Scott Walker vs. the Mandarins


A recent column in The Federalist explains why Scott Walker’s success despite not having a college degree, much less an Ivy League degree, is so threatening to the emerging aristocracy:

But behind that, there is a more visceral reaction. The real purpose of higher education is to learn the knowledge and skills required for success later in life. So if someone has already become a success, whether or not he went to college is irrelevant. If he has achieved the end, what does it matter that he didn’t do it by way of that specific means? But for the mainstream elites, particularly those at the top level in the media, a college education is not simply a means to an end. It is itself a key attainment that confers a special social status.

There are no real class divisions in America except one: the college-educated versus the non-college educated. It helps to think of this in terms borrowed from the world of a Jane Austen novel: graduating from college is what makes you a “gentleman.” (A degree from an Ivy League school makes you part of the aristocracy.) It qualifies you to marry the right people and hold the right kind of positions. It makes you respectable. And even if you don’t achieve much in the world of work and business, even if you’re still working as a barista ten years later, you still retain that special status. It’s a modern form of “genteel poverty,” which is considered superior to the regular kind of poverty.

If you don’t have a college degree, by contrast, you are looked down upon as a vulgar commoner who is presumptuously attempting to rise above his station. Which is pretty much what they’re saying about Scott Walker. This prejudice is particularly strong when applied to anyone from the right, whose retrograde views are easily attributed to his lack of attendance at the gentleman’s finishing school that is the university.

Paul Johnson, in The Birth of the Modern, explains what such a society can end up looking like, and how it differs from pretty much everything American:

China was that worst of all systems: a society run by its intelligentsia, a cathedocracy ruled from the scholar’s chair….

The system was obnoxious because it placed scholars at the top, followed in descending order by farmers, artisans, and merchants.  What it meant in practice was that the country was ruled by those who were good at passing highly formalized examinations.  So early 19th-century China, with its rapidly increasing population, had many of the symptoms of underdeveloped Third World societies today, especially an overproduction of literate men (not technocrats or scientists) in relation to the capacity of the political and economic system to employ them usefully.  The educational system trained Mandarins for official life in the narrowest sense, not for anything else, least of all commerce….

As the intelligentsia grew in size, the ethics of the system were progressively destroyed.  Degrees, studentships, and places in the academies, as well as the statutory jobs themselves, were all in time put up for sale… All these men had high notions of their worth and healthy appetites for power and money.  All that they had been taught in the academies was how to write examination essays.  All they learned in their jobs was how to translate the minuscule slice of power each exercised into money, in the form of bribes from those whose activities they controlled…

We’re not quite at that point yet, although the outlines are clear enough.  It’s much too much to suggest that the path of Merit vs. Mandarin will be determined by the 2016 election, but how we react to Walker’s success without a degree is a marker on how far we’ve gone along this path.

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