• Joanne Jacobs

Meritocracy’s losers: No degree, no respect


Horatio Alger stories spread the belief that anyone can succeed, if they work hard enough.

Educational elitism marks the modern U.S. economy, writes Victor Tan Chen in The Atlantic. College-educated winners scorn working-class Americans as “as lazy, untalented, uneducated, and unsophisticated.” A Virginia Commonwealth sociology professor, he’s the author of Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy. 

Our culture is an extreme meritocracy, writes Chen. We believe anyone can “make it” in America. It follows that those who don’t succeed deserve their low status.

“The well-educated and well-off who live in or near big cities tend to endorse the notion, explicitly or implicitly, that education determines a person’s value,” writes Chen.

More so than in other rich nations, like Germany and Japan, which have prioritized vocational training to a greater degree, a college degree has become the true mark of individual success in America . . .

For his book, Chen interviewed laid-off auto workers, all former union members, who shared the view that the educated deserved to live better than the uneducated. Yet, “two-thirds of Americans age 25 and over do not have a bachelor’s degree,” he writes.

The labor market has become more polarized, as highly paid jobs for workers with middling levels of education and skill dwindle away. And as many have argued, advances in artificial intelligence threaten a net loss of employment (even for the well-educated) in the not-so-far-off future.

A new government report warns automation will increase demand for high-level technical skills — and decrease demand for routine skills.

Fordham’s Mike Petrilli calls this the great “coming apart.” Educational attainment (or the lack of it) is “the new dividing line.”


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He suspects “that a college education is simply a marker — of people who were lucky to be born into relative affluence and the stable homes that generally accompany it; of individuals with the ‘soft skills’ that allow them to persevere in their educations, but also—when they’re so disposed—in their jobs, even in their marriages.”

Some countries — Singapore, Switzerland, Germany — offer high-quality career and technical education linked to apprenticeships and jobs, he writes. The U.S. pushed a “bachelor degree or bust” strategy, writes Petrilli.  “The number of bachelor degrees has increased a bit, but the size of the ‘bust’ is much, much larger.”

#educationalelitism #collegeforall #workingclass #meritocracy #CareerTechnicalEducation

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