Interesting results from the Pew Research Center regarding Americans' perceptions of candidates with elite university credentials. I was heartened to note that "There’s no group in which more would have a negative than positive reaction to a candidate with an elite education, including Republicans and leaners who agree with the Tea Party." (Among Tea Party members, arguably the most vociferous anti-elitists in the contemporary political sphere, 10 percent would be more likely to support a candidate with a prestigious university degree while another 10 percent were less likely.) We should want to elect educated people. Critical thinking is found across all sectors of society, and a university education is no guarantor of analytical skills. Even so, higher education, done well, plays a vital role in developing public servants with the capacity to reason carefully and govern responsibly.
That said: what do we mean by "elite" or "prestigious," and who has access to these institutions? Questions of race and class surge to the fore, but I'd posit a third factor, as well: geography. As the article points out, since 1988 every president has had an undergraduate or graduate degree (or both) from an Ivy League institution. While Americans enjoy remarkable geographic mobility, there's no getting away from the fact that New England is a long, long way from the states beyond the Continental Divide. Equating "prestigious" with "East Coast" sacrifices the interests, abilities, and unique regional attributes of large swathes of the country. The American West is more than cowboys and recalcitrant ranchers, Hollywood and Portlandia. Education is important -- even, perhaps, paramount. But I'd suggest that an education from Oregon State or Pacific Lutheran, UC Davis or the University of Seattle, might develop critical thinking and regional identity in ways that will benefit the nation as a whole. Perhaps the most important question we could ask is not "where did you go to school?" but "what did you learn while you were there?"