In his book The Age of Discontinuity, Peter Drucker–an Austrian who earned his doctorate at the University of Frankfurt–contrasted the European and American systems of higher education. I was reminded of his remarks by a recent column by Anne Applebaum, in which she defends the Ivy League against charges of elitism.
Here’s what Drucker wrote, way back in 1969:
That so much of American education before Sputnik (and still today, I am afraid) was content with mediocrity and rather smug about it, is a real weakness of our knowledge base. By contrast, one strength of American education is the resistance to any elite monopoly. To be sure, we have institutions that enjoy (deservedly or not) high standing and prestige. But we do not, fortunately, discriminate against the men who receive their training elsewhere. The engineer whose degree is from North Idaho A and M does not regard himself as “inferior” or as “not really an engineer”…The Harvard Law School might like to be a Grande Ecole and to claim for its graduates a preferential position. But American society has never been willing to accept this claim.
It is almost impossible to explain to a European that the strength of American higher education lies in this absence of schools for leaders and schools for followers. It is almost impossible to explain to a European that the engineer with a degree from North Idaho A and M is an engineer and not a draftsman. Yet this is the flexibility that Europe needs in order to overcome the brain drain and to close the technology gap…the European who knows himself competent because he is not accepted as such–because he is not an “Oxbridge” man or because he did not graduate from one of the Grandes Ecoles and become an Inspecteur de Finance in the government service–will continue to emigrate where he will be used according to what he can do rather than according to what he has not done.
In her column here, Applebaum defends the Ivy League against the charges of elitism which are increasingly being made in the political arena and elsewhere, arguing that while attendance at these institutions was once a matter of wealth and family connections, it is now premised largely on true ability.
Even if this premise were correct, if Ivy League admissions officers are in fact excellent judges of talent, would it be wise for a society to base future career paths of its members on evaluations made at the age of 18 or so?..and to premise these career opportunities on attendance at a set of institutions whose total student bodies must necessarily make up a very small proportion of their age groups? Drucker strongly suggests that the answer is no.
Applebaum goes so far as to say: “I suspect the “anti-elite-educationism” that Bell predicted is growing now not despite the rise of meritocracy but because of it. The old Establishment was resented, but only because its wealth and power were perceived as undeserved. Those outside could at least feel they were cleverer and savvier, and they could blame their failures on “the system.” Nowadays, successful Americans, however ridiculously lucky they have been, often smugly see themselves as “deserving.” Meanwhile, the less successful are more likely to feel it’s their own fault — or to feel that others feel it’s their fault — even if they have simply been unlucky.”
Actually, being blessed by the elite educational establishment was in the past far less important than it is today, as Drucker’s comments suggest. Except for certain relatively-small industry segments, someone in 1960 or 1970 who was disappointed with his career progress would have been most unlikely to blame it on the fact that he didn’t get into Harvard. And when she suggests that the concerns about elitism that are raised by Tea Party participants, among others, are a function of their individual lack of success, this seems like kind of an ad hominem argument. There are actually many very successful individual who are concerned about increasing elitism, not based on any personal sense of disappointment but on concerns about the direction of our society as a whole. Jonah Goldberg, cited here, observes that “(Applebaum) doesn’t seem to grasp, let alone acknowledge, that it’s only one subset of Ivy Leaguers that seems to bother anybody on the right: the lawyer-social engineers-journalist-activists they churn out by the boatload.” In other words: the people who “think they are entitled to cajole, nudge, command and denigrate the rest of America.”
Actually, while I agree with Goldberg that it is the social engineers who are of the most concern, I also believe that many people are legitimately concerned about the waste of human talent and human spirit that occurs across a wide variety of professions when credentialism becomes excessive and attendance at a few selected institutions is used as a filter for an individual’s lifetime trajectory. Applebaum needs to read Drucker: the referenced book is excellent and the chapters on education are particularly insightful.
Noemie Emery also has thoughts on the Applebaum piece.