Wednesday, March 20, 2019

From Merit To Certification

     It becomes ever more important – nay, critical — that one who wants to grasp the reasons for the deterioration of American society and the American Republic be aware of history, including the history of major institutions.

     Not many persons are aware of the history of American higher education. (Indeed, not many are aware of the history of education period, but that’s a tirade for another day.) The institution we call a university was a rare item before 1900. They began to multiply with the blossoming of large-scale American commerce, as men who had become successful in monetary terms produced sons and sought distinctions for them other than wealth. Colleges and universities were billed as places for intellectual advancement, but on a deeper and arguably more important level they provided sheltered gathering places for the progeny of the commercial elite. They facilitated the formation of the acquaintances and relationships the sons of wealth would exploit in later life.

     A university such as Harvard or Yale served its patrons in several ways, apart from whatever actual learning it could confer upon them. For two, it provided the aforementioned watering hole for the sons of wealth, and it awarded them the distinction of association with its name (i.e., “He’s a Harvard man”). But these things had a superstitious effect upon subsequent generations. Americans of less wealth came to believe that a college degree could somehow lead them to exceptional success. The universities, while they might not have actively encouraged that notion, certainly didn’t do anything to discourage it. The demand for degrees from degree-granting institutions exploded, as did the number of such institutions.

     The postwar G.I. Bill added a huge amount of impetus to the demand. Never before had so many common citizens, persons who possess neither great wealth nor any other special status, flocked into universities seeking degrees. Because the immediate postwar period was also a time of unprecedented advancement in the sciences, much of which lent itself to commercialization through technology, for a while there appeared to be a positive correlation between material success and degreed-ness. But other things were happening as well.

     The degree came to be regarded as a credential: a ticket for admission to a new kind of elite. Whether the degree holder has anything much between his ears became secondary to the degree itself – and, of course, to the name of the institution that had granted it.

     Hearken to Arthur Herzog on this subject:

     Since a good proportion of those in college are dullards (those who weren’t to start with may have become so through education), courses must be invented that are interesting enough to keep the students awake, “relevant” enough to make them feel “involved,” and easy enough to let them pass so that they stay in school. The trivial and the obvious are elevated to the level of course requirements, and the student is taught that faking it and the real world are interchangeable. A great many fellows in fakery of one sort or another emerge.

     Herzog wrote that in 1973, Gentle Reader. It was painfully true then; it’s both tragic and incontrovertible today.

     Via the indispensable Never Yet Melted comes this Yuval Levin observation:

     For much of American history .. [t]he apex of American political, cultural, and economic power was largely the preserve of a fairly narrow white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant near-aristocracy, centered in the Northeast and exercising power across generations. This was never an absolute barrier to others’ rising, of course, but it was a major obstacle.

     The claim to power of this WASP elite, like that of most modern aristocracies, was a mix of heritage and rearing. They possessed their privileges by virtue of their birth, but they were raised and educated in ways intended to prepare them for responsibility and authority. And they were—at least in principle though in many cases also in practice—expected to subject themselves to a code of behavior, a commitment to public service, a degree of personal reticence, a regard for the rules of fair play, and a sense of responsibility that was rooted in the implicit recognition that their power was an inherited privilege, not an earned achievement.

     This is a reasonably fair and accurate characterization of the elites of the early Twentieth Century. The sons of men who had risen strictly through commerce could elect some form of public service to make their own marks on the nation. Not all of them entered government. Many established themselves as what we would now style “public intellectuals:” persons of repute who declaimed, usually through the pages of a newspaper or other print organ, on the issues of the day. It was the case both here and in England, from which most such persons traced their heritage.

     The multiplication of colleges and universities throughout that century naturally gave rise to a stratification into more and less prestigious levels. The “Ivy League” stood at the pinnacle of the pyramid; the mostly young state universities were at the bottom; many other, mostly private institutions stood between them. The distinction attached to graduates from the upper levels of that pyramid greased their paths into the niches they sought, whether in government, opinion journalism, or at the universities themselves. Persons with degrees from less prestigious universities had to make do with the leavings.

     As the universities steadily came under the control of successive generations of their own graduates and the trend Arthur Herzog noted toward educational vapidity advanced, the college degree became commodified: a purchasable credential of a significance no greater than its price. The more prestigious ones, of course, commanded the highest prices. The recent purchased-admissions pseudo-scandal involving a couple of minor actresses should be viewed in that light. The universities, of course, would prefer otherwise.

     Today’s “elite” has little in common with the elite of a century past. A good working definition of the new “elite” would be “those who matter to those who think they matter.” In particular, the ethic of genuine public service, understood as a responsibility to provide others with something of real value to them, is largely absent. But they wave their credentials at every opportunity. This is particularly noteworthy in the American political class.

     Consider in this connection the members of “Conservatism, Inc.:” the bastion of “NeverTrump” pseudo-conservatives such as Bill Kristol and Max Boot. To such persons, the all-important priority is to maintain their status in the “elite.” Regardless of the height of their perches or the bluster with which they orate from them, the majority of them have little of value to offer anyone. But they can brandish all the best credentials: all the right associations and associates. “They matter to those who think they matter.”

     Merit is not a term I would associate with such persons. Certified “elitists,” yes; persons with important knowledge and insights they will share with others, no. The time has come for this recognition to emerge from our national subconscious and be made explicit.

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