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David Brooks digs in on the "educated class"

Or Doubling Down on Stupid

Mister Brooks once again condescends to explain to the plebes why the "educated class" are not receiving the credit and deference they deserve. Though unworthy to dust his diploma, and in considerable danger of his going all "Harvard" on me, this humble blogger must beg to differ (and fsck), with the assistance of my favorite poet.

The Gods of the Copybook Headings
By Rudyard Kipling
1919
AS I
pass through my incarnations in every age and race,
I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market-Place.
Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.

Mister Brooks:

The Power Elite
by David Brooks
The Tired Gray Crone of New York

One of the great achievements of modern times is that we have made society more fair. Sixty years ago, the upper echelons were dominated by what E. Digby Baltzell called The Protestant Establishment and C. Wright Mills called The Power Elite. If your father went to Harvard, you had a 90 percent chance of getting in yourself, and the path upward from there was grooved in your favor.

News Flash, Mister Brooks, family wealth (with attendant benefits such as private schools and tutors) remains the most assured path to the fast track.

We were living in trees when they met us. They showed us each in turn
That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn:
But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind,
So we left them to teach the Gorillas while we followed the March of Mankind.
Since then, we have opened up opportunities for women, African-Americans, Jews, Italians, Poles, Hispanics and members of many other groups. Moreover, we've changed the criteria for success. It is less necessary to be clubbable. It is more important to be smart and hard-working.

Sadly, though demonstrably, you also changed the standards of excellence as well. Equality of Opportunity does not assure equality of Outcome, though the champions of the "educated class" would have us believe otherwise, and have worked quite diligently to ensure said equality of outcome (q.v Barrack Hussein Obama, but I digress).

We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace,
Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market-Place.
But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.
Yet here's the funny thing. As we've made our institutions more meritocratic, their public standing has plummeted. We've increased the diversity and talent level of people at the top of society, yet trust in elites has never been lower.

It's not even clear that society is better led. Fifty years ago, the financial world was dominated by well-connected blue bloods who drank at lunch and played golf in the afternoons. Now financial firms recruit from the cream of the Ivy League. In 2007, 47 percent of Harvard grads went into finance or consulting. Yet would we say that banks are performing more ably than they were a half-century ago?

I wouldn't say any such thing, but I lack Mister Brooks hubris and certifications. What the "educated class" fails to understand is what the "Protestant Elite" and the "Power Elite" absorbed with their mothers milk; their parents had not grown wealthy to assure their progeny's future, they had progeny to assure the future of that wealth, and trained them to do so.

With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch
They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch
They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings.
So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.
Government used to be staffed by party hacks. Today, it is staffed by people from public policy schools. But does government work better than it did before?

Journalism used to be the preserve of working-class stiffs who filed stories and hit the bars. Now it is the preserve of cultured analysts who file stories and hit the water bottles. Is the media overall more reputable now than it was then?

These things do happen when one substitutes certification for demonstrated competence.

When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
And the Gods of the Copybook Heading said: "Stick to the Devil you know."
The promise of the meritocracy has not been fulfilled. The talent level is higher, but the reputation is lower.

Why has this happened? I can think of a few contributing factors.

Demonstrated lack of competence for one. Carefully nurtured group think which refused to take notice of contrary facts or opinions not blessed by their fellows of the "educated class" for a second.

And can one really call systems which routinely reject Asian applicants with higher grades and test scores in favor of other ethnic groups with lower test scores and grades a "meritocacy"? Only for very low values of merit, I would say.

On the first Feminian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller Life
(Which started by loving our neighbour and ended by loving his wife)
Till our women had no more children and the men lost reason and faith,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "The Wages of Sin is Death."
First, the meritocracy is based on an overly narrow definition of talent. Our system rewards those who can amass technical knowledge. But this skill is only marginally related to the skill of being sensitive to context. It is not related at all to skills like empathy. Over the past years, we've seen very smart people make mistakes because they didn't understand the context in which they were operating.

No, the system rewards those who test well, those from what the system calls "disadvantaged backgrounds", and the wealthy. It manifestly punishes those not of "disadvantaged backgrounds" (regardless of their family socioeconomic status) who work hard and earn good grades, and who have hands on experience of the context of a working society.

In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "If you don't work you die."
Second, this new system has created new social chasms. In the old days, there were obviously big differences between people whose lives were defined by "The Philadelphia Story" and those who were defined by "The Grapes of Wrath." But if you ran the largest bank in Murfreesboro, Tenn., you probably lived in Murfreesboro. Now you live in Charlotte or New York City. You might have married a secretary. Now you marry another banker. You would have had similar lifestyle habits as other people in town. Now the lifestyle patterns of the college-educated are very different from the patterns in other classes. Social attitudes are very different, too.
Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew,
And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four--
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.

Why yes, Mister Brooks, the "educated class" have indeed constructed a positive feedback loop.

Every Engineer reading this, and most shade tree mechanics and self taught engineers shuddered when they read that. The "educated class", lacking engineering backgrounds themselves and feeling no need to seek input from outside their clique, saw no problem with that at all.

It could be that Americans actually feel less connected to their leadership class now than they did then, with good reason.

Why yes. Most of us not of the "educated class" place our emphasis on demonstrated results. Our first response to failure is to try to figure out where we went wrong, so we won't repeat our mistake. We look askance upon those who insist that the theory is fine, it was just the implementation that failed (on numerous occasions), and that we really need to try it just one more time. We view that as the height of folly.

As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man--
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began --
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire--
Third, leadership-class solidarity is weaker. The Protestant Establishment was inbred. On the other hand, those social connections placed informal limits on strife. Personal scandals were hushed up. Now members of the leadership class are engaged in a perpetual state of war. Each side seeks daily advantage in ways that poison the long-term reputations of everybody involved.

Is Mister Brooks really this ignorant of American History? Does "Ma, ma, where's my pa?" ring any bells for Mister Brooks? How about the campaigns of John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson?

Fourth, time horizons have shrunk. If you were an old blue blood, you traced your lineage back centuries, and there was a decent chance that you'd hand your company down to members of your clan. That subtly encouraged long-term thinking.

Now people respond to ever-faster performance criteria -- daily stock prices or tracking polls. This perversely encourages reckless behavior. To leave a mark in a fast, competitive world, leaders seek to hit grandiose home runs. Clinton tried to transform health care. Bush tried to transform the Middle East. Obama has tried to transform health care, energy and much more.

There's less emphasis on steady, gradual change and more emphasis on the big swing. This produces more spectacular failures and more uncertainty. Many Americans, not caught up on the romance of this sort of heroism, are terrified.

You cannot put that djini back in the bottle. Ubiquitous high speed communications are a fact of modern life, as are a whole body of legislation requiring publicly traded companies to regularly and publicly report their financial situation to their stock holders. The speed of business will not be slowing any time soon.

I will note that, as intended, Government does NOT move at the speed of business. If it did, the 0bama agenda would already be the Law, despite the well documented opprobrium of The People he purportedly serves.

Fifth, society is too transparent. Since Watergate, we have tried to make government as open as possible. But as William Galston of the Brookings Institution jokes, government should sometimes be shrouded for the same reason that middle-aged people should be clothed. This isn't Galston's point, but I'd observe that the more government has become transparent, the less people are inclined to trust it.

Transparency is not the problem. The problem is the fecklessness and cronyism which transparency has revealed to The People, who rightly object to both.

This is not to say that we should return to the days of the WASP ascendancy. That's neither possible nor desirable. Rather, our system of promotion has grown some pretty serious problems, which are more evident with each passing day.

No David. The problem is that The People have realized that the "educated class" will insist on trying their failed theories "one more time" until the heat death of the universe, or until they are removed from power.

And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!

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Comments (6)

Quite entertaining and lite... (Below threshold)
epador:

Quite entertaining and literate.

One of my favorite poems. ... (Below threshold)
Jaye:

One of my favorite poems. Just a couple of days ago, I thought of it, looked it up, reread it, and shared it with my adult children as appropriate for present times.

I daresay this could be the... (Below threshold)
Jim Addison:

I daresay this could be the only time in his life where Brooks might be compared to Kipling, however unfavorably.

I think the fallacy Brooks entertains is that of "meritocracy." He believes that by adopting a facade of openness and inclusiveness, institutions of government and the academy turned themselves into meritocracies, but in fact they only put on the appearance of doing so. The truth is they merely substituted one set of criteria for being "elite" for another, different but equally as arbitrary.

The free markets are the only method of establishing a genuine meritocracy, and not just in economic ventures. But we don't have free markets in goods and services, much less in charity, education, or government service.

The very existence, for example, of civil service laws and faculty tenure prevent meritocracy from ever even establishing a foothold in those areas.

More chattering about free ... (Below threshold)
Steve Crickmore:

More chattering about free markets..except savym too big and arrogant to fail Wall Street, was the first and loudest to demand multi billion dollar public corporate welfare from the taxpayer to save themelves from the bearish market consequences of their awful reckless decisions.

And wasn-t Kipling an unrepentant British imprerialist_

Defining Kipling's politics... (Below threshold)
wolfwalker:

Defining Kipling's politics in modern terms is difficult, because he didn't live today, he lived a hundred years ago when Empire was not a political position but a fact of life. He was certainly an ardent British nationalist, and an equally ardent supporter of the British people and the British soldiers with whom he spent a lot of time. OTOH, one can look at poems like "Gunga Din" and "White Man's Burden" and "Ballad of East and West," and see a developing rejection of colonialism and a move toward racial and cultural equality.

Brooks, like other "intelle... (Below threshold)
GarandFan:

Brooks, like other "intellectual elites" has an overblown opinion of himself and his self-worth to society.

On his death-bed he'll cry out in anguish when it dawns on him that the world will continue onward WITHOUT him.




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