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The recent college admissions scandal is something to behold. While it’s always been known that wealthy alumni might bestow a small leg-up for their progeny through well-timed gifts, the unvarnished cheating on tests, bribes to coaches and admissions personnel, and the shameless participation of wealthy parents truly removes all pretense that the system is not rigged. The demented offspring who have defended their cheating parents show rather plainly what a huge gap there is between these young people’s talents and the largesse that would be bestowed upon them in a ticket to Harvard or Yale.
The composition of our nation’s elite and how it is selected has changed over time. While Americans always had a great concern for merit, factors like coming from a good family and other marks of social standing predominated. A large number of high-IQ students did not even go to college until the post-war boom of higher education, driven in part by the G.I. Bill.
One of the great changes of the 20th century was the increasingly efficient selection of raw intelligence among a handful of institutions, particularly the Ivy League. What used to be finishing schools for established families, instead became highly selective institutions that selected chiefly for intellectual talent. Middle and working-class Jews, Catholics, and smart kids from Nowheresville, U.S.A. began to attend college in greater numbers.
The highest talents that used to go, at best, to the City University of New York or an “Ag” college ended up more and more at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. They were joined by high-IQ newcomers from other parts of the world, particularly Asia. Coupled with the high weight accorded to standardized test scores, this self-selection accelerated with the advent of the U.S. News and World Report list of college rankings in the 1980s. While Duke, Harvard, and Emory might all have been indistinguishably “good private schools” a generation earlier, they were now precisely ranked for everyone, including parents and students, to see.
The efficiency of the process became such that, according to the The Bell Curve, 60 percent of students with a verbal score on the SAT above 700 ended up at only the top-20 universities. These classmates would, in turn, become friends, remain part of each other’s business networks, and marry each other. A new class, which the Bell Curve’s authors called the “Cognitive Elite,” began to emerge.
Whether at the top or in the middle, entry and success increasingly required credentials. Job listings required college degrees for management and sales positions where they were previously unnecessary. Certain fields, such as finance or management consulting, were essentially only available to graduates of top schools. Credentials substituted for the tests themselves, which employers were wary to do directly after a string of unfortunate employment law precedents in the 1970s. This credentialism also trickled downward. Engineers, lawyers, and others were falling into different tiers based on their pedigrees.
With these top schools functioning more than ever as a ticket to the elite—indeed, they were the defining mark and gatekeeper to the elite—the process became more competitive even among the gifted. Not mere brains but high-level research, internships, and stories of grace in the face of insurmountable hardships became important parts of the admission process. More and more slots were reserved for members of various underprivileged ethnic groups, which tended to squeeze out bright, but merely middle-class or even poor, whites who worked summer jobs instead of internships at the United Nations and at cancer research labs. In these matters, the wealthy can afford to give their kids every advantage to round out their résumés.
It seems parents’ love for their children knows few bounds, particularly in an increasingly status-conscious, post-moral, winner-take-all world. Cheating goes far beyond the already-burdensome math camps, tutors, and subsidized internships. But all of this cheating and scheming is merely a symptom. The root of the problem was already there, because the importance of credentials from a handful of elite institutions crowded out other important criteria for success and advancement, such as results or genuine character. Just as an enormous government leads to more lobbyists and higher stakes elections, the increasing importance of a degree from the right schools has led to the corruption of parents, children, schools, and their admissions personnel.
As these schools have become more important for credentialing, the actual educational content has declined. There is no more Latin and Greek requirement, nor even the transmission of the best of Western civilization. The brand is key, and the brand says, “this person deserves to rule.”
The elite is defined by its inculturation. Whereas in the past this might have included the high country club arts of knowing the rules to polo and the dress code for summers in the Hamptons, it now includes having the right neoliberal tastes and prejudices. This is what David Brooks in 2000 called the “bobo” class, and it’s notable as much for its contempt for phenomena like Trump, working with one’s hands, and chain restaurants, as it is for its embrace of the modern, of diversity, of feminism, and, most important, of preserving the right of that class to rule.
At the same time, the imposition of “woke” consciousness-raising on matters of “social justice,” far from shielding students from what they’ll face in the real world, have been recreated in multinational corporations like Google, Apple, and Facebook. The same basic cultural view is now dominant among elites in business, government, academia, and the media.
Much of the frustration of middle America arises from its own divergence from this class. Each has different tastes, different priorities, different levels of wealth, and different degrees of hope for the future. While the old WASP elite may have been exclusive, ethnocentric, and stiff, it always had a sense of noblesse oblige. The new class rather shamelessly mocks the losers who shop at Walmart, eat at Olive Garden, and haven’t traveled to Morocco or Vietnam (other than perhaps on a Navy troop ship). Hillary Clinton let the mask slip during her campaign by referring to such people as “deplorables.”
The divergence is not merely on tastes, but extends to economics and politics. For all the talk of what we used to call “limousine liberals,” rarely does something like trade protectionism, immigration restriction, or concern for the small businesses displaced by globalism concern the elite. These present not problems but opportunities for them. These trends tend to transfer power and control from small businesses (which are not particularly marked by credentialism) to large corporations and government, where the managerial elite and credentials are key.
Not only is there a lack of empathy for the displaced, but there is an understandable concern for their own offsprings’ future. They have the ability to finance the various camps and experiences that demonstrate the new emphasis on “being well rounded.” Their children and grandchildren will maintain their slots among the elite, the admission to which is increasingly obscure. What began as a group from diverse backgrounds defined particularly by intellectual talent has evolved into a class, defined as much by who its parents are and what they can afford to do for their kids, as anything else. These cheating parents are just extreme examples of a broader problem.
Media, government, higher education, business, and science are now dominated by matriculants of a handful of institutions. Both wealth and power are determined early on by one’s inclusion among the right list of alumni. There is something not merely anti-democratic but anti-self-government more generally in their dominance of these institutions and in their cultivation of immunity from democratic controls.
These elites—whether in government or business—lock ranks against all that has even a whiff of “populism.” This immunity includes large parts of the government itself, where the credentialist rulers of administrative agencies coupled with the elite-dominated courts increasingly say “no” to the democratic branches of government. The American system is supposed to be one of popular sovereignty. The people and their common sense and experience are the final arbiter, but that is not allowed in the age of a managerial elite.
The best result of the bribing scandal would be to introduce some healthy skepticism among the governed about the quality of our elites. After all, if the status of our elites is something that one merely can buy one’s way into, perhaps it’s not a very good test of talent or worth.
Beyond the mockery, the admissions scandal should also occasion a more serious question: why is it the case that a mere degree from one of these institutions is deemed worth $1 million or more? And while these credentials clearly accrue a great deal of wealth, power, and prestige for those who become a part of the ruling class, how great of a job has this group done ruling the rest of us anyway?
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