Stay in School

Dear Editors,

The spectacle of a clique of Ivy League alumni loudly renouncing the conditions of their own success — a familiar enough piece of bourgeois psychodrama — might pass without comment. But “Death by Degrees” betrays a deeper state of political disorientation. While there can be no doubt that institutions of higher education reflect and reproduce existing class divisions, they do not create them. The overrepresentation of Ivy League graduates in the higher spheres of government and finance is a symptom, not a cause, of larger inequities. To argue otherwise is to indulge the inflationary attitude being criticized.

The fact is that the best American universities really do educate students and accredit skills, even as they abet class triage, and this is what makes inequality of access to them so cruel. The piece admits as much. If degrees are merely simulacra, signs with no connection to their purported referents, then a correspondingly irreal politics seems to be called for: licentia docendi ablaze, valedictorians on strike. If we acknowledge rather that universities provide a real social good, then the remedy to existing disparities between those who gain entry and those who do not must be the opposite of what n+1 advocates: to demand the provision of excellent post-secondary instruction to all those who want it.

This is a political position. In its place, n+1 peddles an unwholesome mélange of maximalist rhetoric and bathetic prescription, “commit suicide as a class” or “ask the Democratic Party to refrain from running any candidate for national office who holds a degree from an Ivy League school.” One wonders what to make of the story of Hong Xiuquan, the hapless young man who despaired over his failure to join the ranks of the credentialed Chinese bureaucracy. Is this meant as a cautionary tale? However far-fetched its millennial inspiration and disastrous its finale, the Taiping Rebellion undertook a program of land reform, sexual equality, and the redistribution of private property. The historical example only underscores the feebleness of a critique of “meritocracy” that envisions political action in the form of abnegation.

Students have not remained silent in the face of spending cuts and fee increases. In Davis, in Santiago, in Montreal, young people fighting to defend high-quality, affordable education for all have risked imprisonment and brutalization by police. Provocations like “Death by Degrees” risk nothing but the reputation of those who see fit to publish them.

—Grey Anderson and Danilo Scholz


Against Ageism

Dear Editors,

I am surprised by the ageism of “Big Babies,” in a magazine that otherwise seems conscious of social injustice and the power of language.

The authors adopt old age as a metaphor for the stupid and repugnant, as women long were used as a metaphor for evil. Adjectives such as “old” and “retired” are thrown around as insults; “senilely” is meant to ridicule. The image of old people with “suit sleeves flopping” (yes, many of our wrists become skinny and bony, as the authors’ may, should they live to old age) is taken to be patently repellent. I thought that was the worst until I came upon the sneering depiction of the “Autocrat of the Senior Center” in a “second childhood” in which “someone wipes his spills.” The disabilities often associated with old age, “confusion and impotence” and being “forgetful,” are invoked to demean, while “Napoleon in Depends” is presented as the ultimate insult.

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