In ordinary life, we think of education as useful: If we're well-educated, we make better decisions, both professionally and personally. Is the same true on a national scale? That's the question asked by the economists Timothy Besley, Jose Montalvo, and Marta Reynal-Querol in a paper called "Do Educated Leaders Matter?" Their conclusion: educated leaders tend to preside over more economic growth.
Woodrow Wilson is the only president to have held a Ph.D (in history and political science, from Johns Hopkins).
It's harder than you might think to isolate education as a variable in politics. But the researchers have hit upon a novel way to do it: they focus on "random leadership transitions," moments when leaders are removed from office "due to natural death, accident or serious illness." By comparing the rate of growth before a leader's random, unexpected demise to the rate of growth afterwards, they can get a rough picture of how much that leader mattered. In effect, they're looking to see what happens when a leader is suddenly swapped out and replaced by a new one; they then cross-reference that data with information about educational attainment. Their database goes back to 1875, and includes 185 sudden deaths from all over the world.
There's quite a lot of number-crunching involved, but they do find a correlation. "On average," they write, "the departure of an educated leader" -- a leader with a postgraduate education, like a Ph.D or law degree -- "leads to a 0.713 percentage point reduction in growth. This contrasts with the reduction of just 0.05 percentage points after the death of a leader who does not have a post-graduate qualification." It appears that the more educated leaders were doing something right before they were suddenly removed from office -- and that replacing them with less-educated leaders resulted, on some level, in less effective policy. There's a reverse effect as well: when comparatively less-educated leaders die, their replacements are statistically likely to be more educated, and so growth tends to increase after those transitions.
Besley, Montalvo, and Reynal-Querol admit that "the exact mechanisms at work in explaining how leadership matters remain opaque"; it's not at all clear how being educated matters. Maybe better-educated leaders are better at making decisions; maybe they surround themselves with better advisors. The main point is that education is, to some extent, a useful heuristic for thinking about leadership quality. It's possible, of course, to put too much faith in the idea of "the best and the brightest" -- but it's a mistake to think that education doesn't help you lead.
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His last article for Ideas was about choosing Congress by lottery.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.