Proudly Public: Standing with California’s Faculty

This week, faculty senate leaders of all three public higher ed systems in California (the community colleges, state colleges, and University of California system) made the bold move jointly to express opposition to a plan that would encourage major growth in massive on-line courses, or MOOCs. The idea of the shift to on-line instruction, floated as a bill in the California state senate, is ostensibly to relieve serious overcrowding and budget shortfalls in the schools. No one would argue that those problems are not real and pressing. But faculty rightly detect a hasty and pedagogically insupportable scheme here.  As Ry Rivard reported in InsiderHigherEd‘s piece, “United Opposition,” their collectivity represents push-back of an unprecedented level.

And we thank them: Instructors in all fifty states, teaching at all levels, should be deeply appreciative of these raised voices. We should lend our voices in support.  And I include those of us who teach at financially secure, private institutions, too. And, yes, especially those of us with tenure.

The California instructors are, we must see, resisting the redefinition of higher education as something that exists to maximize economies of scale. To squeeze labor. To channel wealth to those who already possess the means to become wealthy.  Efforts to effect that redefinition have ebbed and flowed in the history of America’s community and state colleges in particular, always portending the greatest losses for students of lower socioeconomic standing who cannot afford the “artisanal” offerings of private higher education.  But the swift pivot towards MOOCs as exemplified in California is potentially a deeply regrettable trend for all teachers and learners.

For one thing, it is a “solution” that treats human instructors, student communities, and the provision of sufficient classroom space as the “problems.”  When such foundational pedagogical commitments are conceptualized as inherently wasteful, even tenured faculty should be afraid.

But more broadly, California’s embrace of MOOCs here entrenches socially conservative functions for schooling that have always devalued the learning (and intellectual potential) of those Americans with the least economic resources.  Such stratifications bring a set of rewards that are also dangerous for a democracy, often turning the nation’s privileged scholars and students away from criticality about the system and its differential impacts.  Under such conditions, the potential for a more fair and equitable nation shrinks with each step towards economically expedient education.

The proposed course providers in California right now include for-profit companies such as Coursera and Udacity.   During a discussion of on-line coursework with Cal State Monterey Bay faculty this week, Sebastian Thrun, co-founder of the latter company, said the firm was actually “proudly for profit.” That turn of phrase should stop all of us in our tracks. Whatever politicians and ed policy makers in California may be saying about their motivations for moving higher education on-line, Thrun’s pose here is triumphal: This is not privatization under emergency conditions; this is industrialization without regrets….for the industrialist and his patrons, at any rate.  Mine are forming already.

 

[With thanks to theoutsidereader.com for rapid technical support.]

…And Repeat: “Access” ≠ “Equity”

In the pursuit of more affordable higher ed for more Americans the idea of “direct assessment” strikes many as promising, as Paul Fain reports in “Beyond the Credit Hour,” on InsideHigherEd. This is a move to use  competency tests, rather than numbers of credit hours taken by students, as the measure of degree-program efficacy.

The Dept. of Education has just now expressed support for this shift to “competency based” programming, allowing federal approval for programs that embrace the new system.  It is a system that strongly  favors on-line instruction… Some associate degree programs, Fain writes, have put aside not just credit hours but also courses and professors altogether in order to maximize  such instructional “flexibility.”

I won’t rehearse our debates regarding on-line instruction, except to say that at the very least this is a shift that is predicated on self-paced learning and by definition it will best serve those who are able to achieve mastery without a tremendous amount of guidance or who are uninterested in community and collaboration…Welcome, neo-liberal learners!

And “competency,” you say? I’ll try not to get started on the gap between “assessment” and “accountability” in American higher ed.  Instead, I’ll stress some of the rhetorical work being done here to hide deeply entrenched educational inequities.

First, we have a troubling use of the term “affordable.”  No professors or courses? Self-guided learning? Hmm….Prices for these credentials will drop, yes, but only because the value of these products to their makers has also been reduced.  We have long known that in education, when costs to consumers drop we rarely find value being added elsewhere by producers.  There are no bargains in education, only savings. So let’s not encourage “affordability” to  become the next “diversity”: A reassuring incantation that replaces systemic critique.

Then, there’s also that idea that educational “flexibility” is necessarily somehow empowering to students.  That premise proceeds in this case from  a highly selective logic about technology, a logic that once again finds democratic potential in the ostensibly dematerialized features of the Internet…that decentralized, customized, always-available-go-at-your-own-pace-technology-of-the-people.

But think about the population most desperately in need of more affordable higher education in the United States.  Even if inexpensive options for high-speed, reliable connectivity pervaded every community in America and lap-tops came free with every fill-up (equally absurd scenarios at this point),  we are still talking about millions of people trying to continue their education in the face of long work days, child- and elder-care responsibilities, worsening health care for themselves and family members, and in many cases, backgrounds in weaker public school systems…clearly an uphill battle for many.  The choice to discard credit hours in favor of some other metric of learning may loosen traditional notions of when, where, and how higher education takes place. But so what?  If this fabulous new strategy won’t even acknowledge, let alone correct those profound structural impediments to the meaningful expansion of educational participation, is it really changing anything at all?

 

Who’s Minding the MOOCs?…continued

In trying to understand how American high-tech education forecloses political criticality, I’ve been reading a 1982 article by Michael Ryan in Yale French Studies called “Deconstruction and Radical Teaching.” Ryan writes of emerging  justifications for the growing capitalist influence on “the social and cultural life of the U.S. and much of the world,” including as that influence was becoming an integral element of higher education. In so many ways this piece shows that the rhetorical work being done by claims of  industrial “innovation” in the Western university today—mapping an unassailable pursuit of collective social and economic uplift, bringing all good things to all good people—was performed by evocations of “integrity” a few years ago.

Proponents of corporate involvement in academia in the early eighties celebrated the university’s “disinterested” character,  bathing their own economic interests in the warming light of academic freedom. Here’s one of Ryan’s great summations:

By assigning ‘integrity’  to the university, conservatives define their own project as an effort to maintain or restore a spuriously natural condition of purity of wholeness. The postulation of a normative attribute like integrity permits any radical attempt at modification to be characterized as a disintegrative degradation, a falling off from nature. Restoration of ‘integrity’ will consist of curtailing that new development. (p. 48)

So much to think about here, including the American university’s now entrenched deployment of rationality, “reasonableness,” and all that Ryan says constitutes the  “benign face of power, coercion, and the everyday brutality of patriarchal capitalism in America.”

But for the moment, here’s a question: How can we keep our eyes open for the next rhetorical restyling of this conservative, anti-constructivist agenda? “Diversity” in many settings certainly continues  the constrained, “What’s not to like?” institutional form it took on in the 1980s.  What new higher-ed headliners, disguising established privilege as social good, should we watch for in 2013?  Are they with us already?   “Entrepreneurship,” maybe? Sure, but more of a parade float for capitalism than a Trojan Horse. “Lifelong Learning?”  Definitely, as Foucauldian observers have amply demonstrated.

Perhaps, though, if the most ostentatiously reasonable and democratic priorities of the university are those  we must approach most cautiously…what about “MOOCs”?  As Carolyn Foster Segal’s  thoughtful InsideHigherEd piece of the other day (contra Thomas Friedman’s celebration) makes clear, MOOCs propagate the morally unifying, disciplining effects of education, not the potentially critical and unpredictable experiences of pedagogy.  As Ryan might say, here’s collectivity of a very particular kind….

 

 

 

 

The Closing of NanoInk: What Social Scientists See

Last week I visited UCSB to talk about ideas circulating around labor, education and high-tech innovation in America today. I had prepared a couple of talks that weren’t exactly upbeat;  I have little confidence in the promises currently being made about biotech, greentech, and nanotech as sources of “middle skills” jobs, as this blog has made clear. As I was getting ready to speak, I noticed a flurry of emails coming in.  Friends and colleagues were forwarding me a stunning bit of news: Crain’s Business in Chicago was reporting that NanoInk, Inc.,  a company that has for a decade operated outside the city manufacturing nanotech inscription apparatus and related applications, had closed.

The firm had shut with little notice.  The short version of the story, as Crain’s has it, tells us that Ann Lurie, the main investor in NanoInk who had contributed $150m to the firm over the last ten years, no longer felt that her investment carried acceptable levels of risk.  She retains her faith in nanotechnology as a field of research, we read, but the return to date was too slow, too small, to assure (in her mind) an attractive future for the company and its several spin-offs.

NanoInk, located in the old industrial suburb Skokie, had grown from R&D visions of prominent nano-scientist and -advocate Chad Mirkin at Northwestern University, but the company had also developed a relatively affordable, instructional version of its instruments along with curricula for use in high-schools and colleges.  Thus it figures largely in research I’m doing with sociologist Mary Ebeling. We are writing about the idea that a nanomanufacturing sector promises wide-spread employment to those with 2-year degrees as “nanotechnicians.”  NanoInk represented one of the most concentrated efforts we had encountered aimed at projecting a world of successful nanotech R&D; widespread application and scale-up of that research; and expanding nano-focused post-secondary education and employment.  Local politicians and educators partnered with the firm on a great many projects meant to build on the emergent “nanocorridor”…even a new Skokie station for the Chicago El, to bring in the projected crowds of employees of NanoInk, other high-tech start-ups, and (it was hoped) newly busy diners and shops in the neighborhood.

Are we surprised that the company and its associated civic projects did not achieve the promised traction? No, but there is no satisfaction in being right. The company was at the heart of a high-tech incubator in a community in need of economic renewal.  The confidence of NanoInk’s leaders and personnel, and of its backers in local government offices, university departments, and nearby community colleges was palpable.  Everyone we spoke to along the way about NanoInk and its plans—from the company’s own lab techs and executives to the township’s economic planners and shop owners—was fired up, and it gradually became impossible to say that any particular expression of enthusiasm was clearly a bit of self-serving sales pitch rather than something more generous… perhaps intellectual excitement, or civic pride, or the desire for economic uplift for the region.  Maybe Patrick McCray’s idea of “visioneering” helps capture it: emergent science and technology wedded—practically but zealously– to the pursuit of a “better” future…but here on the part of everyone involved, not just the tech experts.

So if intentions themselves were not the problem, what can we learn about the failure of this enthusiasm  ultimately to translate into economic opportunity, to produce those new jobs? We’ll tell the story of the company’s aspirations and the complicated ripple effects of its closure in our book, but for the moment I want to point to one quote in the Crain’s story.  One faculty member at Oakton Community College, part of a network of educators and policy makers in the region who helped forward the vision of a near-term demand for  “nanolabor”,  spoke in the Crain’s piece of the changed status of his program:

“It was sad news,” says John Carzoli, a physics professor at Oakton. “We’ll use the instruments they provided until we run out of supplies or it breaks down…”

OCC may keep aspects of its nano-focused curriculum going, but the poignant note he sounds seems undeniable.  The school’s program, like so many at our  community colleges, functions downstream of corporate decision making and, not to put too fine a point on it, was born and may die by the fortunes of industrial capitalism.  The school, its students, its community, have little security as capital follows its own needs.  This, too, is risk.

I hope our book can do justice to all of the enthusiasm of NanoInk’s personnel and the tireless efforts of the community college instructors who see the sector as a promising one.  But perhaps we can also point the way to some “trickle up” by which the risks taken by public school systems, students, and workers, the critical priorities not of investors and boosters but of these other stakeholders,  may carry more influence in future planning.  Rather than cluck our tongues at NanoInk’s folding, let’s focus on this: What might that influence look like?

Mind The Skills Gap

 

Edie Fraser, meet Adam Davidson.

Fraser, an expert on human resource issues in STEM-dependent industries, is the author of “The Root of Real Jobs: Filling the STEM Talent Gap.” This piece appeared in the Huffington Post the other day and can best be described as skills-gap boilerplate. The widely circulating trope that she makes central to her column depicts thousands if not millions of technical jobs in America going unfilled due to an underprepared national workforce, and as a result, citizens going jobless and the US slipping ever lower on the global economic pyramid.

Davidson, who co-founded the Planet Money blog for NPR, for his part offers a badly needed corrective to that mistaken picture.  In  an NYTimes piece this week, he emphasizes that the notion that we are suffering from a simple unmet labor demand is misleading.  That view implies that the challenge we face is the insertion of workers into waiting manufacturing jobs, no questions asked about those jobs. Instead, Davidson points out, wages in the vaunted high-tech manufacturing sector barely exceed those of fast food jobs, and these positions are notoriously insecure in light of employers’ commitments to the outsourcing and automation that lower their wage costs.  Given those conditions it isn’t unreasonable for un- and underemployed Americans to balk at undertaking specialized training for jobs that seem little better than those near the  bottom of the service sector.

As a handful of others have also pointed out, if the unfilled tech positions were really the result of a supply-demand imbalance, wages would rise until workers felt impelled to fill the “gap.” (See my post of a couple of weeks ago, on Peter Cappalli’s introduction of this point on 60 Minutes.)

Davidson is not unsympathetic to the plight of employers, including one he interviews who is reluctant to hire those coming from “union-type” backgrounds expecting pay levels the employer sees as unsustainable if his business is to survive. And in that sense, Davidson reminds us that this is a system that traps multiple participants (both high and low on the socioeconomic and opportunity ladder) in potentially unjust economic structures.  Important to remember though, is that the business owner has property in hand while the unemployed worker does not. They are not equally vulnerable to (or responsible for!) the system’s injustices.

Obviously, just to recognize as Davidson does that a wage deficit (and thus potentially, a profit excess) is at the heart of the problem is to be far more progressive than the skills-gap explanation would allow one to be. We do hate to see our cutting-edge manufacturing enterprises as anything other than, well, cutting-edge, but the social inequities inherent in the skills-gap rhetoric are as old and robust as American industrial capitalism itself, and Davidson helps us see this.

But I’d push Davidson still further. Both he and Fraser mention that more and better education could help everyone here, workers and employers.  Yet even though Davidson mentions a faltering “social contract” among workers and employers, neither writer points out that the underlying rationale for feebly funded and ill-conceived schooling in America historically derives from the same social priorities that make minimizing wages a reasonable aim for employers.  A legitimation of maximized socioeconomic differences among Americans is at work here, buttressing both the nation’s under-resourced education system and its low pay scales.

I know, I know: That plaint is becoming a bit of boilerplate in this blog.  But the constant reissuing of  uncritical statements about the burgeoning high-tech labor sector, like Fraser’s, even amidst apparently genuine concern about opportunity and diversity, is infuriating to me.  Calls for improved STEM education fit all too tidily with the obfuscatory concept of a STEM skills-gap; each formulation lends meaning and validity to the other.

But STEM education is not a panacea, as incisive writers on the “vocationalism” of US community colleges make abundantly clear (Brint and Karabel’s 1989 book, The Diverted Dream, remains invaluable here).  Education for jobs fails to bring widespread employment partly because of the very real lack of school/industry communication that Fraser cites, but also because the system isn’t designed to maximize knowledge and economic mobility among American citizens; instead it functions to assign different populations to different levels of occupational eligibility, many to a level with little real opportunity.  Without more of that kind of deeply critical thinking about undemocratic social structures, all the talk in the world about skills, jobs, and the gaps between them is not going to help the American worker.

In Which I Hope I’m Wrong (or, Notes from a Small Cranium)

Prepare to aggregate the phenomena.

Normally I would be cautious about doing this, but something about the recent presidential campaign and the widespread support for Romney’s barely disguised loyalties to class and race (see below), urges me on.  Historian of science Darin Hayton blogs today about coverage in the Independent of a stunningly retrograde piece of biological determinism: In the current Trends in Genetics, Stanford geneticist Gerald Crabtree claims  that due to genetic complexity humans are “intellectually fragile” and thus, Dr. Crabtree says, unsurprisingly growing dumber over time as a species.

Don’t ask. Fortunately Hayton captures the sloppiness of Crabtree’s  genetic-materialist argument for us, redolent as it is with “the tried and true cranial-volume correlation.” Hayton’s post also prompts me to ask:  Is it coincidence that the Stanford researcher feels he can broadcast his essentialist concerns just as Princeton faculty member Christy Wampole indulges in some of her own retro, essentialist sharing? Her critique of irony-laden hipster sensibilities, which appeared in last week’s New York Times,  posits a remarkably old fashioned notion: That of pure human experience  being sullied by modern culture. At her essay’s prescriptive center is the idea that certain, admirable human types (children, the elderly, persons with disabilities, all who “suffer”) live more real lives than do those who regularly traffic in irony.

Earlier today, I posted a piece about her claims on the blog of the Philadelphia Area Center for the History of Science and I won’t rehash my discomfort with them here; suffice it to say that thoughts of Francis Galton have come up more times in one day than one would like.

Composite Portrait in the Style of Francis Galton (From Truman State University, at www.dnalc.org)

Nor do I want  to identify a cultural trend if all this is really only matter of a few outliers at work. But reading about Crabtree, I can’t help but  wonder if there isn’t a new endorsement out there, and a potentially influential one at that (…The words of Stanford and Princeton faculty? Ideas disseminated in an Elsevier journal? The New York Times? By a presidential candidate?) for the idea of human types, and for the historically related notion that biology determines culture.

Obviously those eugenic ideas never go away entirely in the U.S.; conservative social trends and  biological explanations of human conduct are perpetually co-produced, as Troy Duster has shown so clearly. But these ideas do seem to have had some new life breathed into them in the last few months, at least for some arbiters of cultural and biological knowledge in our midst.

If my own cranial volume turns out to be sufficient to the cause, and I’ve got this right,  prepare to worry.

“Shiftless” in America

Itching to know which ideas about the economy actually solidified during the recent campaign season? Which ones Obama toted, intact, through the onslaught of right-wing rants about the 47% (according to Romney, people who remain jobless because lazy…or, shiftless AND shiftless—get it?!), now to function as memes for the second term? Then you might want to watch the recent 60 Minutes segment on the “skills gap.”

"Three million open jobs in US, but who is qualified?" www.cbsnews.com

The premise (which I’ve discussed before in this blog) is that millions of American jobs are going unfilled; here CBS points to about 500,000 open positions in U.S. manufacturing businesses alone.  60 Minutes frames this as a puzzle: “How can it be,” correspondent Byron Pitts asks, that in a time of high national unemployment jobs are going begging?  Something is wrong, but what?

Like many of Obama’s own speeches on the topic, the segment indicates that tech innovation promises prosperity for U.S. firm owners and their workers alike, once an appropriately trained workforce is slotted into the new high-tech sector jobs.  The 60 Minutes report is more interesting than some other policy and media excursions into “skills gap” territory, however, because it introduces, if tentatively, the possibility that we need to consider the role of employers in the production of this “gap.”

Much of the 12-minute story focuses on the need in manufacturing firms, small and large, for workers trained in emergent production techniques.  We watch un- and underemployed Americans participating in educational and internship programs in order to attain eligibility for the new, higher-tech, mostly software-centered manufacturing positions that supposedly abound today.  The excitement of those participating in the programs and ultimately the sheer relief of the newly employed are both made very clear in the segment.

The head of one family-owned business, Click Bond, a defense contractor in Nevada that makes fasteners for precision machinery (as used in, say, fighter planes), explains that it is not practical or affordable for the firm itself to do the training.  This seems like a good argument for community college curricula and other publicly supported education-for-jobs, as promoted by Obama. And indeed, the company helped develop just such a program locally.  But then the report digs ever so slightly deeper to ask a CEO of Alcoa why, if such efficacious educational and training options exist, so many positions in U.S. manufacturing remain unfilled. The CEO tellingly answers that, “Well, this is not a society where you can tell somebody what– where to go work, or where to– what education to get, right?” Ah, the shiftless American worker, in every sense of the word!

Certainly not racist in the sense of Romney’s old-school bigotry last week regarding Obama’s “gifts” of public health and education to minority Americans, but a classic moralistic put-down of the disadvantaged, nonetheless.  Coming from a CEO of a major corporate force in the nation, it’s a potentially influential one, too. Praise to CBS for not leaving that neoliberal shoulder shrug unanswered. Instead, near the end of the segment Peter Cappelli, a Wharton management professor, introduces what is for mainstream media a somewhat shocking point: Maybe the labor market is not, in fact, a supply-and-demand operation.  Industrial wages have stagnated and even declined in many production sectors, Cappelli notes.  The ostensible fair pay and secure employment said to be just waiting for the willing citizen is at least in part a myth, and one that hides the economic advantages accruing to capital in America.

Let’s consider what a viewer new to the topic (and the issue is introduced as something folks may not know about yet… “It’s called ‘the skills gap,’” Pitts intones as the report starts), might take away from watching the piece. Again, all this is very lightly laid on. Robotics are cast as an industrial “innovation” without any mention of the negative impacts of automation on employment levels; there is no probing inquiry into outsourcing trends.  But at least 60 Minutes suggests that the idea of a “skills gap” requires investigation, airing however briefly the notion that the  interests of American employees and employers do not invariably converge…a convergence implicit in the very notion of such a gap.

A glancing blow, yes, and a long way from any kind of redistributive approach that might show the profoundly disempowered situation of labor today, but still an unusual step beyond the unalloyed boosterism that usually surrounds the topic.

Romney’s Racial Taxonomy

I have no doubt that  racist inclinations underlie Mitt Romney’s claim this week that different “cultures” explain  Israeli prosperity and Palestinian poverty.  Essentialist characterizations of this kind, which depend on strategic denials of  history, arise from bigotry, full stop.  In the taxonomic universe Romney inhabits, positive labels, as that given here to seemingly industrious Israel,  are a necessary correlate of negative characterizations, such as the identification of a supposedly backward Palestine.  Critics of the model minority concept (which ascribes say, an innate talent and superior work ethic to Asian American students) make clear that  group-based praise and criticism both devolve onto dangerous and indefensible stereotypes.  Positive and negative labels together make for a destructive and self-perpetuating logic of difference.

But if you want to understand the truly insidious nature of Romney’s “gaffe,” read Peter S. Goodman’s excellent “Romney Just Played the Race Card”  on HuffingtonPost.

Those are Goodman’s scare quotes around “gaffe”, by the way.  Goodman believes (rightly to my mind) that Romney deliberately deployed some exquisitely calculated language to signal to his supporters that he’s on the same page with them regarding the inherent value of whiteness, or Jewishness, or both.

There is plenty of interesting analysis in that column, but I especially appreciate Goodman’s reference to the way that invocations of self-reliance and ingenuity support race-based explanations of success for many Americans. Brains and gumption lead to wealth, in the minds of those who wish  to ignore the social privileges that support educational and commercial opportunity  in the United States and other stratified societies.

I’ve blogged often about the ways that such invocations work to constrain STEM diversity, locating talent in individuals rather than social systems, even as they depend on group identities as units of analysis.  Goodman nails the seductive feel of that meritocratic narrative for privileged Americans, as well as its disingenuous collective sentiments about “even playing fields.”

Goodman has a keen eye for the busy instrumentality of racism, for the opportunism like Romney’s that layers hate upon fear upon hate.  Let’s  hope he keeps writing about the language and imagery fueling this presidential campaign.

 

Obama’s STEM Master Teachers: A Good Idea Made Better?

I’m excited about President Obama’s new idea for a billion-dollar STEM “Master Teacher Corps,” announced by the White House this week. I particularly like the idea that localities will choose the recipients of the title and its $20,000 stipend, providing a way to reward the science and math teachers they know to be the most excited and energetic.  But I worry that the school systems that currently generate innovative STEM teaching, that already support “highly competitive” teachers with the time and resources to develop this kind of curriculum, will dominate the competition  and skew corps membership away from the schools that most need added STEM support.

My idea: If all of the fretting about our national STEM “skills gap” is genuine, why not use half the money, or better yet, double the allotted pool of funding, to fund partners for each of the chosen teachers? These partners could be instructors of the same grade level, based in our most under-resourced districts.  Their “highly competitive” applications might include innovative math and science pedagogy  (as well as great energy), that has not yet been fully developed. Creative ideas for STEM instruction will come from both partners, but this would let those who’ve had little opportunity to create  teaching materials or implement a curriculum participate alongside those with established STEM teaching records.

American students who are normally the least likely to feel the effects of STEM education funding will benefit directly, and a powerful message of equity and inclusion would be built right into the new program.

So I suggest STEM Master Teacher Partnerships. A daunting administrative task?  If locating promising teachers in disadvantaged districts and coordinating partnerships seem like insurmountable tasks, all the more reason to shorten the distance between our “have” and “have not” schools.

Virtue Rewarded: The World According to Brooks

Give me some credit: For some months now I have successfully resisted the impulse to respond to David Brooks’ conservative writings about economic opportunity in America.  His logic is so extraordinarily selective that any critique of his arguments felt like hitting the side of barn; a target too big to miss…But today’s NYTimes column, in which Brooks tells us what is wrong with the American “meritocracy” of 2012, requires some attention from any social historian with a conscience.

Thinking about the Libor scandal and the many Wall Street troubles that have preceded it over the last couple of years, Brooks indicts the morals of today’s banking and corporate leaders, who unlike Groton and Yale graduates of yore, apparently possess no ethos of leadership.  They know “how to succeed,” but not “how to be virtuous” as did those previous generations, says Brooks.

Basically, Brooks wants us to distinguish between the ethics of “old” elites in U.S. history and “new.” The former, he says, were largely white, male members of the Protestant Establishment, born to privilege, and thus predictably “cruel” in their sexism, racism and anti-semitism. Still and all, these WASP stalwarts were competent and reliable directors of our banks, universities, country clubs and higher realms of government.  By contrast, today’s high achievers are more diverse in background and inherently pluralistic, having arisen not through social privilege but by being “brainy,” and Brooks sees in their success an index of these folks’ ambitiousness and discipline. But here’s the rub: despite their innate talents and vigor, today’s Wall Street financiers and economists are, sadly, nonetheless boobish and untrustworthy.  These new elites “stink,” and are giving merit a bad name.

They are, we read, “brats,” a condescending word Brooks clearly chose with care, and their immaturity and moral failings explain the dire financial straits into which these modern elites have plunged so much of the planet.  In gratuitiously characterizing themselves as anti-establishment (as they are wont to do, according to Brooks), today’s Harvard, Brown and Stanford grads deny responsibility for the conduct of the big institutions they in truth control. Brooks wants them to grow up and admit they are running the show because to do otherwise is… selfish!

Nobless oblige, anyone?  Putting aside for the moment Brooks’ willful denial that his subjects might be feeble conservatives precisely because they are trying to be effectual liberals (and just how hard they are trying is an important question, of course),  Brooks is hardly original in that accusation of selfishness.  The idea of there being “good” and “bad” elites is as old (and self-confirming) as Western philosophy itself.  Brooks is urging privileged Americans to acknowledge their elite status, to step up to the plate, and his naturalization of a hierarchical society is similarly unsurprising. We would expect him, as a conservative, to indict certain individuals as flawed while singing the praises of the social system from which those individuals derive their influence; a superficially reasoned stance perhaps, but again, not surprising.

What is important, however, is to unmask Brooks’ strategic deployment of “meritocracy” in this effort to depict American society as inherently democratic, despite the patently self-interested, classist aims of its corporate and financial institutions.  Focusing on merit,  a feature of individuals and not institutions or social structures, itself constrains the conversation profoundly.   It is only by denying structural problems like racism, gutted education budgets, and wage stagnation that one can use the term meritocracy unproblematically, as Brooks does.

Brooks’ is above all a deeply disingenuous argument, which pretends to care about the welfare of non-elites and to despise the bigotry of yesteryear, while actually reifying the power of privileged Americans and the closed, unreflexive nature of the institutions which produce and sustain that power.   Selective logic, indeed.