Megan McArdle has a good article today where she posits that some of the problems we have in the US stem from the system we have created where everyone must pass through college before being admitted to the ranks of the ruling class, just like the Chinese used to make their Mandarins pass a test before assuming power.
The people who pass these sorts of admissions tests are very clever. But they’re also, as time goes on, increasingly narrow. The way to pass a series of highly competitive exams is to focus every fiber of your being on learning what the authorities want, and giving it to them. To the extent that the “Tiger Mom” phenomenon is actually real, it’s arguably the cultural legacy of the Mandarin system.
This is probably a decent point as far as it goes. We really have no diversity of thought since our universities are nothing if not indoctrination camps these days where everyone is taught to submit to leftist orthodoxy and speak leftist cant. She doesn’t think the leftism is the problem though, but rather the lack of variety. That is where I think she misses the point entirely.
It isn’t that the people we are turning out are good at taking tests or are conformists that is the problem. It is that they are being taught stuff that is utter and obvious bullshit. If our universities were pumping out people who understood markets and the principles on which the country is based we would be in fine shape. They are doing just the opposite so we suffer the consequences.
Here’s the thing no one acknowledges, most of what colleges teach is opinion. Outside of the hard sciences they don’t teach facts so much as they teach a way of looking at the world… a political view. At most they teach you how to operate in the system that exists. The Soviet Union had accountants after all. What they did all day is anyone’s guess since the system they labored under made absolutely no sense. But the system they were being trained to participate in… now there is the rub.
Most of the hard truths on which societies need to base themselves are simple and everyone can understand them… indeed they do understand them without benefit of ever attending college. If we work we are more likely to prosper. If we increase the costs of something we get less of it etc… Incentives in the natural world are easy to understand. We are hard wired to understand them… if we don’t get off our lazy asses and forage then we starve.
What great knowledge then do academics possess? How can professors justify their huge salaries? One way is by teaching things that just aren’t so. We will prosper if we spend enough and print enough money. We will prosper if we make it rewarding to do unproductive things or to do nothing at all. We will prosper if we make it difficult for others to build things. Our enemies will love us if only we concede we are wrong, always and in every regard.
Academics think they are clever and have some special understanding that is not obvious to the common man because they can weave a narrative to make these things sound plausible. The more outlandish the theory then the more they get paid and the more in demand they become. It is the intellectual equivalent of Madonna. If a professor can wear the shiny, golden, conical titty covers without people tittering uncontrollably at them then they have attained the highest level of their profession. For those of you who would disagree all I can say is, “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury — I give you Noam Chomsky!”
But the main way they justify their salaries is to set up a system that is perverse — one where they create a specialized way of doing things that everyone is forced to adhere to, ostensibly for the greater good.
It is generally acknowledged that the mainstream media is biased. How can we tell? Well because ALL, or nearly all, of their “mistakes” lean in one direction. The same goes with the intelligentsia. For some reason their “solutions” always lead to their own benefit. Odd how that works. We have a tax system that is so complicated we need accountants to understand it. We have a legal system so complex we need lawyers to get an environmental impact statement before we wipe our own asses. If there are not enough jobs for lawyers then they are allowed to go about creating the need for their own services by either becoming politicians and creating laws, or failing that, just by suing someone… anyone will do, for anything. Don’t believe me? I will have a post soon about how a milk company was sued because their cows looked happy on the milk containers.
None of this is necessary to a healthy and functioning society. What it is necessary for is keeping the leeches that feed off the productive parts of society fed. These leeches are the academics, politicians and regulators. This is the principle purpose of our colleges these days. The reason the elite prosper is not because they are smart but because they are unprincipled. They don’t possess hard won knowledge. They have simply gamed the system. They are willing to use force in the form of laws and regulations to get what they could not otherwise get by legitimate means in competition with their fellow citizens.
It is perfectly possible to have the sort of system McArdle dislikes where people are trained and educated in things that are useful. It is possible to not require that extraneous propagandizing such as grievance studies or Marxist economics be taught as part of the college curriculum. It is possible for colleges to be replaced with a certificate system. It is possible for instruction to be cheap and universally available on the internet. All of these options result in a more informed and less foolish end product. But then the elites would not be elite anymore. People would advance on their merits. — and that is EXACTLY what the current system is set up to prevent. That is also the problem that McArdle misdiagnosed.
When I was looking for a bookkeeper for my business I received resume’s from literally hundreds of people for a $10/hr job. Most of these were college graduates. Very few of them had any idea what the hell was involved in running a business. Most had never held a job before. Despite their expensive and expansive educations they were useless. It would have taken me longer to deprogram them and teach them what we needed done than it would have been worth. There was only one of them I would have hired and he grew up in India so he knew something about what life and economics are really like.
I ended up hiring a high school graduate and teaching her what we needed done. She worked on the production floor for a while so she knew where the numbers were coming from and what they signified. We were a $10 million a year company at the time. Keeping the books is not exactly rocket science. It is just dreary, repetitive and precise work. There is nothing a college can teach you that you can’t learn on the job and there is a lot they can teach you that will make you worth less, or worthless in the marketplace. At least if I am doing the hiring.
I am an engineer by training so the system I work under is one with an ultimate truth. I can pretend that gravity does not exist but it will grant me no exemption on my designs and they will fail. I can’t create new physical laws like lawyers create legal statues to drum up business when things are slow. The systems that non-scientific fields work under are completely man made. What is legal here is illegal there. What is considered wise economic policy here is considered the height of foolishness there. Too much of what the elites do to maintain their power revolves around constantly changing and re-rigging these systems to their own benefits. In fact, that is pretty much all of the value added they provide. They just don’t realize the sign on the value they “add” is a negative one.
So they could teach that free markets are best, as all evidence seems to indicate, (even to the point of punishing those who disagree with mass starvation if they are militant enough in their intransigence) but how would they profit from that? How could they demand more than their skills and understanding are worth?
The Founders were right. Create a simple system. Limit the power that the elite can accrue and set the people free to compete and pursue happiness. Just don’t let any of the little buggers get an unfair advantage by using the force of government on their behalf. Don’t let them game the system.