The corrupt university

Regular readers will know that I do not share the sentiments of many on the left that seem to fetishize the university. I like learning, researching, and theorizing, but the university system as a whole is an anti-egalitarian nightmare. So far, I’ve tended to talk about the class composition of universities, the extent to which universities just entrench privilege and class, the bizarre and utterly wrong-headed obsession with universities as mechanisms of social mobility and inequality reduction, and the perverse way in which our myths about universities are used to legitimatize the inequality we end up having — among other things.

In the NY Times today, Ross Douthat tackles another facet of the university that should cause egalitarians to recoil in horror. The social and cultural reality of university involves class segregation intended to create mating scenarios that amplify inequality through a de facto caste system:

Every elite seeks its own perpetuation, of course, but that project is uniquely difficult in a society that’s formally democratic and egalitarian and colorblind. And it’s even more difficult for an elite that prides itself on its progressive politics, its social conscience, its enlightened distance from hierarchies of blood and birth and breeding.

Thus the importance, in the modern meritocratic culture, of the unacknowledged mechanisms that preserve privilege, reward the inside game, and ensure that the advantages enjoyed in one generation can be passed safely onward to the next.

The intermarriage of elite collegians is only one of these mechanisms — but it’s an enormously important one. […] Of course Ivy League schools double as dating services. Of course members of elites — yes, gender egalitarians, the males as well as the females — have strong incentives to marry one another, or at the very least find a spouse from within the wider meritocratic circle. What better way to double down on our pre-existing advantages? What better way to minimize, in our descendants, the chances of the dread phenomenon known as “regression to the mean”?

This is one of the reasons why I don’t hold the institution of university education in the kind of sacred regard as many of the others on the left (interestingly, the ringleaders seem to be those employed in the institution or hoping to be). It is also a reason why, on first glance at least, I find myself very interested in recent efforts to disrupt universities, e.g. the dreaded MOOCs. In the status quo, the university system makes it very easy to obscure the social and cultural reality of intergenerational class entrenchment. Right now, a university has both a credentialing and connection-enhancing function, which together in a tangled mess decide people’s futures. The coupling of them makes it hard to attack the nepotistic nature of the competition for good economic positions because people defend that it is the credentialing that is really doing the heavy lifting.

However, if these disruptive efforts can actually deliver (which is a big question), credentialing and connections could become more decoupled. I have no illusions that this decoupling would tamp down on the nepotistic underpinnings of job placements and other vehicles of economic success, but it would lay bare what is going on. Right now, people who go to top universities also have and acquire good connections, which makes it hard to definitively prove which is actually helping them. But if we can all theoretically play the same credentialing game, and these highly-connected people still edge out everyone, then the corruption is totally transparent. People will rightly realize that even when they are doing the same online coursework as these folks, and doing just as well, they are still losing. The delusional meritocratic moorings become unhitched.

Critics of these attempted changes have made a big stink about how they are going to undermine and destroy the whole university system, as if that is a bad thing. I am not so sure it is. Education and research is great, but the university system is a really troubling institution on so many fronts. Destroying it while preserving the education and research (if indeed that is possible, which it might not be) might cost some of the loudest voices on the left their jobs — professors and graduate students — but that might be a price worth paying to stick it to the rich, that being the class the university system is set up to serve and perpetuate.