It's a popular theory in this country, one as old as the nation itself: the idea that few qualities are regarded more highly in a person than the acquisition of a good education.
In fact, it's a part of the American dream. If you've heard it once, you've heard it a million times: It doesn't matter where you start out in life -- at the bottom of the ladder or at the top -- education is the royal road to success. And we admire those who work hard to educate themselves.
That's the theory, anyway. But the question is: Do we still practice what we preach? Or has a subtle change taken place in our society, one which reflects an ambivalence in our attitudes toward well-educated people?
For example: It's been well documented that despite all our attempts to sell the idea of education as an asset, the effort hasn't been a total success. Many young people -- especially African-American males, we are told -- consider it "uncool" to excel academically. And students who do excel are often regarded by their peers as "nerds" or "wonks."
Being smart, it seems, is now well-established as a characteristic that attracts a certain amount of derision.
Still, I admit to being caught off-guard recently when a group of political pundits -- the kind who gather together regularly to chew over old fat or predict things that never happen -- began making snide remarks about the "elitist" educational backgrounds shared by Bill Clinton and Al Gore.
It was as though anyone who had attended a school such as Harvard or Georgetown or Yale -- never mind that our education president George Bush is a Yalie -- is somehow suspect. Or as someone put it, a part of that "Georgetown crowd." And the not-so-subtle message seemed to be: Voter beware.
Then I began to notice the phrase "policy wonks" cropping up again and again in articles about Clinton and Gore. The increasing frequency of its use prompted the ever-alert New York Times wordmeister William Safire to clarify just what the term means: "A 'policy wonk' is a too-studious student of public affairs," he wrote recently, citing both Clinton and Gore as examples of such overly studious students.
I also noticed that even the "policy wonks" themselves were starting to play down their educational backgrounds. Clinton, for instance, remarked recently on television that he and his wife -- both graduates of Yale Law School -- had attended a "law school in Connecticut."
So, what exactly is happening here? Why is there this apparent need to "dumb down" our political candidates?
The answer, I believe, has little to do with education and a lot to do with the issue of class and wealth.
Private school education has always been linked with the idea of the wealthy, privileged class in this country. And in politics it serves the same purpose that Quayle's "culturally elite" category does: It divides the country into Them and Us.
Many people immediately assumed that Clinton came from a wealthy family because he went to such schools as Georgetown and Yale Law. But when we found out the opposite is true, it changed the public's perception of who Clinton is. We like him more, it seems, now that we see him as being more like us.
It's been harder for Al Gore to shake the image of the rich, preppie kid who went to the prestigious St. Albans prep school and then Harvard. His opponents use it as ammunition to prove he is one of Them, not one of Us. But his proponents have failed to show that this image is almost as false as the one we formerly had of Clinton.
Al Gore's parents both came from modest backgrounds, and they worked to put themselves through college. According to his mother, Pauline, the family lived "in a housing development in Arlington Village -- where the rent was $62.50 a month -- until Al Gore Jr. was about 4."
She met her husband, she says, "while I was waiting on tables in the evening and going to school in the daytime." At the time, Al Gore Sr. was attending law school at night.
The point of all this is that we need to look more closely at this confusion between education and class.
We need to put role models out there who telegraph the message that in the United States a good education is not only for those of a certain class or economic position. We need to show that the coolest, most hip thing a young person can do today is to be smart and well-educated. We need to quit expecting less from the kids who come from minority families or poor families and recognize the potential that's there if hard work is asked of them.
And we need to hear from the men and women who want to lead the country that they are proud to be counted among the "educationally elite."