The Costs of Formalism and Credentialism

Via Grim, an interesting post at the Federalist:  Our Culture War Is Between People Who Get Results And Empty Suits With Pristine Credentials.

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 Matisse 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 Matisse. “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.

(updated to correct the name of Picasso’s artist friend)


15 thoughts on “The Costs of Formalism and Credentialism”

  1. I recently read an excellent biography of my favorite novelist, whose books are still all in print.

    His father was an English civil servant with a classical education. Neville’s older brother was a classical studies student at Cambridge (I think) and went into the army in 1914 where he was killed in six months, like so many of Britain’s upper classes. The parents never got over the death of the older son who was following the father’s pattern of classical education.

    Meanwhile, Neville, who stuttered, went into Engineering and a successful career as an engineer, followed by a world famous career as a writer.

    I think US “higher education” is fated to wither and, perhaps, collapse as these overbuilt playground campuses with their climbing walls and luxurious dorms will not survive the coming retrenchment of student loans.

    Betsy DeVoss has lost her battle to stop taxpayer funding of defunct student loans which resulted from the Obama Administration’s war on trade schools.

    The lawsuit was filed in federal district court in Washington, D.C. and alleged that DeVos illegally delayed the implementation of the borrower defense to repaying rule, which was intended by the Obama administration to make it easier for defrauded student loan borrowers to receive student loan debt forgiveness.

    “Defrauded” was Obamaspeak for trade schools and for-profit schools.

    Meanwhile, may own alma matter has fired the Dean of the Business school, which is highly rated. He was not “woke” enough.

    Nearly 150 students and professors rallied last Friday afternoon after a beloved dean at the University of Southern California was fired by the school’s interim president, Wanda Austin.

    Dean James “Jim” Ellis has presided over the USC Marshall School of Business since 2007. But last week, as reported by CBS-Los Angeles, President Austin terminated his contract, citing the “lack of diversity” at USC and making ambiguous claims about how Ellis handled bias incidents filed during his tenure.

    The “interim” president of the University is, of course, black. We did get a Christmas charts from her anyway.

  2. I am reminded of an old science fiction story about a man who was in charge of a (way down) deep-water science facility. Which was flooding, and he wouldn’t answer the phone when subordinates tried to notify him it was flooding and he should get out. He was glad the phone had stopped ringing. He went to his water-tight door, and opened it…

  3. Compared to previous generations, we see the following trends in universities.
    1)Elite students are more concentrated in the elite universities.

    2)Tuition in real terms is more expensive, in part because there are twice as many administrators per student.
    3) There is less tolerance for differences in opinion.

    And the profs tell us that those of us who are upset with the following trends are “anti-intellectual.” Yes, if you don’t go along with the narratives de jour, such as believing there are 57 varieties of gender, you are “anti-intellectual.”

    This will not end well.

  4. “this will not end well”

    It might end well: Ivy Leage universities destroyed, their endowments seized for unpaid student loans; revocation of all degrees in studies, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and other deconstructed departments; elimination of all pensions to administrators and to professors in fake departments; abolition of collegiate athletics; “denazification” of academic departments;….

  5. We receive three different Ivy League alumni magazines at our home. It’s like receiving the same monthly edition of “Pravda” with three different covers. It’s all diversity, tolerance and inclusion, with the obligatory articles about equality, social justice, gender, and the “epidemic of gun violence.”

  6. I think what is said about Trump has a lot of merit. But I think his acrimony is more than that. With Brexit, I view Trump’s election as a battle between the Nationalists and the Globalists.

    And if that wasn’t enough to add fuel to the already burning fire he doesn’t seem to care about the press. Every Republican President has always been deferential to papers like the NYT and “hope” that they get even unbiased coverage.

    Trump just wrote them off and even more maddening to them, used them for free publicity during the primaries.

  7. I have a brother-in-law trained as a chemist in France in the late 1950s. He came to the US in the 1970s because he could. The jobs were more interesting here. He believed that his education had been top-notch, but agreed that places were reserved for students from “families.”

    In America, though the Ivy League schools had high reputation and attracted students from all over the country and the world, it was nowhere near as pronounced as it is now. Top students stayed in-state, or at least in-region far more than they do now. Out of a high school graduating class of 424 in 1971, I think only seven of us left New England to go to college. (Two, both Jewish, to New York.) Even Connecticut was considered far afield. National media and improved transportation may be a great deal of that.

    It has not served us well. One could make a case that we now take our measurably smartest students and send them off to be indoctrinated rather than educated. If an enemy did that to us we wouldn’t put up with it, but we volunteer for it.

  8. it was nowhere near as pronounced as it is now.

    In Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart,” he attributes some of this to coeducation in elite, formerly all male colleges. Instead of marrying “the girl next door” the graduates marry each other and create a selective mating aristocracy.

    Previously, there were “the seven sisters” women’s colleges that had a corresponding level of elitism but the merging of these institutions increased the distance the graduates felt from the general population.

    Other factors have added to the arrogance of these students who feel so privileged. The admission of unprepared minority students has resulted in “grade inflation” and a subculture of angry academic losers, like the ones invading the Dartmouth college Baker Library during Finals Week. Those demonstrations create a sort of guilt/ pride sensation in students who succeed in those settings. They know they are good, although grade inflation has given them excessive sense of self worth. The quality of education has badly slipped from what I can discern from outside. The proliferation of garbage majors, like the “Studies” majors, has allowed unprepared students to stay around and feed the egos of the real students.

    The student loan debt problem is going to topple the entire house of cards soon.

  9. Other factors have added to the arrogance of these students who feel so privileged. The admission of unprepared minority students has resulted in “grade inflation” and a subculture of angry academic losers, like the ones invading the Dartmouth college Baker Library during Finals Week.

    Which reminds me of the video from the University of Washington library.Studious man silences protesters with a cry: ‘This is library.’ I believe the student was Korean.

  10. “… long-simmering resentment at that country’s credentialed class, whose performance has not matched their pretensions.”

    That depends on one’s definition of “performance”, doesn’t it? The US & European credentialed class have performed magnificently over the last few decades in terms of boosting their own position. Surely it is naïve of us peons to expect the Best & Brightest to put the good of the country before their own sweet selves?

    Not to worry — the system is self-correcting; foreign competence will beat domestic credentialling. Unfortunately, the correction process is going to be very hard on us peons. On the other hand, we brought this upon ourselves. The majority of our fellow citizens voted for Teddie Kennedy instead of sending him to jail. The majority of us voted for Hillary Clinton instead of sending her to the gallows. We did nothing as our Political Class outsourced entire industries to China (along with their jobs & tax revenues). We did nothing when cities and entire States fired on Fort Sumter by declaring that federal law on immigration did not apply to them. And we will pay the price for all of that.

    But we should at least show sympathy for today’s greasy-pole climber entering an elite university and facing the make-or-break decision — should she learn Chinese or Russian?

  11. An interesting book review of a new mystery novel about U of C Law School.

    I’m reading it now. The story is interesting.

    While it has been addressed elsewhere in some detail, one might imagine that a subversive work such as this did not receive the most welcome reception. Mental State was at one point unceremoniously yanked from Amazon and all pre-orders were lost. Amazon, like Facebook, Google, and the other tech monopolists, has decided to leverage its power not only for profit but also for progressive ends.

    In addition, the author has received various threats, not only for the book but for making observations that ran counter to the acceptable narrative. Affirmative action—a theme of the plot and a source of controversy earlier this year involving Henderson’s criticism of Justice Sotomayor—depends, above all, on not noticing things. The elite not only must permit lower standards in the service of its group diversity, but its members and the general public must pretend that this is not happening at all. We’re just supposed to conclude the elite as a whole are what they tell us they are: “The best of the best!”

    The book was written several years ago but has only reached publication this year. I started it last week.

  12. I would say that there are also “diversity graduates”, people who clearly managed to get out of college with AT LEAST a semi-technical degree without learning Jack or his smelly companion.

    The most visible case of this is media darling-elect, Ms. Occasional-Cortex, who “has an economics degree” but zero clue how money functions… And despite this degree was working as a bartender.

    Now, I grasp Econ is not itself the most useful degree at the Bachelor level, so the bartendoling think might be understood, but it’s not an art, poetry, or education degree where your entire goal is to read your instructor and write essays pleasing to them…. There arecactual hard facts in there somewhat.

  13. I have a daughter whose degree in French I am still paying for and who is a bartender in South Carolina, last I heard.

    We do not communicate much. My understanding from her is that bartenders do pretty well on tips and it is the top of the income ladder, short of management, in the “hospitality” industry.

    Needless to say, I am not that happy with her career choice. Maybe the economics is not bad.

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