Thoughts of an American Centrist

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Is Marx relevant today?

David Brooks seems to think so. I'd like to thank The Yellow Line for highlighting this editorial:

The information age elite exercises artful dominion of the means of production, the education system. The median family income of a Harvard student is $150,000. According to the Educational Testing Service, only 3 percent of freshmen at the top 146 colleges come from the poorest quarter of the population. The educated class ostentatiously offers financial aid to poor students who attend these colleges and then rigs the admission criteria to ensure that only a small, co-optable portion of them can get in.

I heartily agree that the "education divide" is a significant source inequality in today's society. However, I'll vigorously dispute that the system has been "rigged" with the explicit purpose of increasing, or even of maintaining, this stratification.

The one truly thought provoking idea from the editorial was this: “The information society is the only society in which false consciousness is at the top.” To this I will agree. However, I’ll attribute our “false consciousness” more to intellectual and moral laziness than to an outright class inspired power-play.

I'm usually a huge fan of Brooks, but this time I’ll have to take him to task (his automated email response assures me that he’ll read this). David, I'd much rather see you propose a solution or two instead of resorting to mere demagoguery of the “elite class,” which you yourself are so clearly a member.

Of course our educational system needs to be reworked in a way that gives all children access to a decent education, but does name calling and class warfare really bring us any closer to achieving this goal?


  • Brooks sometimes gets a little too wrapped up in his own creativity. I think he wanted to make a point about how our system still creates class stratification--although not really on purpose. He probably was concerned he'd come off like a liberal. So he encased his argument in Marxism, exagerating the rhetoric to deflect the criticism and creating some kind of bizarre satire/opinion hybrid. The effect is a pretty bad editorial with a pretty good point.

    And I think his point was 1) the education system is so broken that you pretty much have to already be well-off to get a good enough education to be well off; and 2) liberal social mores are fine if you're flush with opportunity but not so great if you're in a poor situation where any mistake can be devastating to your chances at success.

    Basically, the meritocratic system has broken and is no longer creating the opportunities that it once did. I can agree with that. Which is why education reform is essential.

    Have you read Brooks' two books, Bobos in Paradise and On Paradise Drive? He really does a good job of capturing what the elite classes and the up-and-coming elite classes are like these days. And I know he doesn't believe elites are being intentionally oppressive. He even seems to believe that the upper-classes are getting just as screwed by the new system as the lower classes.

    I always read him carefully because he has a keen mind. But this editorial was particularly frustrating.

    By Blogger Alan Stewart Carl, at 2:10 PM  

  • A lot depends on what you want "meritocracy" to mean. One bottom line of today's system (among many bottom lines I'll admit) is that those in the educational system still want to value a Harvard B.A. more highly than a B.A. from a state school, even if the student attended the state school solely because it was more affordable. Notice I stress that this is how they WANT it to be. It is no accident or a holdover from some archaic past. If they wanted to remove the more classist and elitest elements from our education system they could overnight.

    But if you are part of that governing elite why would you give up your power & prestige in favor of meritocracy & egalitarianism? You wouldn't. Hell, you can learn that more from Machiavelli than from Marx.

    By Blogger The Iconic Midwesterner, at 5:49 PM  

  • Who do you classify as "those in the educational system?" It's not the people in the educational system that students are trying to impress when they apply to a top-10 school, but prospective employers. Part of the reason that employers value a Harvard or MIT education more than one from a peripheral state school is because Harvard and MIT accept only the top students. "Top" may mean different things to different schools. Harvard or Yale may be looking for "leadership" and writing skills, MIT will be looking for Math and Science. Whatever the case, a student strives to be accepted by these schools because he or she knows that attendance will validate their claim to be among the brightest and most promising future candidates for the high-paying professional positions available to graduates all over the country.

    I don't think there is a problem with a "meritocracy," in that I do believe that the most talented students should get the most respect and the best jobs. My problem, along with Mr. Brooks', is that our meritocracy is broken. Those at the bottom of our economic ladder have a much higher burden of proof than those at the top trying to prove that they "deserve" to be there, and even upon acceptance, federal and private aid is almost never sufficient to cover the astronomic costs of the top schools. When we can fix the system so that college admissions are based on talent, drive, potential, and leadership skills regardless of socio-economic background, then I will have no problem at all with a meritocracy.

    By Blogger Jonathan C, at 10:14 AM  

  • I really wasn't thinking about it in terms of the business world as much as the academic world. The business world has a much better claim that they are functioning in a meritocratic fashion. When you are being measured by the bottom line solely it won't matter so much where you got your degree from - it's how much money are you making for the company.

    But in the world of academia it is different. And the folks at Harvard see the world in terms of academia, not business. Academia is not a meritocracy it's an oligarchy.

    By Blogger The Iconic Midwesterner, at 12:40 PM  

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