Unbecoming American: How good are you really? Experience, Expertise and Exaggeration in the US “meritocracy”

How good are you really?

Experience, expertise and exaggeration

Since the announcements and acknowledgement that the Soviet Union had launched both the first orbital satellite and first cosmonaut into terrestrial orbit, the US ruling class has been in a state of collective panic. It is to this panic that two generations of ordinary Americans owe their unprecedented access to affordable higher education. The millions appropriated for the extension of university capacities inadvertently produced a huge class of credentialed employees. As long as the US remained the leading economy in the world, a condition itself created by the massive military machine devoted to waging world war, this surplus of college graduates could be absorbed raising the living standards of America‘s “middle class”. Continuous wars to combat development of the former colonies served to maintain high employment, drain intellectual potential from newly independent countries and conquer “markets” for American engineering, agricultural and consumer product.

The US education system developed into a stratified, three-tier establishment. The lowest level was dedicated to certifying and indoctrinating technicians. Corporate labor unions had so degraded what little vocational training was available – in contrast to the renowned dual education system that had produced Germany‘s Facharbeiter (skilled workers)- the only quasi-academic institutions were available to workforce aspirants. These bureaucratic diploma mills were erected modeled on stripped-down liberal arts colleges. Their student bodies were drawn from the lower classes who were lucky if they had obtained a diploma from the mediocre and historically under-funded high schools. Denied access to unionized industries, these graduates often found their careers in the bloated military machine, whether as soldiers and sailors or civilian employees in the nation‘s massive military industrial complex. Talented technicians and artisans sometimes benefited from the upside of the “free enterprise” culture by starting their own businesses. As long as the economy and the war business were expanding the absence of licensing rules made it possible for almost anyone with skill and acumen to work as a plumber, electrician, carpenter or mechanic. This virtue also made the country attractive to immigrants often excluded in their native countries by other restrictions or driven to the US to escape its wars and counter-insurgency terrorism.

The second tier focused on the creation and maintenance of the middle management and scientific-technological staff needed to drive both the war machine and produce the consumer goods and services that comprise a major element of the US system of privatized social control.

Conspicuous in both tier three and tier two are the bias in favor of ostensibly pragmatic subjects. Vulgar pragmatism means the training in subjects free of historical, economic, cultural or political context. Success in both tiers is decided by largely standardized testing routines. The intensity of testing and the focus on data processing mimic the machine-model of learning and knowledge as a mass product. In other words what was a strength in the manufacture of cheap automobiles was applied to education and certification. The graduate of the lower and middle range colleges was intended as an interchangeable part. 

The first tier comprises the elite cadre schools. The names are well known. These mainly private corporations, privileged by tax exemption and massive state research subsidies serve a variety of functions all of which are essential for maintaining the status quo. The oldest of them, known as the Ivy League, were all founded to train the clergy that dominated American government from the days when Massachusetts, Virginia, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania were British colonies. They were styled as imitations of the British collegiate university, i.e. Oxford and Cambridge. Later elite universities such as Johns Hopkins borrowed the German model. As long as access to higher education was safely exclusive tuition was relatively modest even at Harvard and Yale. However with the expansion of the US and conquest of North America these colleges had to increase their capacity. Nonetheless while tiers two and three were expected to produce technicians, the Ivy League remained dedicated to educating and indoctrinating senior management. Their curricula preserved liberal arts subjects and general cultural education. 

The expansion of the American Empire based on republicanism (but not equality) required a substitute for hereditary aristocratic or monarchical authority. It fell to these elite institutions to invent that replacement. Adverse to equality both in theory and in practice these colleges could lay no claim to be greenhouses of progress, the complement to the imperial ideology of Manifest Destiny. Therefore the sacerdotal caste that had founded those august institutions drew on their original Calvinist doctrines to define themselves as meritorious. It was not the content of their studies nor the talent of their collegiate bodies that entitled them to lead but the intrinsic election which admission to these highly selective (i.e. exclusive corporations) signified. The curriculum also played an important role. While the bulk of the higher education system was like stockyards of cattle waiting for the abattoir, the Ivy League student was permitted all the luxuries of an upper class club. 

After 1945 tax-supported tuition (the first GI Bill) allowed these universities to accept a small percentage of “non-u” students without sacrificing overall exclusivity. The “space race” flooded these colleges with more tax money while legacies from a half-century of war profiteering increased their tax-exempt endowments. The perceived necessity to promote mass college education (until the end of the war against Vietnam) forced these universities to reduce their historically aristocratic profile. A strategy of expansion was pursued along with exorbitant tuition hikes. In order to support the illusion that these hikes were not merely tools of exclusion financial aid schemes (either tax-paid or usurious) were introduced. The graduate and professional schools were expanded to accept actually talented people from other classes to compensate the shortfall among the hereditary elite. Meanwhile the undergraduate programs retained their historical exclusivity. (A graduate of Harvard College has a completely different social status than someone who merely attended the Business School or Law School.)

At the same time, not unlike Oxford and Cambridge, the Ivy League is a major instrument of imperial foreign policy. The reputation is important for binding the managerial elite in vassal states and promoting the brain drain that retards institutional development abroad. Exclusivity and a reputation for excellence make acceptance to these colleges a powerful inducement. Whereas the Soviet Union sent its foreign graduates back to their home countries, the US tempted its recruits with more or less lucrative opportunities if they abandoned them. The success of such a strategy depends on the illusion that these colleges are nests of merit and talent. In fact they are parasitic organisms, which feed on talent both for fame and profit and to conceal the class for whom the truly talented (and ideologically compatible) have been bought to serve. 

When the US was forced to withdraw its military from Vietnam a major source of large scale plunder was lost. It was only through the reorganization of the world oil economy to support the US dollar that the sudden end to industrial and economic growth was partly ameliorated. That is to say the war economy started to shrink like it had after World War 2. There were no more really big wars in sight to sustain the massive profits that WW2, Korea and Vietnam had generated. As the industrial sector began to shrink, the smart money went into finance where kneecap breaking, gunboat diplomacy was more than sufficient- providing such belligerence was covert or “economic”. What then to do with the massive tier three and tier two schooling infrastructure? 

In war department (DOD) jargon their is a term for dealing with surplus military facilities- base realignment and closure. Periodically the department selects continental military bases (especially if in districts without very powerful congressmen) to be scrapped. Despite the enormous tracts of land and buildings often affected, either the purpose or the toxicity of these defunct installations renders them virtual wastelands, notwithstanding civilian conversion programs. The end of the massive wartime plunder and pillage did not reduce war budgets but it reduced every other form of productive economic activity. This had happened after WW 1 and after WW 2. However after both those wars there were still large domestic and foreign markets to be satisfied after years of induced shortage. At the end of the war against Vietnam there were no such targets. Moreover since the US economic doctrine adopted at the end of the 19th century was one of administered scarcity there could be no question of turning that productive capacity, including the output of the education industry, into raising the standard of living for the vast majority of the population. As a result of an excess of certified workers for whom no work could be provided, the first steps were to adapt the service industry and emerging IT- electronics sector to absorb some of that mass. By its very nature this sector expanded in inverse proportion to the number of employees needed. Base realignment of the education industry followed the same dynamic as discharging conscripts en masse. Tax funding was then reduced or cut entirely. Tuition-free systems like the University of California introduced fees. Other states simply cutback outlays so that access was limited by space and cost. 

However the industry had become such an enormous part of the national economy that it could no longer be downsized to its previous elite scale. The civil rights movements of the previous twenty years had been defeated politically but the legacy of equal opportunity could not be erased. Universities and schools in tiers three and two were retooled. Ever more credential programs were initiated with the promise that meritorious completion would enhance competitive position in every job from sanitation worker and night watchman to computer programmer (keypunch operator was now obsolete). Schools competed to offer tuition-based certification for jobs before they disappeared. Wage and salary stagnation imposed together with massive price inflation forced anyone who had a 40-hour week or less to buy entry into some school or college program in the hope that completion would lead to a job, a raise or a better-paying position. Certificate providers had to balance between a profitable throughput and a meritorious reputation. The usury sector found a new segment to exploit. Even a customer with no mortgage or credit card could incur student loan debt. The more expensive the program the more exclusive and presumably more meritorious it was. Moreover there could be no time wasted with anything unrelated to getting or keeping a job. At the top tier the new financial bonanza had another advantage. Those who had to borrow their way through the Ivy League became highly paid indentured servants to precisely the system that was draining them. Harvard has been called “a hedge fund with a university”. Regardless of actual quality- if that can even be measured reliably- if the price paid is high enough then one is compelled to believe in its value.

By 1989, when the next great economic crisis was induced, the educational Ponzi scheme had become irreversible. On one hand the Himalayan debt accumulated was due to collapse as the years of dismantling the productive economy (and exporting it to low wage special economic zones) successively reduced the capacity to service the debt. Tuition even at tiers two and three exploded as federal funding was cut. Unemployment had also been concealed by maintaining a disproportionate number of youths in schools and colleges where they did not compete for scarce jobs beyond menial work in the service sector. 

By the end of the century the usury sector managed to hedge its exposure to the unredeemable debt by paying legislators like the present POTUS, while still the senator from Du Pont and the Delaware-based usury cartel, to exempt student loans from federal bankruptcy protection. The Congress essentially voted to turn the targets of the inflated credential market into debt peons, indentured servants to the inshore usurers who had captured the education industry just as they would the housing sector with subprime mortgage derivatives.

One of the more bizarre side effects of this process was a parallel development in the universities themselves. Initially the bastions of meritocratic privilege- whether or not deserved- American first and second tier universities became the sites of the limited if occasionally intense activism opposing the war in Vietnam. This extended into the civil rights movement by the late 1960s. Through a combination of political and financial pressure universities opened to defuse the youth unrest. New subjects were introduced and new admission guidelines were adopted to relieve the demands for representation by women and ethnic/ racial minorities. By the end of the decade the leaders of these struggles had been driven into exile, jailed or assassinated. Both government and university authorities recognized that these once resisted programs could now be used to tame the movements that had initiated them. A new generation of academic and certified cadre would emerge to create what became known first as postmodernism and then as DIE (diversity, inclusion and equity) dogma, today’s identity politics.

Identity politics would turn the doctrine of merit on its head. Whereas previously the remedy for social inequality (the exercise of class power) was to expand the capacity for the lower classes to attain skills and culture to demonstrate at least relative merit, the DIE dogma asserts that the very impediments caused by the exercise of class power constitute inherent merits in those who identify themselves as members of those categories. Thus it is membership in the category “Black” for example, which defines merit. The formal recognition of this politically defined category for people with certain physical characteristics is in itself a proof of merit. The merit of a candidate or an employee or student does not depend on that person‘s actual performance but on the judgment of an official duly authorized that the person is in fact “Black”. It stands to reason here that an ordinary black American is not “Black” unless so recognized. Hence an expert panel for example charged with assessing the architectural soundness of a building is more qualified by virtue of having a black taxi driver in it because of the “Black” included than any architect or civil engineer. The strength of a college faculty is measured by the number of putatively essential identities represented rather than the academic and pedagogical or scientific experience of those employed. Posing as socially advanced and just, the bureaucratic strata sedimented by the conversion of universities into financial derivatives is the diatomaceous earth from the extinct liberation movements of the 1950s and 1960s. This fossil fuel has been introduced to incinerate what survived of mass education. Since the education industry can no longer even pretend to offer acculturation, career enhancement or fundamental scientific-technological training and experience, its sole social management function is to innovate, propagate and maintain the identity economy. To do that it requires a constant flow of “new” personality (disorders) product and the marketing language to sell it to students and the greater at large market of tentatively certified consumers who no longer have any economically and socially productive (meaningful) roles in their daily lives. The invention, marketing and sale of narcissism machines turn the concept of merit into a farce. The social basis of meaning and human value is extinguished by these deranged people hallucinating that their narcissism is social justice. These are the people who viciously promoted isolation as solidarity. Virtue signaling really means virtual virtue, analogous to virtual reality. The merit for which dignity is the reward has been buried. What parades as merit today is nothing more than certified vanity.



In Solar Terms

Fruit of the Vine: Volume 1: An Intelligent Family,

Author’s book interview:

Dr. T.P. Wilkinson, aka Wei Santang discusses his two new books, “In Solar Terms” and “Fruit of the Vine”. China Rising Radio Sinoland 231215

Poems and articles on Dissident Voice:


2 Responses to “Unbecoming American: How good are you really? Experience, Expertise and Exaggeration in the US “meritocracy”

  • the size and lightness of print is a disincentive for readers despite desire to read, not to mention attempting to
    keep some distance from screen. I found an option with a previous article to increase size of print and used it but
    nowhere to be found here. DARN !

    • Iread,

      You can change the size of your font by using CTRL+ and reduce the size with CTRL-.

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