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Move Slow and Fix Things
What we should want young people to learn
I’m Paul Musgrave, a political scientist and writer. This is Systematic Hatreds, my newsletter about my thoughts regarding politics and the study of politics. The newsletter takes its title from a line in The Education of Henry Adams:
Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatreds.
This week, we’re talking about the politics of college admissions and prestige allocation.
Move Slow and Fix Things
Admissions to elite colleges play an outsize role in socializing ambitious youth. The standards for what constitutes excellence are set by the fields in which the Ivy League (and Stanford) compete, and the values they set for distinctions eventually trickle down—quickly to Georgetown and Chicago, more slowly to Davidson and Occidental. Eventually, the fashions of the metropole become the common sense of the provinces.
The following is the most Marxist paragraph I’ve ever written or ever will write.
The venture capital turn of the U.S. economy in the 1980s and 1990s produced a revolution in how admissions officers, who are pretty downstream from economic and cultural capital formation even at Harvard, viewed excellence. As established firms were “disrupted” (avant la lettre), the image of what a “Harvard man” was changed to adjust to the new economy. Out with the corporation man or the aspirant small-town professional.1 Starting projects and embracing “theories of change” became de rigeur. As these standards became articulated and expressed more clearly, both in briefings to elite high school college admission counselors and in the results of the admissions themselves, ambitious high school students (and their families) learned how to perform them. They wouldn’t seek to be student body president or editor-in-chief of the school paper: they would show that they created institutions, not just led them. This dynamic extended not only to applicants who aspired to work for investment banks and hedge funds: even left-leaning, socially aware aspirants had to demonstrate how their profiles were dynamic and bent on remaking the world, rather than simply demonstrating fit and improvement.
These forces, in turn, were accelerated by the increasingly winner-take-all dynamics of the economy that were unleashed by the demise of traditional industries and regulations. The college premium increased relative to non-degree holders, but the premium on having a degree from a college recognized as elite increased even faster. It was no longer acceptable to go to a good local college and make a career after that: if you were ambitious, the list of good colleges was short and competition was fierce. (Election is a more complex text than it was received as at the time, but the fact that Tracy Flick wants to go to Georgetown so badly is only a mild exaggeration—as is the fact that she is seemingly alone in perceiving why a Georgetown degree would be so valuable for someone in her cohort. In that way, at least, it reads more as a movie from the 1980s; by the 1990s, even in a school like that, more people would have understood the importance of such ladder-climbing.)
(It’s easy, by the way, to be cynical about the role of legacy in admissions to places like Harvard, but such concerns can be overblown. Yes, every scion of an Eastern establishment family admitted to an Ivy is there in part because of legacy, but they still had to out-compete every other legacy admit: the ranks of prestigious SLACs are full of people whose parents can endow a library but who still couldn’t buy admission to a school near Boston.)
We in certain precincts of higher education live in the world these dynamics have created. If you work at an elite college, you’re surrounded by this form of excellence; if you work at a college that is the second-choice (for economic or prestige factors) of those students, you’re surrounded by excellence mixed with ressentiment—or, in some cases, by the misapprehensions of people who believe the college’s admissions brochures that admits to a given school did actually make it to the top, a form of puffery that preys on the fact that cultural capital is unevenly distributed.
This is not, actually, a great world. In particular, the choice to valorize disruption and innovation sits uneasily with both the actual process of university education and the needs of careers that people will actually have. It’s also bad for society on net.
One of the more interesting scholarly turns I’ve heard of “recently” (in 2016, my god time flies) was the Maintainers conference, which Alex Wellerstein discusses here. The “big idea” of this conference and subsequent project was to focus not on founding and creating but on the labor of maintaining—what it takes to keep systems going once they have been designed. The fact that this counted as a novel argument speaks to scholarship’s own biases toward overproduction of innovations: why think about what it takes to keep things going when there’s more grants in rethinking how things came to be? But if the goal of scholarship is to understand a given topic, then understanding the complete lifecycle is important. As Wellerstein demonstrates, existing and potential work on what it took (and takes) to animate the atomic complex would make “the bomb” look much different than yet another goddamn Trinity test book would make it look. (My current bedside reading is Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War, which describes the effects of a bombing that play out over decades and certainly complicates the idea of “pushing the nuclear button.”)
What would it look like for universities to embrace a similar turn in their role conception? Structurally, even Harvard is little more than a production line turning out workers to maintain industries (in Harvard’s case, now, predominantly—exclusively?—finance). Yet we don’t do a great job of recognizing student competence or, rather, excellence in maintenance. If you want a Rhodes Scholarship, better found an NGO—if you “just” turn around a floundering student organization, then have you really demonstrated excellence?
To be sure, the focus on innovation and creation isn’t irrational. For one, it’s easier to measure: there didn’t used to be something, and now there is. That’s much easier to document than “our campus newspaper used to suck, and now people talk about it.” For another, the returns to innovation can be outsize for individuals: we talk about lottery winners, but not so much lottery losers (and the winners are more apt to give alumni donations). And then there’s the mood affiliation: if you produce people who are skilled maintainers, well, that’s really solid and necessary work—that is, it’s high prole stuff, not really elite. Even if most elites themselves are little more than maintainers par excellence, they identify with Jobs or Musk or whoever is the Current Innovator Thing. (Just finding an illustration for this post cued me in to how blue-collar the images associated with “repair” and “maintenance” is—nobody thinks of Pope Francis as a maintainer, even though that’s what popes do.)
Yet the downsides of this mindset are easy to see, too. Rewarding students for serially starting NGOs or fundraising for awareness-raising campaign produces incentives misaligned with anything good for society. What did the awareness-raising campaign actually produce? Well, if it happened after the early decision deadline, who cares? You want Theranos? This is how you get Theranos.
I’m never going to be a university president (or, at this rate, even a department chair) (mashallah). Yet I think that it would be better for senior leaders—provosts, chancellors, especially trustees—to think a little more clearly about what is actually best for their institutions and the people who inhabit them. (I once had a donor chide me for taking pride in students who expressed interest in running for state legislature—I should be encouraging them to think bigger. Yeah, but we need good legislators, mate!) Having an institution geared to producing really top-rate people who play within the system is not going to set the world on fire, but maybe we don’t want a world on fire. Maybe working a little harder to understand what makes work count would be a good turn. It’s difficult to break out of the cultural fields of schools near Boston, but it’s also incredibly harmful to pretend that they’re your aspirational peers.
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Yes, once upon a time, Harvard graduates returned to their provinces of origin to take their part in the local bourgeoisie.