Part II: Destroying Upward Mobility
Thomas Edison dropped out of school and became one of our nation’s greatest inventors and men of business. Herbert Hoover never got a good grade in engineering, but he became a wildly successful (and rich) engineer. Today, our children take their college “aptitude” tests multiple times to get that extra point or two so they can get into a college a step or two higher in the rankings. They and their parents are convinced, with some reason, that their careers and lives will shine or decline according to the prestige of the university from which they graduate.
And we call this progress.
The myth that the contemporary university has produced a cornucopia of good jobs and general upward mobility in the United States has been debunked multiple times. As Barack Obama ascended to the presidency, Joel Kotkin declared, wrongly, that race issues in the United States would abate but, rightly, that the loss of social mobility would continue to be a severe problem. In the event, as Kotkin himself has admitted, things have gotten far worse under Obama. Yet the myth of the university as mobility creator remains with us. The reason is simple: the university now is almost the only means by which young people can hope to achieve upward, or even sideways, mobility. The university is, in fact, a source of today’s highly limited social mobility, because it is essentially the only source of jobs and status in a society increasingly characterized by stultifying credentialism. By squeezing out of existence its former competitors in the trades, in industry, and in the practical world of commerce and even of the arts, the contemporary university has made itself the be all and end all of American economic life, and of social and intellectual life as well. It has, in sum, become the only game in town for anyone hoping to make a decent living.
The exception that proves the rule is in high-tech. Here we have seen a number of people drop out of school in order to found wildly successful businesses. The irony is, of course, that these people were successful in the most technocratic of fields, the very kind of subject which the contemporary university claims it must teach and to teach which it must become ever larger and take up an ever larger part of our national income. The high-tech gurus also, by and large, have proven to be cultural and economic savages with little knowledge, understanding, or empathy for real people. Thus, we see the track record of people like Steve Jobs and others who have destroyed communities, outsourced many thousands of jobs, and supported the most ridiculous of public policies, all in the name of “the people” whose tax coffers they regularly raid with no intention of giving back anything significant beyond their own example of self-serving hypocrisy. Technocrats to the core, they believe they are doing the rest of us a favor by telling us how best to live our lives—namely as peons under the rule of technocrats.
The technocratic problem has deep roots, of course. Hoover himself was not such a great president. But the problem there was that people thought his success in engineering should translate into success in “running the country.” This was a classic, tragic error that has become far more common as time has passed.
Central to the growing monopoly of the university in our public life has been the technocratic myth—that our knowledge of human nature and the social order can be “scientific” in the sense of being reducible to equations and studies mimicking the hard sciences. Even admission into college now is a creature of scientism. Our children are driven mad by the need to perform well on tests which often claim to test only their “aptitude” (read “intrinsic ability”) rather than their actual learning. Yet, somehow (magically it would seem, though no doubt there is some plot by rich white males afoot) social mobility has actually decreased in recent years. The decrease has become increasingly pronounced as “power couples” or two-career households in which one or two kids are raised by nannies and tutors increasingly dominate the admissions offices to prestigious schools, as well as child psychologists’ offices.
This is not to say that there is not some mobility left in America. Moreover, the university being the primary locus of career opportunity, climbing the prestige ladder among universities is more a key to that mobility than ever. Indeed, our economy is beginning to look like that of France or even ancient China, where status and position were dependent on how one did or does on entrance exams. In France one’s career depends on the école (school) to which one is admitted. Free markets, along with the work ethic, having been killed off, status—either aristocratic or educational—now is the key to everything economic, professional, and social in France. In the Chinese empire, the only route to any kind of economic well-being for all but the tiny merchant class was the imperial bureaucracy.
In China there was at least the advantage that the tests were concerned with actual knowledge of some kind (generally traditional literature and philosophy). In the United States the tests claim to be about nothing. The educratic frauds who have foisted upon us today’s college entrance exams, and who continually tinker with them to get more of the results they desire, claim that their only role is to “help” universities find students who will “fit” their educational demands. The exams are, in other words, thinly veiled attempts to substitute for IQ tests. Yes, we can tell our kids that the SAT has nothing to do with how worthy or valuable they are. But the college admissions committees tell them otherwise. Sadly, the SAT really does have little to do with the value (or intelligence) of students. But it has a lot to do with how well acculturated students have been to what is demanded by university elites. The ACT, though more honest about the fact that it is measuring a certain (in some cases quite specious) achievement, is no different in its fundamental character or purpose. No longer the interview (except in rare, borderline cases) or the school-specific essay exam, but instead the mass mailings, mass multiple-choice examinations, and massive waste of time and energy that is university admissions.
We are told that these examinations are necessary in our large, complex, and egalitarian society to give admissions committees some “objective” criteria for measuring the likelihood that a particular student will succeed at their university. And to a certain extent this claim is backed up—primarily by the fact that affirmative action policies allowing students with much lower scores into a university result in massive failure for those students. The cruelty of such race-based policies is covered up, of course, and we are in the process of seeing the entire system, and with it any standard of excellence, degraded in the name of “diversity.” There certainly is reason to discount the social utility of forcing students to “learn” by becoming expert choice makers among predetermined answers provided by educrats. But the real problem is the role of the contemporary university as the sole entryway to economic life for children who have ambition, or parents with ambition for them, to leave the blue-collar world.
That this attitude itself is quite elitist, rooted in disrespect for the skilled trades so necessary for a vibrant society with a respectable, prosperous working class, is blithely ignored. Also ignored is the impact of the current system on young people who may in fact be quite bright, hard working, and capable of making real contributions to the economy and society, but who simply are not bookish. A side effect of university hegemony, of course, is that even as the nonbookish are made to feel like stupid failures, the university itself has gotten increasingly far away from books. Look at the typical reading list, even for courses in traditional liberal arts disciplines like the humanities, literature, or history, and you will find that the pages of required reading are sadly few in comparison to those of even twenty years ago. Today’s students simply could not handle the workload of previous years.
Instead of the center of genuine education, the contemporary university has become four years of continued adolescence, some of it intellectual (for example, the various whine fests of oppression studies) and much of it all-too physical. The brutal process of gaining admission to these centers of false learning are taken by many students as an excuse for their self-absorption once they get in. What the contemporary university has done, then, is diverted young people’s attention and effort away from proper high school studies, from the ennobling discipline of work, and from serious thought of where their real talents and desires lie. Diverting them toward what? Toward building the “right” admissions packet, with the right scores and lists of politically correct activities to gain entrance into the new waiting room for adulthood, the university.
It should surprise no one that those who tend to do best at standardized exams are those most willing to subordinate their individuality, their traditions, and their time and effort to mastering the art of pleasing the elite gatekeepers. That these criteria favor those whose parents can afford to hire admission coaches for them and who can afford to sacrifice outside income and community activities to the relentless pursuit of educratic favor. The result is an increasingly narrow, narrow-minded, and self-satisfied elite coming from specific, favored schools and then sending their children to those same schools. It is not a result favorable to republican government or the hopes and dreams of the good, smart, and virtuous people favored by the more open society that was America before the hegemony of the contemporary university.
Bruce P. Frohnen is Professor of Law at The Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law.