Subtitle: Donald Trump declines the authority of the cultural sectors that most assertively claim it. That’s the real conflict going on.
I’m reminded of an interchange that took place between Picasso and Monet as the German Army advanced through France in 1940. Monet was shocked to learn that the enemy had already reached Reims. “But what about our generals?” asked Monet. “What are they doing.”
Picasso’s response: “Well, there you have it, my friend. It’s the Ecole des Beaux-Arts”
…ie, formalists who had learned one set of rules and were not interested in considering deviations from same.
It was an astute remark, and it fits very well with the observations of Andre Beaufre, who before the invasion had been a young captain on the French General Staff. Although he had initially been thrilled to be placed among this elevated circle…
I saw very quickly that our seniors were primarily concerned with forms of drafting. Every memorandum had to be perfect, written in a concise, impersonal style, and conforming to a logical and faultless plan–but so abstract that it had to be read several times before one could find out what it was about…”I have the honour to inform you that I have decided…I envisage…I attach some importance to the fact that…” Actually no one decided more than the barest minimum, and what indeed was decided was pretty trivial.
The consequences of that approach became clear in May 1940.
In addition to the formalism that Picasso hypothesized (and Beaufre observed) on the French General Staff, the civilian side of the French government was highly credential-oriented. From the linked article:
In the first days of July, 1940, the American diplomat Robert Murphy took up his duties as the chargé d’affaires at the new U.S. embassy in Vichy, France. Coming from his recent post in Paris, he was as impressed as he expected to be by the quality of the Vichy mandarinate, a highly credentialed class of sophisticated officials who were “products of the most rigorous education and curricula in any public administration in the world.”
As the historian Robert Paxton would write, French officials were “the elite of the elite, selected through a daunting series of relentless examinations for which one prepared at expensive private schools.” In July 1940, the elite of the elite governed the remains of their broken nation, a few days after Adolf Hitler toured Paris as its conqueror. Credentials were the key to holding public office, but not the key to success at the country’s business.
It certainly appears that the current protests and riots in France are at least in part due to long-simmering resentment at that country’s credentialed class, whose performance has not matched their pretensions. An interesting anecdote about Macron, in the Sunday Express:
This is a man who chastised a teenager at an official event for calling him “Manu” (the friendly diminutive of Emmanuel), saying that he should not express a view until he has acquired a degree and a job.
Macron is a graduate of the Ecole Normale d’administration (ENA), an elite Grande Ecole created by General De Gaulle in 1945 to break the upper class control of top Civil Service positions.
In reality, only nine percent of ENA the graduates that fill the corridors of power in industry and government have a working class background. The top 12 or 15 students will move to L’Inspection générale des finances (IGF), and then into a career in politics, or finance, Macron’s chosen route since he became a partner with Rothschild and Cie bank.
Americans should not feel smug about our relatively-lesser obsession with credentials. I’ve previously quoted something Peter Drucker wrote in 1969:
One thing it (modern society) cannot afford in education is the “elite institution” which has a monopoly on social standing, on prestige, and on the command positions in society and economy. Oxford and Cambridge are important reasons for the English brain drain. A main reason for the technology gap is the Grande Ecole such as the Ecole Polytechnique or the Ecole Normale. These elite institutions may do a magnificent job of education, but only their graduates normally get into the command positions. Only their faculties “matter.” This restricts and impoverishes the whole society…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.
We as a country are a lot closer to accepting Grande Ecole status for Harvard Law School and similar institutions than we were when Drucker wrote the above. We haven’t gone as far as France and other European nations, but the trend has clearly been in the wrong direction.
There are lots of interesting points in both of the linked articles. From the Federalist piece:
National political journalists, a status group that once ranked on par with show people and bartenders, are upper class, no matter their salaries. They lose their class status the moment they speak the wrong social code words, like, “I think Trump is doing a good job.” They know this, and live with an existential sense of status anxiety over it.
For 40 years, with gathering uniformity of purpose, our credentialing institutions have taught postures rather than skills, attitudes rather than knowledge. This isn’t invariably true, and many fine scholars have taught many excellent practitioners, especially outside of the humanities and social sciences. But the overarching trend is toward training in intellectual and psychological uniformity, toward the world of excellent sheep.
The Sunday Express piece includes some possibly-interesting data about “power distance” in various societies–I say “possibly interesting” because I haven’t yet researched how these numbers are actually calculated. The metric is said to represent the degree to which “people have traditionally accepted that lower ranking individuals expect power to be distributed unequally.” The numbers for France, the US, the UK, and Israel are cited as 68, 40, 35, and 13, respectively.
If the US wants to avoid ossification and an eventual meeting with the fate of France in 1940 or of China under the mandarins, then the rollback of formalism and credentialism is of first importance.