Edward Snowden has been characterized as many things in recent weeks, but journalists' discounting him as a "high-school dropout" speaks volumes about media portrayals of education.
Megyn Kelly of Fox News (6/11/13) began a segment by referring to Snowden as a "high-school dropout," as if this detail was more important than his name, which was only mentioned sentences later.
New York Times columnist David Brooks (6/10/13) attempted to discredit him by saying, "Though obviously terrifically bright, he could not successfully work his way through the institution of high school. Then he failed to navigate his way through community college." Brooks suggested that there's no way to be a successful part of "civil society" if you are not part of "a series of gently graduated authoritative structures."
While no one can say exactly Edward Snowden quit high school, there are students in our country who don't fit into such "structures" and have dropped out as a result. Snowden apparently preferred independent self-study, which gave him a General Equivalency Diploma (GED).
Kelly barely remembered to include this detail. Under the headline "NSA Leaker Background: Dropped Out of High School & the Army," she reported, "So he is 29, never graduated from high school," and finished with a look of distaste, "I think he got his GED." Reviving the racially charged and negatively reinforced stereotype of the GED student (the GED is disproportionately used by minorities–National Institute of Health, 5/1/11) and the high-school dropout, Kelly implied that someone who didn't officially graduate high school isn't entitled to much respect.
Snowden doesn't really fit the stereotypical "high-school dropout" image. At age 29, his unconventional path had already found him success: He was making six figures a year as a government contractor doing what he loved. To do so well, he obviously must be intelligent, motivated and skilled, which makes Kelly expressing dismay at "people with that resume and that background" having his job seem ironic.
The media discovered his educational history from the Guardian (6/11/13), which profiled Snowden after breaking the story. The Atlantic (6/9/13) reported, "The first version of the Guardian piece described Snowden as a high-school dropout, which raised a lot of eyebrows as the U.S. Army does not take people without either a high-school diploma or a General Equivalency Diploma, with very rare exceptions. The paper later clarified that he holds a GED."
CNN (6/10/13), ABC (6/24/13) and NBC (6/22/13) also reported Snowden as a "high-school dropout" without mentioning his GED.
In his syndicated column, Mark Shields (6/19/13) wrote that attacking Snowden by labeling him a high-school dropout was "as stupid as it is snobbish." He wrote:
Consider these high-school dropouts: Founding father and genius inventor Benjamin Franklin. Founding Father and First President George Washington. The founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale. American aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright. The first lady of civil rights, Rosa Parks, who refused a Montgomery Alabama bus driver's order to give up her seat to a white passenger. The man who gave the world its most popular chocolate bar, Milton Hershey. Before he would become America's most beloved author, Mark Twain left school at the age of 12 to become a printer's apprentice. The great man who saved the Union, Abraham Lincoln.
And if formal education and advanced degrees are the key to wisdom, please explain how the United States was so misled into the tragedy of the invasion and occupation of Iraq by such well-credentialed academics.
Reihan Salam of Reuters (6/14/13) wrote in an opinion piece:
I found the reaction to Snowden’s dropout status disheartening. Instead of lamenting the fact that a high-school dropout has fared so well, we ought to celebrate it, allegations of treason notwithstanding. It must be said that the fact that he was able to climb so high is a sign that at least some elite American institutions are still willing to take chances, and that is a very good thing.