”.

My experience as it relates to employees, co-workers, colleagues, and their educational background is indifferent. If anything my view is that an Ivy League level education is not necessarily a positive. I’ve seen too many wear it like a merit badge and fail to produce in the real world. Simply put, I don’t care what ivory tower diploma hangs on your wall – I care about how good you really are in the real world.

This came to a head recently as I led a team where one of the members had a Masters in Aeronautic and Astronautical Engineering from MIT. No doubt this guy was brilliant. When we encountered a relatively non-complex abnormality he dug into the books searching for a root cause and a solution while his Embry-Riddle teammate of equal experience went to the source and corrected the problem. Thirty minutes later the MIT theory specialist was still trying to figure what had actually happened.

How many times have you looked at the newest program to emanate from the ‘educationally pedigreed’ C-suite and knew it was doomed to failure for an operational reason that transcended the theory and lab testing? The gap between the academic and the operator never seems so great than when the one with the esteemed education loses touch with the real world and clings to theory and book knowledge.

When I used to ply my trade as a Navy pilot there was one squadron mate with whom I used to love to practice Air Combat Maneuvering (aerial dogfighting). Graduating at the top of his class with an aeronautics degree from the Naval Academy, he was a fantastic naval officer but a woefully inept fighter pilot. His problem? He analyzed the fight while it was taking place instead of acting instinctually and instantly. His callsign quickly became “Grape” because he was easy picking. He never got any better. His roommate was a music major from some podunk liberal arts college nobody had ever heard of. He was a lousy naval officer but one of the best fighters; he simply reacted and flew. One would have thought the opposite.

My conclusion: an educational pedigree is best served at Happy Hour where most lies are told and curricula vitae are swapped. But when people head for the door are they secretly wondering if you’re really as good as your diploma says you are?

As for my friend who expressed dismay in attending our small liberal arts college, I would say – wear that baby on your sleeve. You have done some pretty good work over the years in spite of the value you placed in that insignificant bachelor’s degree. The importance of a top tier education may be important to some but is too often overplayed to the point of nausea. “What have you done for me lately” and “Prove to me that you’re really as good as you say you are” hold far more lasting value in the real world than a specific pedigree.


8 Responses

  1. A hearty A-MEN! You preach the truth.

  2. I’ll take an operator over an academic anyday. Doers might not be as polished as others, but what do you really want in “The heat of battle?”

  3. “Common sense” problem solving is the key,but you need intellect to get in the room sometimes. If given the choice, get the ivy leage degree, it will open doors…the rest is up to you! Ivy league graduates often over emphasize the degree and us non ivy leaguers tend to under emphasize the value.

  4. When God speaks of Knowledge it is not the knowledge of this world. That is the wisdom I most admire and what truly makes a difference in this world and beyond.

  5. While my ivy-league liberal-arts classmates and I were discussing arcane theories of philosophy and political science, my friends at nearby state schools were studying hard, keeping a sharp focus on their career goals and how their studies would help them achieve those goals.When they graduated, they had jobs, I did not. In fact, I’m living proof that an ivy league education does not guarantee a successful career or big money in the bank. What I do have is a worldview that extends beyond my own community, country or even species (I studied anthropology and primatology). I know that sounds grandiose, but it’s probably good preparation for positions of leadership in government, academia, or multinational organizations where creative ideas based on a broad, holistic worldview are crucial.

  6. Well done! I agree too.

  7. Well said B-Man ( I’m trying to figure out who you had dinner with… I think I know one of them…. if I had went to Harvard I would probaly would know both

  8. you know both and truthfully, I think the world of both of them … my “Basic” roots just got the best of me as it always does when the subject of … “smarter than” comes up
    cheers, BasicMan

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