Death by Degrees

In 605 CE, a year after murdering his father and seizing the throne, the Chinese emperor Yang Guang established the world’s first meritocracy. Weary of making bureaucratic appointments solely on the basis of letters of recommendation, Yang set aside a number of posts for applicants who performed well on a new system of imperial examinations. In theory, any peasant who took the trouble to memorize 400,000 characters —which is to say, anyone who conducted six years of study with an expensive tutor —could join the country’s political elite.

Over the centuries, as China’s scholar–bureaucrats grew more powerful, their metrics of assessment became increasingly intricate. Those who passed were stratified into nine grades, and each grade was further divided into two degrees. Exam performance corresponded exactly to salary, denominated in piculs of rice; the top brass received more than seventeen times as much rice as the lowest tier. But the true rewards of exam success were considerably higher: besides the steady salary, bribe collection made it very good to be a bureaucrat.

As time went on, more and more people took —and passed —the exam’s first round. Test prep academies proliferated. Imperial officials started to worry: there were now more degree-holders than there were positions, which threatened to create an underclass of young men with thwarted ambitions. When the Ming dynasty fell in 1644, their successors, the Qing, resolved to make the test more difficult. By the middle of the 19th century, 2 million people sat the exam, but just over 1 percent passed its first round; only 300 candidates —.016 percent —passed all three.

Failure could be discouraging. In 1837, after botching the exam’s second round for a second time, Hong Xiuquan, an ambitious 23-year-old from a village near Guangzhou, suffered a nervous breakdown. The precocious Hong had come in first on the county-level test, but after he turned 15 his family could no longer afford the customary tutor. Nor could Hong afford to bribe the examiners, as many test-takers did. The notional possibility that anyone could pass the test concealed a bitter truth: for a poor countryman like Hong, making it past the second round was all but impossible.

Sick and delirious, Hong began to see visions. While in the provincial capital, he had encountered missionaries from the US who gave him a tract on Christianity. It made a big impression: soon Hong had a dream in which he saw the Christian God remonstrating with Confucius about his faithlessness. In another, angels carried Hong to heaven, where a man with a long golden beard presented him with a sword and instructed him to rid China of its demons.

Hong sat the exam twice more, failing both times. With each failure, his reverie deepened. Eventually he convinced himself and a band of other young men defeated by the test that he was Christ’s younger brother. A consensus emerged among the converts that it was Hong’s destiny to build a heavenly kingdom purged of sexual depravity. He assembled an army and began the work of conquering China.

So began the Taiping Rebellion, the bloodiest conflict of the 19th century. By the time Hong’s forces were defeated in 1864, 20 million people had died.

According to many on the American left, the “elitist” is a right-wing bogeyman sustained by the mendacious organs of the actual elite —the moneyed one —and by the reactionary reflexes of an anti-intellectual public. Working-class whites, we’re told, vote in the interests of billionaires on the mistaken assumption that culture, not economics, is the main political battlefield, and that godless eggheads, not greedy businessmen, are their true class enemies. The 1-percenters bankrolling the Tea Party thereby deflect the attention of “bitter clingers” away from the wealthy and toward the clubby arrogance of the other 1 percent —the fraction of American students who graduate each year from the top tier of colleges.

The eggheads make sensible targets. Over the last thirty years, the university has replaced the labor union as the most important institution, after the corporation, in American political and economic life. As union jobs have disappeared, participation in the labor force, the political system, and cultural affairs is increasingly regulated by professional guilds that require their members to spend the best years of life paying exorbitant tolls and kissing patrician rings. Whatever modest benefits accreditation offers in signaling attainment of skills, as a ranking mechanism it’s zero-sum: the result is to enrich the accreditors and to discredit those who lack equivalent credentials.

Jean Baudrillard once suggested an important correction to classical Marxism: exchange value is not, as Marx had it, a distortion of a commodity’s underlying use value; use value, instead, is a fiction created by exchange value. In the same way, systems of accreditation do not assess merit; merit is a fiction created by systems of accreditation. Like the market for skin care products, the market for credentials is inexhaustible: as the bachelor’s degree becomes democratized, the master’s degree becomes mandatory for advancement. Our elaborate, expensive system of higher education is first and foremost a system of stratification, and only secondly —and very dimly —a system for imparting knowledge.

The original universities in the Western world organized themselves as guilds, either of students, as in Bologna, or of masters, as in Paris. From the first, their chief mission was to produce not learning but graduates, with teaching subordinated to the process of certification —much as artisans would impose long and wasteful periods of apprenticeship, under the guise of “training,” to keep their numbers scarce and their services expensive. For the contemporary bachelor or master or doctor of this or that, as for the Ming-era scholar–bureaucrat or the medieval European guildsman, income and social position are acquired through affiliation with a cartel. Those who want to join have to pay to play, and many never recover from the entry fee.

Of course, one man’s burden is another man’s opportunity. Student debt in the United States now exceeds $1 trillion. Like cigarette duties or state lotteries, debt-financed accreditation functions as a tax on the poor. But whereas sin taxes at least subsidize social spending, the “graduation tax” is doubly regressive, transferring funds from the young and poor to the old and affluent. The accreditors do well, and the creditors do even better. Student-loan asset-backed securities are far safer than their more famous cousins in the mortgage market: the government guarantees most of the liability, and, crucially, student loans cannot be erased by declaring bankruptcy. Although America’s college graduates are already late on paying nearly $300 billion in loans, they don’t have the option of walking away from these debts, even if their careers have been effectively transformed into underwater assets.

As the credentialism compulsion seeps down the socioeconomic ladder, universities jack up fees and taxi drivers hire $200-an-hour SAT tutors for their children. The collective impact may be ruinous, but for individuals the outlays seem justified. As a consequence, college tuitions are nowhere near their limit; as long as access to the workforce is controlled by the bachelor’s degree, students will pay more and more.

One sort of false consciousness may be involved when a low-income person votes Republican out of mistrust for the credentialed establishment; another occurs when the credentialed establishment denies its own existence. An article in the New Yorker last year demonstrated what might be called the class unconsciousness of the credentialed. There Jeffrey Toobin, a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, profiled the villainous Clarence and Virginia Thomas. Clarence Thomas was born in an impoverished Gullah-speaking community on Georgia’s Atlantic coast, attended Holy Cross and Yale Law School, and eventually became the second African American to sit on the Supreme Court. Thomas’s hatred for the Ivy League is legendary; he felt mistreated at Yale and has claimed that he suffered in the job market because firms assumed he was the beneficiary of affirmative action. Thomas likes to rail against “élites,” a term Toobin smirkingly quarantines in quotation marks, as if the concept to which it referred were a chimera and not a plain reality.

It would be astonishing enough for the New Yorker to cast doubt in any context on the existence of an “élite” —even as it insists on the word’s accent aigu —but it is especially so in the context of the law, where a guild-like structure is more tightly organized around vaporous prestige than in any other field. The confirmation of Elena Kagan marks the first time in history that every single justice on the Supreme Court has attended Harvard or Yale. And Supreme Court justices (with the exception of Thomas) barely consider clerkship candidates who failed to go to a top-five law school. Until the 1980s, Harvard and Yale never accounted for more than half the justices, and until the 1950s, never more than one fifth.

When we ask ourselves whether populist hostility should be directed against the rich or against the professional elite, the answer must be, “Yes, please!” From 1980 to 2007, the financial sector grew from 4 percent of GDP to 8 percent, but it’s shrunk since and may shrink further. The medical sector, on the other hand, grew in the same period from 9 percent to 16 percent —and is expected to account for a full 29 percent of the economy by 2030. Goldman Sachs makes for an attractive monster, but the bigger vampire squid may be the American Medical Association, which has colluded in blocking universal coverage and driving up health costs since World War II.

If not earlier: the AMA owes its authority to America’s most notorious robber barons, who invented philanthropy as we know it by establishing foundations capable of long-term, organized interventions in the country’s political and cultural life. The first foundations poured money into medical schools —but only if those schools followed the example set by Johns Hopkins, which in 1893 had introduced what’s now the standard formula: students attend four years of college, then four years of medical school. Institutions that didn’t follow this model did not get donations, and they also got denounced in a 1910 report sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation. After the Carnegie survey published its “findings,” scores of medical schools —schools whose students could not afford the additional years of study now required, and nearly all of the schools that admitted blacks and women —closed.

Today, we take it for granted that practicing medicine or law requires years of costly credentialing in unrelated fields. In the law, the impact of all this “training” is clear: it supports a legal system that is overly complicated and outrageously expensive, both for high-flying corporate clients who routinely overpay and for small-time criminal defendants who, in the overwhelming majority of cases, can’t afford to secure representation at all (and must surrender their fate to local prosecutors, who often send them to prison). But just as a million-dollar medical training isn’t necessary to perform an abortion, routine legal matters could easily, and cheaply, be handled by noninitiates.

The standardization of these professional guilds benefited undergraduate institutions immensely, a fact that was not lost on university administrators. College presidents endorsed the Hopkins model and the AMA’s consolidation of medical authority for good reason: in the mid-19th century, bachelor’s degrees in the United States were viewed with skepticism by the private sector, and colleges had a hard time finding enough students. The corporate-sponsored consolidation of the medical establishment changed undergraduate education from a choice to a necessity. Where once there was indifference, now there was demand: “I want to be a doctor when I grow up,” the child in the PSA says. “I want to go to college.”

No administration has embodied credentialism as thoroughly as the current one. Of Obama’s first thirty-five cabinet appointments, twenty-two had a degree from an Ivy League university, MIT, Stanford, the University of Chicago, Oxford, or Cambridge. No one would advocate staffing the country’s ministries with wealthy imbeciles, as was the custom under George W. Bush; but 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.

Not all the demons identified by the Tea Party have been phantoms. We on our side are right to reject rule by the 1 percent —and so are they right to reject rule by a credentialed elite. Introductory economics courses paint “rent-seekers” as gruesome creatures who amass monopoly privileges; credential-seekers, who sterilize the intellect by pouring time and money into the accumulation of permits, belong in the same circle of hell.

Americans have been affluent enough for long enough that it’s difficult to remember there was once a time when solidarity trumped the compulsion to rank. The inclusive vision that once drove the labor movement has given way to a guild mentality, at times also among unions, that is smug and parochial. To narrow the widening chasm between insiders and outsiders, we must push on both ends. Dignity must be restored to labor, and power and ecumenicism to labor unions. On the other side the reverse must happen: dignity must be drained from the credential. Otherwise, the accreditation arms race will become more fearsome. Yesterday’s medals will become tomorrow’s baubles, and the prizes that remain precious will be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

Quadrupling the supply of gold stickers is one way to devalue the credential; getting rid of the sticker system altogether is another. In our pay-to-play society, many of those toward the bottom of the educational pyramid are getting fleeced; others, though, are getting a leg up. Because it’s callous and unreasonable to ask the disadvantaged to decline opportunities to advance, subverting credentialism must start at the top. What would happen to the price of a bachelor’s degree if the 42,000 high school valedictorians graduating this spring banded together and refused to go to college? And is it too much to ask the Democratic Party to refrain from running any candidate for national office who holds a degree from an Ivy League school?

Then there are our own credentials. 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. A master’s degree, we might find, burns brighter than a draft card.

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