The ‘Educated Elite’ Isn’t Educated, and It Isn’t Elite

Students from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education cheer as they receive their degrees during the 367th Commencement Exercises in Cambridge, Mass., May 24, 2018. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
As American academia has increasingly become an ideological monolith, it’s created a generation of strivers who don’t know what they don’t know.

Over the weekend, David Brooks wrote an interesting piece in the New York Times asking why America’s educated, meritocratic elite has failed in a number of key respects. After all, as Brooks puts it, we discarded a narrow old-boys club for a far more open system that’s intentionally designed to find and elevate Americans based on their abilities, regardless of race, class, or creed:

We replaced a system based on birth with a fairer system based on talent. We opened up the universities and the workplace to Jews, women and minorities. University attendance surged, creating the most educated generation in history. We created a new boomer ethos, which was egalitarian (bluejeans everywhere!), socially conscious (recycling!) and deeply committed to ending bigotry.

You’d think all this would have made the U.S. the best governed nation in history. Instead, inequality rose. Faith in institutions plummeted. Social trust declined. The federal government became dysfunctional and society bitterly divided.

Later, Brooks rightly says that “the chief accomplishment of the current educated elite is that it has produced a bipartisan revolt against itself.” He posits a number of explanations for this state of affairs: the elite’s “exaggerated faith in intelligence,” its failure to “think institutionally,” and its “misplaced idolization of diversity.” His argument is thoughtful and convincing. But I want to go in a different direction: Too many members of our “educated elite” aren’t truly educated. Nor are they particularly elite, except in social and economic status. They’ve instead developed an arrogant ignorance that makes them impervious to additional education and immune to traditional wisdom.

I learned firsthand that the educational emperor has no clothes when I ventured into Harvard Law School in the fall of 1991. I was a terrified kid who went to public school in rural Kentucky and a small Christian college in Tennessee. I was convinced that I had been admitted as part of a secret affirmative-action program for rednecks.

In other words, I was grateful for the opportunity but also feared that I wasn’t up for the academic or intellectual challenge. I quickly learned that I needn’t have worried. The problem wasn’t that we didn’t learn anything, but that our education was both deep and narrow. In torts, civil procedure, property, and criminal law we plunged into the depths of critical race theory and critical gender theory. I learned in great detail how common-law conceptions of contract rights harmed women and minorities and perpetuated the patriarchy. I learned very little about competing legal doctrines and traditions — when such ideas were brought up at all, they were presented as caricatures so they could be debunked.

Soon enough, the deep knowledge of selective points of view, plus the unashamed ignorance of competing ideas, turns into outright hostility to broader debate. This is the impulse that transforms discussions of policing tactics into shout-downs, debates about women in tech into terminations, and questions about sex and gender into accusations of hate and bigotry.

Make no mistake, I wanted to learn about critical-race theory, but I also wanted to better understand Blackstone. Why couldn’t I do both?

Yes, that was an unusually contentious and intolerant time for Cambridge, and the school has improved since the bad old days, but the overall American collegiate and graduate-school landscape has gotten profoundly worse, tacking more toward the Harvard Law School of 1991. Indeed, there’s no serious argument that elite American education isn’t an ideological monoculture at this point, with the “diversity” of opinion almost entirely represented by differences among progressives.

The result (outside the STEM disciplines) is a peculiar kind of mindset — one that is simultaneously curious and proudly ignorant. It’s curious about new theories and new ideas that further explore pre-existing narratives of race, gender, class, and sexuality. But it’s proudly ignorant of contrary voices — to the extent that academics (and their students) often don’t know what they don’t know.

The products of this academic environment then graduate with enormous, yawning gaps in knowledge, and they not only don’t care that the gaps exist, they’re proud to reject additional debate, much less additional education.

There was a telling moment in a recent Atlantic town-hall meeting with Jeffrey Goldberg and Ta-Nehisi Coates. According to the transcript, Coates — one of the most influential writers in America — said this about Kevin Williamson:

When I wrote “The Case for Reparations,” he wrote a reply. And I was so happy that he did. There was, like, no other conservative person I would have answered at all. [Emphasis added.]

I take a backseat to no one in my appreciation of Kevin’s work and talent, but ponder for a moment the implications of that statement. In the entire conservative world, is he really the only person serious enough to merit Coates’s attention?

Peruse the academic job listings in any major academic journal. Outside of STEM, you’ll see an unrelenting hunger — across multiple disciplines – for scholars who interpret their research through the prisms of race, gender, class, and sexuality. Military history, to take just one example, has had enormous influence on the development of the modern world. Where’s the corresponding, proportionate academic focus?

Soon enough, the deep knowledge of selective points of view, plus the unashamed ignorance of competing ideas, turns into outright hostility to broader debate. This is the impulse that transforms discussions of policing tactics into shout-downs, debates about women in tech into terminations, and questions about sex and gender into accusations of hate and bigotry.

Combine academic ignorance with a worldview that too often unthinkingly and reflexively rejects religious traditions and traditional religious notions of morality, and you’ve got the recipe for exactly the proud, “elite” individualist Brooks describes. Or, to borrow a biblical concept, “claiming to be wise, they became fools.”

He is right that the “meritocracy is here to stay,” but he’s wrong that we “need a new ethos to reconfigure it.” An old ethos will do, one grounded in humility, true curiosity, and an openness to challenging ideas.

It’s not that America’s “educated elite” has truly failed; it’s that America’s “educated elite” no longer really exists.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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