A bourgeois pastime

I drop in at n+1 from time to time, but I would have missed this upsetting editorial were it not for the recommendation of a friend.

Let me save you the trouble of following that link. Here are the crucial points:

  1. The value of advanced degrees is a “fiction” perpetuated by universities in order to preserve their cultural and financial status.
  2. Universities essentially function as “guilds”, even “cartels”–gatekeepers of the elite echelons of society.
  3. Professional credential requirements in many fields, particularly medicine and law, inflate prices for services that could be performed just as well with less training.
  4. Similarly, public policy decisions do not benefit from academic training, as public policy is “rarely complex” in the sense “that you need a stack of degrees to figure it out”.
  5. Therefore, all intellectuals have a moral responsibility to abandon their degrees, shred their diplomas, and never run for political office.

Evidence for these hypotheses is in short supply, which doesn’t matter because the n+1 editors are making an emotional argument rather than an analytic one. The Tea Party’s dismay at the alien oligarchy of the intellectual elite aligns with Occupy Wall Street’s vexation at the moral bankruptcy of the financial and corporate elite and a broader, politically neutral general frustration with the quality of leadership, brewing a perfect storm of outrage against the institutions which appear to uphold these various dynasties. Even the old guard are losing faith. Guillotine blueprints are being unshelved and dusted off, and it’s hardly surprising to see a magazine that aspires to intellectual iconoclasm doing its best to surf the populist crowd.

But this editorial seriously misdiagnoses the problem in a way that, were it taken seriously, could do real damage to social progress. As my friend observed, “it’s weird that [the authors] would look around and decide that what people in our society need is less education.” In fact, the very elite institutions they critique, including my alma mater, are among those leading the charge for accessible higher education. Though the authors are correct in noting that tuition increases present a challenge for lower- and middle-class students, they fail to acknowledge that at the most elite of colleges, effective tuition rates for the middle class have stabilized if not fallen in recent decades thanks to generous financial aid programs. There is no elite cadre maliciously pricing out the disadvantaged; the problem is that public universities, the ostensible regents of the equal opportunity promise, have lost much of their support from state governments, raised tuition to compensate, and forced millions of students into unbearable debt.

It’s impossible to take seriously the authors’ suggestion that we abolish the system of academic credentials which constitutes the foundation of higher education:

Che Guevara once declared that the duty of intellectuals was to commit suicide as a class; a more modest suggestion along the same lines is for the credentialed to join the uncredentialed in shredding the diplomas that paper over the undemocratic infrastructure of American life.

Their position seems to be that there is no distinction of quality between the best university and the worst university, that the workforce does not benefit from advanced education, and that tuition inflation is an artifact solely of greed and insularity rather than of a precipitous drop in government support. I would be very interested to read an article presenting evidence to defend these assertions–arguing, for example, that the American higher education system has nothing to do with our technological supremacy, that law graduates of Harvard and Yale are no more skilled than those of any other law school, and that declining state funding and federal student loan support are not responsible for increasing student debt–but of course such an article could only be a farce.

If the authors’ attitude toward university education is wildly speculative, their evaluation of public policy is downright zany:

The President — a meritocrat himself — has succumbed to what might be called the “complexity complex,” which leads us to assume that public policy is so complicated that you need a stack of degrees to figure it out. But major political questions are rarely complex in that sense. They are much more likely to be complicated, in the Avril Lavigne sense, meaning that they involve reconciling disagreements among competing stakeholders — or, as the situation may demand, ratcheting them up.

Perhaps this passage explains the absurdity of the authors’ statements about education, law, and medicine–they simply believe that disciplines they don’t practice are not complex. Now, it’s true that “million-dollar medical training isn’t necessary to perform an abortion, [and] routine legal matters could easily, and cheaply, be handled by noninitiates.” But easing up on professional licensing requirements is quite a different thing from burning diplomas en masse while discrediting the legal and medical professions. And do the authors genuinely believe that solving our pressing public policy issues doesn’t require specialized expertise? I challenge them to devise a solution to health insurance inflation, or carbon emissions, or unemployment, without meticulous research and years of specialized study–precisely the kind of work for which educational institutions are designed. I’m reminded of Mencken’s popular observation that, “For every complex problem there is a simple solution. And it’s always wrong.” In truth, our elites are too uneducated to devise proper solutions and adjudicate competing reform ideas. We complain that our representatives haven’t read the text of the Affordable Care Act, for example, but the truth is they wouldn’t understand it if they did–the problems it addresses are, in fact, extremely complex, which is why the bill was drawn up by an army of experts with advanced degrees. That is also why the public supports nearly every individual component of the bill when they’re explained, yet a plurality opposes the bill as a whole. If we listened more carefully to those experts sufficiently educated to explain legislation, we would have a much better shot at enacting desirable reforms.

One might feel that this article, written by staff at n+1, whose five founding editors together boast four degrees from Harvard, two from Columbia, one from Yale, and one from Oxford, smacks of hypocrisy. One would be correct. Social commentary is an elite occupation. Ignorant social commentary is a bourgeois pastime. The authors, perhaps because of their own privilege and education, feel qualified to evaluate broad spectra of society of which they have little knowledge and less experience. They peddle ersatz expertise to condemn genuine competence.

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  • Lily Janiak  On 5 August 2012 at 1:11 pm

    Ben, I agree with much of what you write about n + 1’s misdiagnosis, but I do feel that places like Harvard and Yale have too much power. (Of course, I might also be smacking of hypocrisy in writing this, as I’ve clearly benefitted from that power.) Yes, we want our Supreme Court justices to have the best possible training, but do we also want all nine of them to come from the same two institutions? Yes, the Ivies offer students more resources than, say, the school where I teach does, but how much better is the education at Yale than at Carnegie Mellon or NYU or Virginia? (In asking that, I’m remembering this article – http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2011/06/06/110606crat_atlarge_menand – One question I remember from it: Do Ivies transform students into the elite, or does it accept those who are already the elite?) Do Ivy grads really deserve all the privilege and deference they get?

    It’s probably impossible to expand the idea of “elite education” to include smaller private universities like Amherst and Williams as well as the best public ones like Michigan and Texas (and, for at least a little while longer, Berkeley). If your elite includes more than 3, or 8, is it still “elite”? (Can we count that high?)

    I’d like to see a greater diversity of educational background reflected in our ruling classes — in politics, in business, in the arts. We have so many excellent universities in this country (though many, as you say, have seen better financial days). What message are we sending the world and our youth if at the end of the day a diploma from a certain school is still the key to the top floor? That “your school doesn’t count”?

  • Benjamin Miller  On 7 August 2012 at 8:11 pm

    Thanks, Lily–I think you’re absolutely right that the difference in quality of education between top-tier and mid-tier colleges is easy to exaggerate. There’s no shortage of brilliant people in the world who never set foot in Cambridge or New Haven. Nor is there any shortage of people whose Ivy League degrees give them opportunities and introductions they probably haven’t “earned” or don’t “deserve”. I couldn’t say, though, whether society is better off when more or fewer Ivy alums occupy positions of power. Maybe an influx of non-Ivy blood would nicely expand the range of experience our leaders draw on to make decisions. On the other hand, three quarters of our federal elected officials don’t have degrees from Ivies or their peers. Even Fortune 500 CEOs have relatively diverse backgrounds, including a good number without college degrees at all. Top schools are over-represented among our elites, but they hardly have a monopoly. I don’t know that reducing their number would change all that much. One of the irksomely egotistical features of the n+1 editorial is their assumption that burning their diplomas would transform the world. It’s easy to feel that way if a good education came to you by default–you’ve been told all your life how important it is to get into that school and get a high GPA and so on, because that’s what defines success. Then you arrive in your 20s or 30s and become an editor at a Brooklyn magazine and realize how unfair it is that other people can’t be successful like you with all your advantages, and wouldn’t it be a terrifically noble sacrifice to abandon all of them for the sake of justice?

    • Lily Janiak  On 16 August 2012 at 7:05 pm

      Thanks, Ben, for the data — somehow facts always trump my intuitions. Isn’t it crazy how that works?

      Poor Brooklyn magazine editors. They’re trying to help in the only way they know how.

      My means — blogging — is clearly so much better!

      • Benjamin Miller  On 20 August 2012 at 5:54 pm

        …and what about my means–blogging impetuously ABOUT Brooklyn magazine editors?

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