Sunday, June 19, 2011

Down With The Meritocracy!


Kim Brooks writes in Salon about "killing" the liberal arts degree in America. Yawn. You can find these kinds of pieces all over the place these days. While it is understandable given the many college graduates who will be unable to find work in this awful job market, these kinds of angst-ridden articles are really a symptom of America’s deadly meritocracy disease. This disease can be found among both conservatives and progressives, but it is much worse among progressives. Modern progressivism is obsessed with sending working-class Americans to college and making them part of some mythical vast upper-middle class, undoubtedly shedding their regressive cultural tendencies in the process. Oh, and they will have plenty of money for expensive hybrid cars and other status symbols of the progressive merit class. 

Unfortunately, this progressive dream is turning into a nightmare as more and more graduates find themselves stuck in a bad economy with loads of debt and poor job prospects. Not surprisingly, the arts and humanities are taking a beating as both business conservatives and meritocratic progressives attack so-called “useless” subjects in favor of a greater emphasis on practical subjects. However, the problem does not seem to be too many humanities graduates, as their numbers are relatively small. Indeed, business, an exemplary practical major, is one of the most popular degree fields in the United States, although it also seems to be one of the less academically rigorous. Add all of the various degree mills peddling certifications in nursing, computer science, and other practical fields, it would seem that Americans are not jumping into Chaucer and Aristotle as readily as some would have it.

And yet, we still have vast numbers of unemployed and underemployed people in the country. Are all of these folks History and English Literature majors? I doubt it. The arts and humanities are being used as the whipping boys for the failures of neoliberalism and meritocratic progressivism. Indeed, the entire emphasis on education is flawed. While educational policy is doubtlessly important, the economic superstructure in which educational policy is crafted is the really important factor. A country may use educational policy to produce engineers in great quantities, but if there is little industry in the country an engineering degree may not be so useful.  A country may even have an excellent educational system that produces plenty of math and science graduates and also have plenty of heavy industry, but if the underlying assumptions of the economic system are faulty, all of those math and science graduates will not save the system. Just ask the citizens of the former Soviet Union about that one.

The real conflict, then, is not the arts and humanities versus math and science. There is no reason for the different branches of human knowledge to be at war with each other. Instead, the conflict must be between different political visions of society. In the contemporary United States, the conflict is between conservative and progressive meritocracy on one side and the social democratic and populist vision of full employment at family wages. Conservative and progressive supporters of meritocracy are different to the extent that the conservatives have a much more Darwinian concept of meritocracy, one without much concern for the losers in the race of life. The progressives, on the other hand, support the more popular vision of meritocracy based on increasing social mobility and prosperity through higher education. The greater emphasis on math and science among progressives is supposed to be a realistic concession to the demands of global competition. 

But how realistic is it to expect to transform much of the population into an army of engineers and scientists? Not very. It is a fever dream best left in the realm of science fiction. It is about as realistic as thinking that every Chinese and Indian child is proficient in calculus by the age of four, something one could be forgiven for believing if you listened to President Obama and others when they discuss these matters. You can’t blame them though, they are trying to remake the American people in their own image of the successful, highly-educated professional. 

The other vision of American society, once the dominant vision on the Left and even on much of the Right, was a social democratic/populist vision based on a commitment to full employment and high wages. This vision was dominant throughout the New Deal era of American politics, which began in the 1930s and ended in the 1970s. This was an era when Americans and Western workers generally saw the largest advances in popular living standards and income equality in human history all without sacrificing economic growth. Even relatively poorly educated workers enjoyed the fruits of a middle-class lifestyle. 

Now, I want to address all of the young people today obsessing about their educational choices: just think about some of the older people you known. It could be your grandparents, for example. Don’t be surprised if you realize that your grandfather was able to support his wife and children, (none of them working full time, mind you) in relative comfort without a college degree, or perhaps even without a high school or technical degree. How did they do this? Don’t be surprised if they were in a labor union or were employed by the government, or perhaps both. Also, don’t be surprised if they were in an industry formerly protected and encouraged by government policy as an important component in a general industrial policy aimed at national economic prosperity instead of predatory usury and the rentier economy.  

Now, instead of sulking, you should be good and angry and progressive meritocrats ought to be one of the objects of your rage. They abandoned the American worker in order to create their professional-class utopia. To the progressive meritocrat, the unionized, blue-collar laborer was personified by All in the Family's Archie Bunker, who is portrayed as an ignorant bigot. The new meritocratic economy had no place for dinosaurs like Archie Bunker, nor for the labor unions that were supposedly riddled with Archie Bunker types. The New Economy would dispense with the labor union as an almost medieval relic of a blinkered past.

We must bury the pernicious ideology of meritocracy once and for all and instead adopt an economic strategy aimed at materially supporting the human family, whether the head of that family is a doctor or a janitor. Obsessing over educational policy while ignoring how the economy is structured and how plutocratic forces use state power to advance their interests while hurting the rest of us is a recipe for disaster. It plays into the hands of the atomistic, individualistic ideology that has done so much harm to Western culture. Unnecessarily attacking the arts and humanities will only hasten the death of the civilization that our political class disingenuously claims to be defending.

4 comments:

  1. John, this is an excellent post! I say this, unfortunately, as a rising member of the New Class (soon to have a master's degree in development planning and sustainability), but I really think our technocratic age could use this kind of critique.

    GK Chesterton was an unrelenting critic of what he called 'business education' for precisely these reasons - what he wanted to see was a return to a more classical mode of education in line with what the monasteries of mediaeval Europe provided. And he loathed the fact that education was becoming fetishised as a consumer commodity - for him, education always had to be directed toward a real human purpose, the flourishing of life.

    Though I can't in good conscience reject public education the way Chesterton did (for many working-class families, public education remains their only shot at even the rudiments of a dignified life), I still think some sweeping reforms couldn't hurt. My dad thinks we could use more education in civics; though, personally, I wouldn't be averse to making philosophy a part of the core curriculum.

    Keep up the awesome writing!
    - M

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  2. Hello Mr. Cooper,

    Thank you for the kind words, and congrats on the Master's Degree! In addition to the Chestertonian tradition in the UK, there used to be a strong tradition of defending the liberal arts among American conservatives.

    Russell Kirk, who is sometimes considered the father of modern American conservatism, was famous for his conflicts with business conservatives over the transformation of higher education into a purely vocational system of training. Sadly, cultural conservatives like Kirk don’t have as much money as the business conservatives, so they have a lot less clout.

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  3. Excellent post-- it applies just as much to the UK.

    The conservative meritocrats have no heart.

    'Progressive' meritocrats have no brain.

    Winston Churchill?

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  4. The worst fate that can befall a satirist is to be taken entirely seriously. When Michael Young wrote The Rise of The Meritocracy, after having been warned that no good would come of a Latin-Greek hybrid word (television, homosexuality...?), his targets took him entirely seriously, and have been doing so ever since. His dystopia was, and is, their utopia, in which those with material wealth and paper qualifications determine "merit" on the basis of material wealth and paper qualifications.

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