Disdain for the Less Educated Is the Last Acceptable PrejudiceRoundup
tags: working class, political history, higher education, meritocracy, Democratic Party, class
Michael J. Sandel is a professor of government at Harvard and the author of the forthcoming The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?, from which this essay is adapted.
Building a politics around the idea that a college degree is a precondition for dignified work and social esteem has a corrosive effect on democratic life. It devalues the contributions of those without a diploma, fuels prejudice against less-educated members of society, effectively excludes most working people from elective government and provokes political backlash.
Here is the basic argument of mainstream political opinion, especially among Democrats, that dominated in the decades leading up to Mr. Trump and the populist revolt he came to represent: A global economy that outsources jobs to low-wage countries has somehow come upon us and is here to stay. The central political question is not to how to change it but how to adapt to it, to alleviate its devastating effect on the wages and job prospects of workers outside the charmed circle of elite professionals.
The answer: Improve the educational credentials of workers so that they, too, can “compete and win in the global economy.” Thus, the way to contend with inequality is to encourage upward mobility through higher education.
The rhetoric of rising through educational achievement has echoed across the political spectrum — from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush to Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton. But the politicians espousing it have missed the insult implicit in the meritocratic society they are offering: If you did not go to college, and if you are not flourishing in the new economy, your failure must be your own fault.
It has not always been this way. Although the well-educated have always been disproportionately represented in Congress, as recently as the early 1960s, about one-fourth of our elected representatives lacked a college degree. Over the past half-decade, Congress has become more diverse with regard to race, ethnicity and gender, but less diverse with regard to educational credentials and class.
One consequence of the diploma divide is that very few members of the working class ever make it to elective office. In the United States, about half of the labor force is employed in working-class jobs, defined as manual labor, service industry and clerical jobs. But fewer than 2 percent of members of Congress worked in such jobs before their election.
Some might argue that government by well-educated university graduates is something to welcome, not regret. Surely we want well-trained doctors to perform our appendectomies. Aren’t highly credentialed leaders best equipped to give us sound public policies and reasoned political discourse?
Not necessarily. Even a glance at the parlous state of political discourse in Congress should give us pause. Governing well requires not only technocratic expertise but also civic virtue — an ability to deliberate about the common good and to identify with citizens from all walks of life. But history suggests little correlation between the capacity for political judgment and the ability to win admission to elite universities. The notion that “the best and the brightest” are better at governing than their less-credentialed fellow citizens is a myth born of meritocratic hubris.
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