by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
George Leef of the Martin Center writes about one Harvard professor who bemoans the current state of higher education.
Most college professors applaud what American higher education does and want to see it expand to include even more students. One dissenter of note, however, is Harvard philosophy professor Michael Sandel. In his latest book, The Tyranny of Merit, he argues that higher education has become a big part of the problem he sees with the country—that it’s dominated by a “meritocratic elite.”
While I find Professor Sandel’s main argument in the book unpersuasive, his thoughts about higher education are worth considering.
Before going into them, let’s look at his main argument.
He writes that the U.S. has allowed its meritocratic elite, composed almost exclusively of people with degrees from prestigious colleges and universities, to reap “outsize rewards” over the last few decades. They have done so, he claims, mainly due to two phenomena, globalization and financialization, that permit a few to make huge fortunes but create economic hardship and emotional misery for a wide swath of the population.
As Sandel sees things, the “winners” don’t deserve their good fortune (because they were just lucky enough to inherit their talents) any more than the “losers” deserve their poor circumstances. The rapidly growing divide between those two groups is tearing the country apart and he wants policy changes that will, he believes, restore “solidarity” in America.
About that, I say that Sandel has made mountains out of molehills. Average, non-elitist Americans are not facing economic stagnation and are not demoralized or angry over the fact that a few people manage to earn vast amounts. His case appears to rest entirely on his own imaginings, not on encounters with actual people.
Nevertheless, he is correct in saying that our political leaders, right and left, have embraced what he calls “the rhetoric of rising.” By that, he means that they push the idea that people can get ahead in America if they just obtain the right education.