Is a university education overrated? I don’t believe so (having regretfully left school at 16), but two major thinkers, on either side of the Atlantic, claim that modern society has over-valorised a college elite and under-respected those who work with their hands, or their hearts.
rofessor Michael Sandel, ironically from Harvard, and David Goodhart in London called “one of the most important intellectuals in Europe”, have simultaneously come to parallel conclusions.
As we have overvalued the idea of students going to college, so we have undervalued people who don’t have university degrees: people who are craft workers, care workers, or those who have a non-academic kind of intelligence.
Prof Sandel says there is “too much talk of education” which erodes the self-esteem of those who can’t make it to college: this leads to a culture of “moralising success” and disrespecting “practical wisdom and civic virtue”.
Goodhart has many of the same social concerns about the impact of glorifying a college education; he also thinks it isn’t always that great for the graduates themselves.
With such a push for university places, there’s a sort of “arms race” in college degrees and thus an “oversupply” of middle-ranking graduates.
One-third of British graduates are now in non-graduate jobs – he quips that there will soon come a time when being a janitor will require holding a PhD. Technology has increased and intensified this drive for qualifications: a car mechanic now needs to master IT, using a laptop computer for engine diagnostics.
Sandel, who has an enormous online global following where his thoughts about justice have been viewed by tens of millions, says there are, of course, great advantages in societies run by academic merit.
The way to find the cleverest people is through the university examination system. The world needs smart people. Small wonder Google, Facebook and Amazon recruit from the elite universities. And if you’re having a surgical operation, you want your doctor to be fully qualified.
But, Sandel suggests in The Tyranny of Merit, too much emphasis on academic success leads to an entitled class that looks down on the less academic; mental wellbeing has declined with the competitive stress involved; and parents cheat so as to advance their kids in college.
The case of Felicity Huffman, the Desperate Housewives star who was convicted of paying an “admissions consultant” $15,000 (£11,760) to correct her daughter’s college entrance tests, caused huge resentment in America against the “entitled” Hollywood class, who buy their way into more privilege.
Sandel says it happens regularly, though dodging the system isn’t new. My uncle, a Latin and Greek scholar, admitted to sitting an exam, back in the day, for a pal whose grasp of the classics was weak: the pal went on to be a successful doctor and no one was any the wiser.
Goodhart reports, in his recent book Head Hand Heart, that private tutoring to boost exam readiness is a common practice. Except for those who can’t afford it.
“Cognitive analytical ability” (cleverness at passing exams) is now “the gold standard of human esteem”. Although he concedes that the Covid-19 crisis has made the public more appreciative of those who do caring jobs – nurses, ambulance drivers, care assistants to the elderly – and those who ensure that the “everyday wiring” of life is operational.
A bus driver is doing an important job for the community. Why shouldn’t he (or she) be respected just as much as a hedge manager? But managing money attracts more esteem than service to others.
Both thinkers believe that the college-educated elite have created political alienation in many Western societies. Trump and Brexit are both the direct outcome of too much swaggering by the college elite and growing resentment by the number of people who aren’t graduates.
Politicians all over the world are now nearly all university graduates: in Britain, only 1.5% of MPs have ever worked with their hands. (Whereas the politician who created the National Health Service, Nye Bevan, left school at 13 and worked as a Welsh miner – that was typical of Labour leader Clem Attlee’s reforming administration.)
Most politicians, Sandel and Goodhart say, talk in “managerial-techno-speak”. The GDP has become their god. They have left behind, and often don’t connect with, the values of so many ordinary people.
Both agree, too, that the decline of religion has left a vacuum for the worship of “credentialism” – formal qualifications as the measure of ability.
Religion recognised the value of moral character, says Goodhart. Sandel, who comes from a Jewish background, goes further: religion also recognised “gift and grace”. Achievements aren’t just down to your mastery of exams and technology: contingency, and blessings play a part.
Having listed all these doubts and concerns about over-praising a university education, it’s still worth saying that education brings great benefits and I hope students starting off this autumn enjoy the fabulous opportunity of being there, including the fun that should accompany undergraduate life.