Earlier this week, Rep. Thomas Massie, the man that the Fourth Congressional District of Kentucky chose to represent them in the United States House of Representatives, revealed that he doesn’t understand how college degrees work.
Rep. Massie, during testimony by former Secretary of State and Senator from Massachusetts John Kerry, argued that, because Kerry’s undergraduate degree was a Bachelor’s of Arts in Political Science, Sec. Kerry was peddling “pseudoscience” and was not an appropriate witness to discuss the importance of climate change.
As the Washington Post put it, “[i]t went on like this for several more minutes, with Massie continuing to conflate natural sciences with social sciences.” The exchange was quickly dubbed “the Dumbest Moment in Congressional History” by Rolling Stone and others, including many liberal pundits.
Rep. Massie’s comments were a sublime display of grandstanding because he doesn’t appear to understand: 1) that a Bachelor of Arts degree is not simply a designation for the visual or fine arts, and 2) that social science is distinct from natural science.
In the interests of clarity, let’s take a minute to clear that up. A Bachelor of Arts degree indicates that a person has attended a liberal arts school. (No, liberal doesn’t mean Democratic—it refers to the European tradition of liberal arts as distinct from a strictly theological education). A Bachelor of Science means that a person has attended a college or university primarily or solely dedicated to natural sciences—subjects like physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, etc. The natural sciences are a distinct branch from the social sciences—disciplines that study humans as social animals.
As the US News & World Report states, there aren’t many practical differences between a BA and a BS degree. Reporter Josh Moody talked to Kristi McCormick, the University Registrar for CU-Boulder, a public college in Colorado, and McCormick explained the historical context for the difference. She says that “[h]istorically, the BA degree was considered the premiere degree, and at some institutions is still the primary or only degree awarded regardless of major or concentration. This is likely more prevalent at ‘prestigious’ private institutions.” Sec. Kerry attended Yale, which awards BA degrees, while Rep. Massie attended MIT, which awards BS degrees.
All of this might genuinely be confusing, especially if you’ve never really looked into the difference between a BA and a BS degree before. That’s understandable. It’s less understandable that someone would try to BS their way through something they didn’t understand, especially when questioning a witness to the United States House of Representatives.
This kind of ignorance is especially galling because Rep. Massie represents a district with 4 colleges that offer BA degrees, including Northern Kentucky University, a major educational and economic institution. (This is to say nothing of the 3 community & technical colleges in the Fourth District). One might think that he would understand the importance of these institutions to the economic health of his district. The Theater & Dance department of Northern Kentucky University, for example, lists 21 faculty & staff members, not counting adjuncts, on its payroll. That’s just one department at one university.
In general, colleges & universities are like economic rocket fuel for their communities, with economic research indicating that the benefits of a college to a region far exceed the educational impact alone. Some economists believe that reviving rural economies can be done by founding more research universities in economically flagging areas. This is true across national and regional boundaries.
That Rep. Massie seems unfamiliar with some of the very basic details of educational policy, history, and convention is extremely concerning, especially since higher education already brings major benefits to his district and to Kentucky, and could bring even greater growth to the region under the right policy conditions.
Rep. Massie’s public display of ignorance was an embarrassment to the citizens of the Fourth District, to Kentucky, and to the US House. He should study up before he embarrasses himself again.
Tristan Reynolds is a graduating senior at Transylvania University in Lexington, where he studies Politics, Philosophy, & Economics (PPE). He is the Editor-in-Chief of the Transylvania University student news publication, The Rambler. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.