Tuesday, February 18, 2014

As We Go, So Goes the Meritocracy

by Dr. Ellen Brandt

Ivy and equivalent universities have a vital stake in the changing fortunes of their "Best and Brightest" graduates, whose financial solvency directly reflects the lasting value of a broad and intense liberal education and the place of highly-educated people in this country and on this planet.

But for several years now, the very idea of a Meritocracy of education and intelligence and talent has been under severe attack.

Some seem to want to replace it with what is, in effect, an Anti-Meritocracy of wealth for wealth's sake. Others think leveling the playing field means eliminating all "extraneous" fields of research and human knowledge, leaving us with an intellectual universe centered on algorithms, "gamification," and psychological warfare. Still others want humanity to take a giant step backwards by eliminating individual thought and opinion in favor of the Many following the Few - new feudal lords or tribal standard-bearers, now more attractively called "thought leaders."

Ivy and equivalent universities have based their very existence on the grand idea that education is a good thing and that cultivating intelligence, talent, and creativity of all kinds enriches humanity and makes our collective lives worth living.

If these basic premises no longer hold, top universities will become irrelevant, as will the value of the degrees they offer. This threat is now extremely serious, as a veritable tide of Anti-Meritocracy propaganda engulfs us. Here, just a few of the threatening concepts:

*** Bring back an Aristocracy, the more thuggish, the better: As opposed to Meritocracies, which tend to spread wealth outwards, as individuals become valued for their varied, humanity-serving gifts, Aristocracies have as their main goal the extreme concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands.

And Aristocracies have a tendency to act both thuggishly and unfairly to reach that goal, "anointing" new members based on either whom they are related to by birth or arbitrary characteristics proving an individual's usefulness to those in power. (We might add that the United States and the other enlightened democracies which have emerged over the past three centuries had as a central tenet the need to eliminate Aristocracies in favor of Meritocracies. But that is self-evident, isn't it?)

*** Utopia is a Disney Channel high-school sitcom: Hey, I like the Disney Channel, too. But I don't like the current climate of lionizing extreme youth, extreme youthful good looks, or extreme cliquishness, with pretty much everyone else assigned to the yucky kids' lunch table of life.

Every two hours, it appears, major social site and wire service newsfeeds run headline stories on the latest Wunderkind paid $30 million for a must-have smartphone app; how companies need to hire ever-younger, ever-more photogenic managers for "branding" purposes; or how both Wall Street bankers and Silicon Valley moguls feel stranded in impenetrable island fortresses, while the unwashed masses berate them very unjustly. ("But we love the proletariat - excuse me, the American people - really, truly we do.")

*** Sound bite me, harder, harder: Of course, one can say that the barrage of propaganda extolling a Mean Girls view of existence, in which the Kardashian sisters occupy an honored rung on the ladder, while most scientists and artists and humanitarians are placed so far down, they look like ants seen from a rocket ship, merely means our mass media has succumbed entirely to information via sound bites, with thoughtful analysis no longer given a place, let alone a place of honor.

Yes, but . . . As some of us have been saying for years, this time the "dumbing down" of media in general has been intentional and brutal, designed to concentrate the power of "messaging to the masses" in far fewer and far more homogeneous hands.

The rich symphony of voices provided by an active print universe of newspapers, magazines, and small presses has been reduced to what sometimes seems like a whimper, while ill-thought-out "anti-spam" legislation has rarely been aimed at actual spam - i.e. advertising - but has instead, with the connivance of a handful of Big Media players, been used against small blogsites and small Internet publications: the very new outlets which could effectively replace some of the richness and variety of that print world which has been allowed to die.

*** Thinkers are Stinkers. What we need are Docile Little Doers: While the debate is hardly new, it has never seemed to get so much airtime nor so many print inches, especially from politicians and the demagogues who populate some business channels. "Too many people are attending universities and colleges," the argument goes. "They're learning useless stuff, which doesn't help them do the jobs businesses need to have done. Most young people should attend vocational schools, with specific and focused curricula, transforming them into the perfect cogs needed to fit into the cog-like jobs we want them for." Often, this is followed by a plea for "more immigrants with specific characteristics" - although this doesn't make particular logical sense. Get those vocational gristmills going, wouldn't you have more than enough well-schooled pets - excuse me, workers - for those Brave New/Old Dickensian workplaces you seem to regard with such nostalgia?

As many of us learned in fourth-grade Latin, Education comes from educare, to bring forth and draw out the human intelligence and talent that lies within each of us. Training comes from trahere, which meant to drag or restrain, the same root as that for trace, the harness or chain used to control the actions of a beast of burden. By all means, workers should be trained to perform all necessary narrow tasks. But broadly educated workers - and people - are much more likely to bring insight and creativity to those tasks and help businesses evolve and grow.

*** The Masses don't need to cogitate, anyway. A few "thought leaders" can do it for them: I understand that some still don't feel as strongly about this as I do. But I truly believe that one of the most powerful forces militating for extreme income inequality in the U.S. and the rest of the developed nations is the rise of the concept of "thought leaders," based on the work of a once-obscure marketing MBA named Seth Godin, now a guru in the eyes of many other marketers and - alas - in the eyes of many hoodwinked teens and young adults.

The idea that there is only a very small cadre of people whose ideas and proclamations are in any way important - that they and they alone should lead, while the rest of humanity goes along to get along - is still anathema to most Americans over the age of 35 or so and extremely distasteful to most over age 50, who tend to cherish the concept of rugged individualism and feel that everyone has an equal voice which "counts" as much as anyone else's.

Twitter, Facebook, and many other Internet social sites, which force users to connect with one another via inequal "Friend/Non-Friend" or "Followed/Followers" mechanisms, are reinforcing a retrograde and both emotionally and intellectually harmful structure that has taken hold in a few short years.

Equally harmful are the newsfeed consolidators which prominently feature the constant pronouncements - virtually none of them actual "news" - from a tiny handful of business and entertainment figures, crowding out both real news about what's going on in the world and diverse, interesting opinion from the almost 7 billion of us who haven't been enshrined as effective Big Brothers and Sisters.

I'll stop here, although many of the topics above will be examined further in future blogs.

In the next few installments of the series, we'll take some time to outline how we intend to proceed; explicate the structure of interlocking discussion communities we're setting up to explore specific topics; and call for the participation of Guest Commentators interested in offering their own views on what needs to be done to restore the Meritocracy, while helping Under-Employed Best and Brightest grads in general and Ivy and equivalent grads over age 50 in particular.   

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Destitute Ivy Leaguer: The Series Begins

by Dr. Ellen Brandt

After much deliberation about how to proceed, I've decided to try basing this series at Blogger, in order to take advantage of a Google+ landing page and the ability to utilize Google's Community structure.

I intend to set up various discussion groups based on specific parts of what we are trying to do: an ambitious plan to restore the financial and professional solvency of the large contingent of Under-Employed "Best and Brightest" graduates of Ivy and equivalent universities, in the U.S. and around the world.

Ivy and equivalent grads over age 50 are now at the highest risk in perhaps 80 years of falling into a veritable abyss of poverty and desperation. Like Baby Boomers from all backgrounds, despite belonging to the best-educated, most skilled, and healthiest generation in human history, Boomer Ivy grads have suffered through three or four decades  of global economic turmoil which has seemed pretty much calculated to hurt us more than those of other generations: downsizing, outsourcing, managerial shrinkage, the hollowing out of both manufacturing and small business, and housing crises and market crashes on a regular periodic basis. 

But we are no longer the only generation at risk. Those fortunate Ivy grads belonging to Gen-X or the "Baby Bust" - fortunate because there were relatively few of them - are now moving into their mid-40s, the current line of demarcation in the U.S. and other developed nations between being lionized and being tossed into the economic gutter.

And many Millennials are less well-off than they had hoped, saddled with student loan debt that earlier generations had far less of and faced with the real possibility of becoming the last bastion of support for the generations ahead of them, if something is not done - fast! - to help those generations recoup their (i.e. OUR) financial fortunes.

The Ivies and equivalent universities need to be at the forefront of efforts to help down-and-out "Best and Brightest" grads for any number of reasons, which we'll talk about in the next blog.