Preserving an Elite Under the Guise of “Access”

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Although I’d debate some of her specific policy complaints, this paragraph from a woman who worked at an elite private school in the D.C. area, offered in a letter to Rod Dreher, strikes an important note:

This ruling class is engaged in one of the greatest farces any elite has ever attempted: they preach the saving religion of intersectional self-examination of privilege while being the biggest benefactors of a privilege they zealously guard: the privilege of credentialism. For all their stated concerns about the poor and minorities they preserve a system where monetary wealth and a public platform are beyond the reach of the working and welfare classes. It’s a system where the middle-class door-knockers who attempt access are, more often than not, punished with a lifetime of debt. It’s a system where all the talk of access and free schooling are a joke to make their conscience a little clearer in order to avoid the elephant in the room: not everyone can be the HR manager of Procter & Gamble. Not every little girl will grow up to run for President. The empowerment of the few to live without limits comes at the cost of the many being able to live at all. They have no intention of leveling the playing field. They speak about compassion for the immigrant but have no desire to change economic policy to stop pillaging the immigrant’s country of origin. It is all pitting people against one another in the hopes no one will notice that their child will get the best. And DC is the number one living monument to this willful cognitive dissonance.

The most striking revelation in this commentary is how self-serving ends can become cloaked in feel-good talk about providing opportunity.*  Note that we hear a whole lot about providing opportunity for college, for example, and ensuring that all students can attend college if they so choose. We don’t hear nearly as much talk about opportunities for students for whom college is largely a waste of time and an entry into the world of debt.  The path toward blue collar work is not nearly as thoroughly promoted.

In other words, the promised path of “access” reinforces the priorities and advantages of the elite.  Yet, there are only so many seats at Harvard.

As we’ve begun entering the phase of life during which we’ll have to guide our children through decisions about college, my wife and I have assessed the collegiate landscape.  It seems that there are fewer than a dozen institutions that will open doors for life with the universal reaction of, “Oh! That’s a good school.”  There are maybe a couple score more that will elicit the same reaction (albeit diluted) from gatekeepers in the know, particularly in specific industries.

Beyond that range, however, is a broad landscape of colleges and universities that stand mainly as adequate backstops for the self-directed efforts and talents of the individual student.  Generally, I’ve found this notion comforting, because it relieves an unhealthy pressure for those who aren’t set on (and may not even desire) entry into the ranks of the oh-that’s-a-good-school.

On the other hand, that way of looking at college means that we’re shuffling more and more of our society into the meritocratic funnel without necessarily widening the the narrow end with more opportunities.  For that, we need fewer gatekeepers.  Or rather, we need more gatekeepers whose interests involve a narrower field, meaning more individuals and small businesses making their own decisions about people on a more personal basis than HR departments reviewing college transcripts.

* Here’s where individual discernment is necessary.  Obviously, some policies do increase opportunity, and the people promoting those policies may benefit from them.  Thus, disputes between the two sides can become mired in finger pointing.