September 2, 2020

This Elite Guy Has A Point!

By Bellwether

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In today’s New York Times Harvard professor Michael Sandel decries elitism, and in particular educational credentialism and prejudice. (Yes…)

The credentialist prejudice is a symptom of meritocratic hubris. By 2016, many working people chaffed at the sense that well-schooled elites looked down on them with condescension. This complaint was not without warrant. Survey research bears out what many working-class voters intuit: At a time when racism and sexism are out of favor (discredited though not eliminated), credentialism is the last acceptable prejudice.


Beyond revealing the disparaging views that college-educated elites have of less-educated people, the study also found that elites are unembarrassed by this prejudice. They may denounce racism and sexism, but they are unapologetic about their negative attitudes toward the less educated.

He concludes that,

Appreciating the role of luck in life can prompt a certain humility: There, but for an accident of birth, or the grace of God, or the mystery of fate, go I. This spirit of humility is the civic virtue we need now. It is the beginning of the way back from the harsh ethic of success that drives us apart. It points beyond the tyranny of merit toward a less rancorous, more generous public life.

There’s more and it is well worth your time. It’s hard to argue, at least for me, with any of these points above or the problem of credential fetishizing or education prejudice. (Even a vulgarian like Donald Trump doesn’t break the Harvard – Yale stranglehold on the Supreme Court.)

But, this seem like one of those times where it’s important to keep a few competing ideas in your head at the same time.

– Sandel has an important point about education and class bias. It’s real, a problem, and it’s present in our sector.

– At the same time, education is a good pursuit inherently as well as for individual opportunity and collective prosperity. And a culture of learning is a key component of progress for any society.

One possibility here is a healthy recognition of just how inequitable access to educational opportunity is in America.* And a healthy acknowledgement that there are many purposeful and important ways to go through life that don’t involve a traditional four-year degree.**

Another is a devaluing of education more generally.

Four-year college is not for everyone but everyone should have the opportunity to chose it if they desire.*** That’s central to any creed of equal opportunity and also to social mobility and opportunity. Although a way of thinking that is a puzzling mash up of Marxism and Calvinism seems to have infused education circles lately, there is a lot of evidence that for low-income kids completing college is a an important social mobility strategy that works! We can address the myriad barriers to expanding that without further sending a message to poor kids that college isn’t for them or fueling another round of the perennial education parlor game of who college education is for in the first place.

And, as Sandel notes, we could all be more humane toward one another.

*With about one in ten low-income Americans getting a college degree by age 24 it’s always odd to hear people worry we’re sending too many people to college. And seems like it might go part of the way toward explaining what Sandel is talking about – low-income backgrounds are pretty underrepresented in a lot of roles.

**Though if we’re being honest there is a troubling amount of for thee not for me to some of the conversations in education about this, which is bound up in the Sandel argument.

***A related idea can be found in Frederick deBoer’s new book. He makes a point that is at once obvious and pernicious. Sure, not everyone can do elite academic work. That’s obvious. But much less obvious is figuring out who can – especially given America’s screwed-up school system – and most of the proxies are stereotypes that limit human potential and fuel what Sandel is talking about.

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