In response to Christine O’Donnell’s latest campaign ad in which she boasts about not having attended Yale, columnist Anne Applebaum asks, “Why do Americans resent upward mobility?”
Once upon a time, you got into Harvard or Yale solely because of your alumnus grandfather. Nowadays, your alumnus grandfather still helps, but only as long as you did well on the SATs, were the captain of your ice hockey team, and in your senior year raised a million dollars for charity….If you did all that and come from a broken home in Nevada, so much the better.
I suspect the “anti-elite-educationism”…is growing now not despite the rise of meritocracy, but because of it. The old Establishment types were resented, but only because their wealth and power were perceived as “undeserved.” Those outside could at least feel they were cleverer and savvier, and they could blame their failures on “the system.” Nowadays, successful Americans, however ridiculously lucky they have been, often smugly see themselves as “deserving.” Meanwhile, the less successful are more likely to feel it’s their own fault—or to feel that others feel it’s their fault—even if they have simply been unlucky.
In America, the end of the meritocracy will probably come about slowly: If working hard, climbing the education ladder, and graduating from a good university wins you only opprobrium, then you might not bother. Or if you do bother, then you certainly won’t go into politics, where your kind is no longer welcome. We will then have a different sort of elite in charge of the country—and a different set of reasons to dislike them, too.
I understand “anti-elite educationism” to a point: the majority of folks who attend a Yale or a Harvard and end up in government tend to adhere to an ideology that entitles them, as the so-called educated experts, to fashion policy that will dictate how everyone else lives their lives. These educated elite behave as though they believe that they really know what’s best for thousands of families they’ve never met. When conservatives express distaste toward the “elite,” I believe it is precisely this sort of loathsome smugness that we are condemning.
But sometimes the anti-elite educationism extends beyond a point that I can comprehend. For instance, why is going to a school like Yale an inherently bad thing, as O’Donnell seems to indicate in her campaign ad? Are you not welcome to share O’Donnell’s politics if you hold a Yale degree? Are you not an ordinary American citizen who has the same concerns about jobs, education, and your children’s welfare if you spent four years at an Ivy League institution? I could use some insight from our readers into the impetus behind both anti-elitism in general, and anti-elite educationism in particular.
(Special thanks to Trace Urdan for sending me the Applebaum article)