There’s a chasm in this country that badly needs a bridge

6 mins read


It is Saturday, and I’m on my small, weathered, often repaired deck in Port Royal. 

I’ve got the Wall Street Journal, Weekend Edition, and a book called ‘The Years That Matter Most.’

The Journal gives us a lengthy review of ‘The Meritocracy Trap’ by Daniel Markovits (Penguin Press, 418 pages, $30). It’s lengthy because Professor Dan is taking on Yale, Harvard, Duke and other elite colleges, arguing that their golden ticket is a hollow victory for those who win the “brutal education tournament.”

He says that once a student is admitted to Princeton, Stanford or MIT they gravitate, lemming-like to big salaried lives in investment banking, financial consulting, specialized medicine or law—where starting salaries are now $200,000.

“Meritocrats work hard in school, even harder on the job, and are richly rewarded for their efforts.” But there is a price to be paid. That price — seven-day work weeks and 17-hour work days — condemns “them to existential anxiety and deep alienation that neither income nor status can eliminate.”

The piece goes on to say these alienated, angst-ridden graduates have taken jobs once handled by middle management — and the “once ascendant middle class has meanwhile become mired in hopelessness and resentment and simmering anger.”

“Once a country dominated by its middle class, America now has a middle class that is now in retreat and diminishing. The distance between the elite and the middle class stretches well beyond that separating the middle class and the poor.”

Then, according to the review, these middle managers slide into “obesity, drug addiction and early death.”

Whoa, Dan, who knew that Williams and Wharton were sending millions of middle managers to an early death? But wait, there’s more.

Markovits — or the reviewer, Epstein — wonder whether these elite schools are any better at teaching. Or are Princeton and Penn just the “educational equivalent of Ralph Lauren, Prada and Louis Vuitton?”

And while at it, “do we really need the 100,000 new MBAs” that are produced every year?

While the professor attacks the flank of America’s highly competitive colleges, Paul Tough (The Years That Matter Most) goes right at the Holy of Holies — the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

“The SAT, a highly stressful rite of passage for American teenagers that has cost their parents, many millions of dollars in test preparation schemes, is largely a worthless product.”

Tough also says that the SAT does not predict college success and is a “friend of privilege.”

As I sit in the early morning coolness, “friend of privilege” bounces around my sleep-deprived brain making me uncomfortable, irritable.

And while I’m not blind to the current cheating scandal — cheating by monied parents of those who seek admission to Stanford and Southern California — I think any system grounded in a fair, fairly administered test is as good an opportunity as we get in life.

Yes. I know that rich kids are exhaustively and expensively coached, prodded on by parents seeking a window decal saying Brown or Williams in a small, discrete font. And yes the tests themselves are imperfect, not relating to the rural reality of, say, Jasper County.

But what does a parent blessed with a smart, ambitious kid do these days? Does one tell their issue to avoid the SAT — the “friend of privilege?”

“For God’s sake Sarah, I don’t want to see any Ivy League applications in this house because they will lead to a life of stress, anxiety and alienation.”

(If one is fortunate enough to face this predicament perhaps one should look West — to China. Wealthy Chinese parents continue to send their sons and daughters to the United States for their higher education. Although the numbers Chinese students may have declined with the current, ongoing xenophobia, in 2017-2018 more than 360,000 Chinese students were enrolled in colleges throughout the United States. Some at Stanford, the University of Southern California and Duke.)

Many of our bedrock beliefs — including the fairness of the SAT — have been in question for some time. And the notion that an Ivy League elite is running the economy and shutting out those who actually make things is not entirely new. 

But the notion that elite colleges are producing graduates that diminish and degrade the middle class in a new one for me. The idea that graduates from Cornell and Penn are sending people into opioid addition and early death is a stretch.

But this new charge fits the notion there is a chasm in this country — a divide, that badly needs a bridge.

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