Prestige factories

by Rob Horning

27 February 2006


As economist Max Sawicky writes today in this post, “We are not living under meritocracy. Merit is substantially compromised by privilege. Privilege derives from wealth, race, and gender. It biases decisions in college admissions, employment, housing, political appointments, and credit allocation. It reduces economic efficiency and growth because a biased decision entails waste of real resources.”

Nowhere is elitism in America more firmly entrenched than in its prestigious colleges, which exist by and large to facilitate the networks between the children of the wealthy and powerful. This is the whole point of legacy admissions at Ivy League schools and their counterparts, and of the shadowy admission process that factors in such subjective criteria as “character” and “fitness.” These were codes for keeping undesirable Jews out for much of the 20th century and they are alleged to exist to cap the number of ambitious Asians in various pseudo-meritocratic institutions—you know America, the land of equal opportunity. (It would even more scandalous if things were generally more fair elsewhere, I suppose. Like they say about capitalism, the worst economic system except for all the others.)

BusinessWeek recently profiled new Amherst College president Tony Marx, who’s mission it is to try to reverse the concentration of elite higher education at the top of the income-bracket hierarchy. He has the usual proposals—set-asides for the poor with corresponding lowering of standards to make up for the deificent education the poor have already received by the time they are going to apply to colleges. Herein lies his main problem—the differences in the habitus of rich and poor has already become entrenched by age 18, and the intelligent poor kids need to be retrained, in some ways, in their entire approach to life. Professors, those left-wing cabalists, actually resent the kind of affirmative action that brings more lower-class kids to their classrooms because it means more work for them with no corresponding increase in pay (i.e. it exposes themselves as class enemies of the proletariet, despite whatever fantasies they may have about being fellow travelers). From the article: “Professors fear that since many low-income students, however smart, come from inferior high schools, they will require a lot of help to get up to speed in writing, math, and science. ‘Because most professors are not fully equipped to handle this, there will be a big debate about how far to go,’ predicts veteran English professor Barry O’Connell, an ardent Marx supporter.” In this way professors, far from the liberals they may think they are, are actually acting in the interests of those deeply conservative forces that seek to keep social capital and intellectual capital, concentrated in the upper classes. They couch their indignation in arguments over objective standards and maintaining the “intellectual quality” of their college, but in the end, this is less about educational standards than it is about effort (not wanting to help ill-equipped kids), comfort (not wanting to deal with class tensions on campus) and prestige (the ego boost of seeing students proceed to positions of power already prepared for them, more or less from birth; the pleasure of teaching at one of U.S. News and World Report‘s top schools). In my sojourn in academia, I was kind of shocked by the pettiness, the egotism, the misplaced priorities, the bad faith. Again, I suppose if it weren’t that way in all professions, it would be more of scandal in secondary education. 

Since the problem begins with the formation of habitus in chilhood which stigmatizes lower-class kids for their entire lives, simply re-educating a few of them and branding them with the elite-college name won’t really alter the problem. The segregation begins so early that college presidents can’t really do anything to fix it. Proponents of busing poor kids to rich schools and vice versa would do much more to address the problem, but this is overwhelmingly unpopular with the people whose votes actually get counted.

And even if you could admit enough poor people into elite schools to make a difference in the overall proportions, one would only find the game had shifted, and presitge and opportunity was being minted elsewhere. Because education itself is not what elite schools are about primarily—they are about being a “positional good,” being something with manufactured scarcity that makes possessing it seem distinguishing, valuable. If everyone could go to Amherst, then no one would want to go there, and no one would care if you did. It would give you no credit with potential employers or lenders or anyone else. Social capital is a matter of access, not merit, and universities dole out social capital before all else, distributing prestige while artificially limiting its supply. People like Marx want to increase the supply, but that would be bad fiscal policy. Accrued prestige would become less valuable, and individuals would have to earn a lot more of it to be taken seriously.

Ideally college presidents could shift the prestige game to some other institution other than education, and perhaps remove some of the disguise of meritocracy the university system cloaks our present social-class system in—separating the education process from the reproduction of the existing class structure could yield more knowledge in the long run—but perhaps not, as it would remove the incentives (illusory or otherwise) that drives individuals to achieve within educational systems. They produce knowledge not for its own sake but for their own personal reputation, in the hope of improving their status or preserving it. These incentives they inherit from the economic system at large. And it’s unlikely that will be changing anytime soon.

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