There are no educational requirements determining the eligibility of a president in the Constitution. However, the roles and responsibilities of the office demand a certain level of intelligence and mental aptitude that is most easily established through academic accomplishments.
Nevertheless, seven of our presidents did not attend college. In fact, Abraham Lincoln only had a year's worth of formal education; Andrew Johnson probably had even less, while Grover Cleveland only had five years. Harry Truman, the country's 33rd president (1945-1953), was the last U.S. president without a college degree - and the only one in the past 119 years. The complexity and sophistication of modern governance make it unlikely though for a non-graduate to ever hold the office of president again.
A question that is frequently asked is, who was our smartest ever president? A tricky question, since we have absolutely no way of conclusively determining this. However, based on observations, records and citations, we think it would be fair to say that honor belongs to our third president, Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809).
The multi-lingual polymath is reputed to be ferociously intelligent, with an expert grasp on a wide range of subjects, including, but not limited to, mathematics, philosophy, archaeology, paleontology, history and architecture. On April 29, 1962, the White House organized a dinner in the State Dining Room to honor a visiting group of 49 Nobel laureates. President John Kennedy was quoted as saying then,
"I want to tell you how welcome you are to the White House. I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone. Someone once said that Thomas Jefferson was a gentleman of 32 who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, and dance the minuet."
Four more presidents deserve a mention, even if they do not reach the heights of Jefferson. First off, our second president, John Adams (1797-1801). Like Jefferson, he was also a multilingual polymath with the control of several languages, and if it wasn't for Jefferson, he would probably be on top of the list. Among the Founding Fathers (who were all men of exceptional qualities), Adams, alongside Benjamin Franklin, were reputedly the only ones capable of matching the sheer intellect of Jefferson.
Second on the list is our 28th president, Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921). The avid golfer learned German for the sole purpose of reading Heinrich Marquardsen's Handbuch des Oeffentlichen Rechts der Gegenwart (Contemporary Handbook of Public Law), to aid him in writing his doctoral dissertation ("Congressional Government: A Study in American Politics")! Wilson, who also practiced law, was a noted scholar and served as Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Economy at Princeton and Professor of History at Wesleyan University and Bryn Mawr College.
Next on the list is our 37th president, Richard Nixon (1969-1974). The former lawyer and Navy lieutenant never truly fulfilled his potential at the highest stage. What we do know is, Nixon has a habit of being the top student at every stage of his education, including at the prestigious and highly competitive Duke University School of Law. He was also a tremendous debater, and won numerous awards during his student days. He brought that talent with him to Washington, and made full use of it in his ascent to the presidency. At the age of 15, while still at Fullerton High School, Nixon scored an incredible 143 in an IQ test.
Last on the list is our saxophone playing 42nd president, Bill Clinton (1993-2001). With degrees from Georgetown and Yale, whiz kid Clinton was also a prestigious Rhodes Scholar at England's Oxford University. The Professor of Law at the University of Arkansas served as the state's Attorney General at the tender age of 30, before becoming Governor two years later. Clinton is known to have a very strong grasp on almost every subject under the sun, and is a voracious reader. However, like most highly intelligent people, Clinton often falls into the familiar trap of over thinking a subject.
Bob Woodward, in his 1994 book, The Agenda, recounted a comment made by his former aide, George Stephanopoulos.
"Clinton was more than capable of seeing and feeling different things at different times. This was the intellectual, ruminative side of his personality. Given Clinton's predisposition for deliberation, his inclination to listen sympathetically, at times too sympathetically, Stephanopoulos questioned whether Clinton too often pushed debate to the point of chaos. The process seemed confused. Stephanopoulos concluded that the staff had to stifle this tendency of Clinton's, so cleaner, clearer, faster decisions would be made."
Presidents with No College Education
Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Grover Cleveland, Harry Truman
William McKinley, George Washington, William Henry Harrison
Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Pierce, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, John Tyler, James Buchanan, Chester A. Arthur, Warren G. Harding, Theodore Roosevelt, James A. Garfield, Rutherford B. Hayes, Ronald Reagan
James Madison, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, James K. Polk, Benjamin Harrison, William Taft, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama
George W. Bush (MBA)
Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight Eisenhower
How does the current list of candidates stack up against the giants from our past?
2012 Libertarian Presidential Nominee
Former Governor of New Mexico
Obama began his formal education at the Noelani Elementary School in Woodlawn Drive, Honolulu, in 1966. After the move with his mother to Indonesia in 1967, his stepfather, Lolo Soetoro, enrolled him in SD Fransiscus Asisi (St. Francis of Asisi), a Catholic primary school under the auspices of the St. Francis of Asisi Church in Jakarta. He spent three years there before being transferred to the government-run Menteng State Elementary School in 1970 for his darjah empat dan lima (fourth and fifth grade).
Upon returning to Hawaii in 1971, his grandparents sent him to the exclusive Punahou School in Honululu, which was also the biggest private school in the country at the time. Obama was a popular student there, participating in various extra-curricular activities whilst maintaining respectable grades. The pinnacle of his achievement at Punahou was playing for the school basketball team that finished as State Champions in 1979. He would recount later in his book, Dreams From My Father, how the emerging questions about his identity, his self, his heritage, pushed him towards alcohol, drugs and parties, and for a brief period of time, threatened to extinguish his potential.
Dreams From My Father, page 54-55
“Junkie. Pothead. That’s where I’d been headed: the final, fatal role of the young would-be black man. Except the highs hadn’t been about that, me trying to prove what a down brother I was. Not by then, anyway. I got high for just the opposite effect, something that could push questions of who I was out of my mind, something that could flatten out the landscape of my heart, blur the edges of my memory. I had discovered that it didn’t make any difference whether you smoked reefer in the white classmate’s sparkling new van, or in the dorm room of some brother you’d met down at the gym, or on the beach with a couple of Hawaiian kids who had dropped out of school and now spent most of their time looking for an excuse to brawl…”
“It was at the start of my senior year in high school; she was back in Hawaii, her field work completed, and one day she had marched into my room, wanting to know the details of Pablo’s arrest. I had given her a reassuring smile and patted her hand and told her not to worry, I wouldn’t do anything stupid. It was usually an effective tactic, another one of those tricks I had learned: People were satisfied so long as you were courteous and smiled and made no sudden moves…”
“Except my mother hadn’t looked satisfied. She had just sat there, studying my eyes, her face as grim as a hearse. “Don’t you think you’re being a little casual about your future?” she said. “What do you mean?” “You know exactly what I mean. One of your friends was just arrested for drug possession. Your grades are slipping. You haven’t even started on your college applications. Whenever I try to talk to you about it you act like I’m just this great big bother.”
I didn’t need to hear all this. It wasn’t like I was flunking out. I started to tell her how I’d been thinking about maybe not going away for college, how I could stay in Hawaii and take some classes and work part-time. She cut me off before I could finish. I could get into any school in the country, she said, if I just put in a little effort. “Remember what that’s like? Effort? Damn it, Bar, you can’t just sit around like some good-time Charlie, waiting for luck to see you through…”
Obama was at Punahou for a total of eight years until his graduation in 1979. He moved to Eagle Rock in Los Angeles a couple of months later after his application to Occidental College, one of the most highly regarded liberal arts colleges in the country, was accepted. It was his two years at Occidental that proved to be the catalyst of his birth into the world of politics.
The culture of student activism there drew out the simmering sense of alienation that has accompanied Obama throughout his young adult life. It was here also that the idea of public service, a notion long espoused by his mother, began to take shape within him. The quiet junior from Haines Hall gradually participated in a number of initiatives organized by the students. The Iranian hostage crisis, the apartheid policy of South Africa and the nation’s economic upheavals all proved to resonate deeply with Obama. In his sophomore year, on Feb. 18, 1981, Obama made his first public speech, calling for the trustees of the college to divest from South Africa.
August 25, 2008, From the Boston Globe, by Scott Helman
However, he felt a need to experience something bigger, and in the summer of 1981, Obama engineered a transfer to Columbia University of New York. He graduated from Columbia in 1983 with a BA in Political Science, majoring in International Relations. After graduation, Obama worked as a financial writer for over a year at Business International Corporation, a New York-based financial consulting firm.
After almost four years studying and working in New York, Obama moved to Chicago in 1985. The seeds that his mother had planted in him finally bloomed, and after an exhaustive job hunt, Obama decided to accept the position of Director for the Developing Communities Project in Roseland and Altgeld Gardens in Chicago’s South Side.
May 25, 2008, Barack Obama’s speech at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut
“… by the time I graduated from college, I was possessed with a crazy idea — that I would work at a grassroots level to bring about change. I wrote letters to every organization in the country I could think of. And one day, a small group of churches on the South Side of Chicago offered me a job to come work as a community organizer in neighborhoods that had been devastated by steel plant closings.
My mother and grandparents wanted me to go to law school. My friends were applying to jobs on Wall Street. Meanwhile, this organization offered me $12,000 a year plus $2,000 for an old, beat-up car. And I said yes. Now, I didn’t know a soul in Chicago, and I wasn’t sure what this community organizing business was all about. I had always been inspired by stories of the Civil Rights Movement and JFK’s call to service, but when I got to the South Side, there were no marches, and no soaring speeches. In the shadow of an empty steel plant, there were just a lot of folks who were struggling. And we didn’t get very far at first.
I still remember one of the very first meetings we put together to discuss gang violence with a group of community leaders. We waited and waited for people to show up, and finally, a group of older people walked into the hall. And they sat down. And a little old lady raised her hand and asked, “Is this where the bingo game is?”
By his third year there, Obama realized that enabling change in such a disadvantaged community would necessitate a higher level of involvement from both the private and public sector. To better equip himself to meet these challenges, as well as fulfilling his mother’s wish, he applied to Harvard Law School in Massachusetts. In 1988, Obama resigned from his job in Chicago after being accepted into Harvard Law. Armed with experience and driven by desire, he became a star student there. He achieved the distinction of becoming the first ever black Editor and subsequently, President, of the Harvard Law Review, which is the most respected and widely cited student law review in the country. He obtained his Juris Doctor in 1991, graduating Magna Cum Laude.
Romney started his education at the Roosevelt Elementary School in Detroit, Michigan. Starting from the seventh grade, he attended the Cranbrook Academy, a prestigious boys-only private school in Bloomfield Hills. Romney would later claim that Cranbrook provided one of the most educative experiences in his young life, developing his social and critical-thinking skills. While he did not excel in any particular subject or activity both on the track and in the classroom, Mitt was, nevertheless, a popular all-rounder in the school. He was also the manager for the school hockey team, as well as a member of the cross-country team and the pep squad.
Mitt, along with future wife Ann Lois Davies and several other friends, were briefly arrested for their part in an elaborate prank that involved blocks of ice, towels and the golf course. Details are sketchy, and the records have long been sealed, but the consensus was they were sliding down a slope, riding the towel covered blocks of ice.
Video: The Making of Mitt Romney (Part 1) by The Boston Globe
Romney graduated high school in 1965 and promptly enrolled in Stanford University. However, his stay there was cut short, and he traveled to France to begin missionary work on behalf of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a popular activity among the Mormon youths at the time. He spent the next two and a half years there cycling around the countryside dressed in formal black attire, attempting to convert the mainly Catholic residents to his faith. Disaster struck six months before he left for home when he was involved in an automobile accident. A Catholic priest, believed to be under the influence, smashed into the car Romney was driving. He was thrown right out of the vehicle, but did not suffer serious injuries. However, one of the passengers died in the accident. The experience proved to be a sobering one for Romney, as he would later recount.
Upon his return, he married his high school sweetheart, Ann, and soon after, enrolled in Brigham Young University. He graduated in 1971 with a Degree in English, with a 3.97GPA. His young family then moved to Boston, and Mitt enrolled in both Harvard Law (HLS) and Harvard Business School (HBS). He obtained his MBA from HBS in 1975 and graduated cum laude from HLS with his Juris Doctor the same year, finishing in the top 5% of his class.
Paul graduated from Joseph A. Craig High School in Janesville in 1988.
During his time there, Ryan excelled in both sports and studies. Ryan was also active in co-curricular activities. He played in the school soccer team, appointed class president, and was voted as Prom King by his graduating class.
He enrolled in Miami University, Ohio, in the same year and graduated four years later with a double major in economics and political science.
• Ron Paul attended Dormont High School, where he was on the wrestling team and was president of the student council.
• He was the 220 yard dash state champion. He was offered a college scholarship for track but rejected it because he had injured his knee, needed surgery and didn’t think he could live up to expectations.
• Paul was a member of Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity at Gettysburg College where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in biology in 1957.
• He earned his medical degree from Duke University School of Medicine in 1961.