Preserving an Elite Under the Guise of “Access”


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.

  • ShannonEntropy

    In one of life’s little ironies, I just finished reading a book last week that addresses many of the issues you discuss here… including how parents of upper-middle-income college-bound students — like you, Justin — pave the way to success for their kids:

  • Rhett Hardwick

    Just an observation. I know a fairly good number of “blue collar” guys, builders, diggers, mechanical contractors, etc. with incomes that comfortably exceed $200,000. I have noticed that they do not seek homes in “wealthy suburbs”, keep their boats in marinas which are not “exclusive”, do not join country clubs, and rarely drive a Mercedes. Are they a “hidden elite”? I have noticed that they do not push their kids educationally. However, the third generation does. Do they appear in surveys of class structure? I have also noticed a number of “elites” who have “descended”, A Fine Arts professor from Harvard who is now a digger, and English professor from Brown who is now a mason contractor. Both of these resulted from taking some time off to help a sick father with their business. They saw what the father was making and never went back. I can think of one example where a builders four kids became “professionals”. After some years, they looked around at how they were living. They noticed the “old man” had two yachts. They quit and joined the father’s business.

    • ShannonEntropy

      Here’s a book you on this topic you might find inner-resting, Rhett:

      Speaking of “professionals” who make more buck$ in blue-collar work… a friend of mine who lives in Kansas was an orthopedic surgeon. I say “was” cuz when his widowed mother died and left him a ton of property he realized he could make more money just managing & maintaining it full time

      That left him with a lot of time on his hands so he went to law school and now has a side-gig doing medico-legal analysis of cases, mostly in the federal court system

      No more nights/weekends/being forced to take ER call and care for every drunken indigent bum who breaks a leg, just to keep his hospital ‘privileges’

      One of our nephews wasted a quarter-mill and 4 yrs of his life getting a fancy BS in computer science and started working in the field up in Cambridge… only to realize his dad [ my B-I-L ] was making five times his pay at his sheet metal / fabricating company. Now the kid is in his 40s and has been working for pops for the last 20 yrs

      • Rhett Hardwick

        I read that book a number of years ago, it breathed new life into the word “frugal”. “Frugal” then appeared in every advertisement directed at business people.

        Your friend reminds me of my ex-brother in law. He bought up 4-5 emergency rooms in the Miami area. That on the expectation there would be an increase in insurance. (he does tell stories of the uninsured being sent from hospital to hospital until they died in the ambulance) His speculation was correct. At 35 he sold out for millions, gave up medicine, and became an investor-fisherman. I dated several doctors over the years, I don’t recall any real pleased with the job. One went into pathology precisely because she couldn’t stand dealing with patients.

      • Rhett Hardwick

        If you don’t want to spend a quarter-mil on an engineering degree, I commend this. Out of staters 28K, including uniforms. Rated in the top ten “Public Colleges” by Forbes and U.S. News. The good news is that you no longer need to take a year of “sword”, but the athletic director is still titled “Master of the Sword”. Democrats are rare there, it is an embarrassment that the current governor of Virginia is a graduate.

        • ShannonEntropy

          You can get educated for free these days, if all you want is actual knowledge. Fer ex, MIT & a host of other Tier 1 schools offer their entire catalog online for free:

          But as I used to tell non-STEM majors when I was on the faculty at Brown:

          The main value of your degree is that it tells future employers that you can show up when necessary; are able to complete assignments; and can read & write at at least an 8th grade level

          These are valuable traits for any potential employee. But beyond that, they don’t give a fig about your expertise in Art History

          A book on my list I haven’t got around to yet but should be inner-resting:

          • Rhett Hardwick

            I do not wish to denigrate “education” , but the motto on the ring I mentioned is “Honor Above Self”. They mean it. The Institute has produced relatively few politicians.

          • ShannonEntropy

            Two problems with VMI:

            1) The acceptance rate is only 53 %. So your odds of getting in are barely better than a coin flip [ OTOH, the Tier-1 US Naval Academy & West Point both have an 8 % acceptance rate. But both are tuition-free ]

            2) According to USNews’ college ratings, The housing situation is very different from most universities’
            campuses. In the Barracks, cadets live modestly, with limited space and
            multiple other occupants, and are expected to maintain cleanliness and
            order at all times.

            The overwhelming majority of kids today have never even had to share a bedroom with a single other sibling, let alone keep the place clean; so this type of housing will be abhorrent to all but a select few [ Both of my kids would have refused to live under those conditions ]

          • Rhett Hardwick

            “cadets live modestly”
            They get “cots”
            “are expected to maintain cleanliness”
            Spotless, or you might get “sweated”
            “Stealing” The long roll plays at 6 AM, the loudspeakers announce “Cadet Johnson has preferred personal gain to personal honor, his name is never to be spoken again”, the corps is lined in ranks and the thief is marched out between them, as they turn their heads so as not to have to look at him. (I believe this is gone) Not for everyone.
            It produced Mel Brooks.

          • Rhett Hardwick

            Had to add this. My daughter decided on the Ivy League and chose Dartmouth (turned down Brown because of a rape crisis there) Standing with her at “computer passout” it began to rain. Leaving her to make friends, I went into the building. I had a coffee and talked to a few people. Suddenly, I was grabbed by two junior faculty. No graduate of the Institute is easily taken in hand. After putting them on the floor I enquired as to their purpose. It seems they thought I was attempting to steal a computer (this was the middle 90’s, I was a business man. What would I do with a Mac?) At the Institute, if I did not report them for creating a situation of dishonor by accusing a parent of theft, they would have been required to report themselves.