Megan McArdle notes that Barack Obama’s Free Community College scheme is really just one more example of the pseudo-intelligentsia’s typical attempt to make the world better by making everybody more like themselves.
I would argue instead that what’s elitist is our current fixation on college. It starts from the supposition that being good at school is some sort of great personal virtue, so that any suggestion that many people aren’t good at school must mean that those people are not equal and valuable members of society. And that supposition is triple-distilled balderdash.
My grandparents had perhaps ten adult books in their house, most of which were either Bibles or biographies of presidents. I don’t think there’s anything to be ashamed of in not regarding reading as great recreation. Bookishness has added greatly to society. So has the ability to run a business well, which my grandfather did for many years, employing dozens, maybe hundreds, of people over his lifetime. So has community service, which both my parents did with great distinction, and being kind and decent and generous. I don’t need to hide the fact that neither of my grandparents much cared for books or school, because I don’t think that made them some sort of lesser class of person. Pretending that everyone has the potential to be like the tiny class of educated people who run policy in this country is not egalitarianism; it is the secret snobbery of a mandarin class who really do think that being good at school made them more worthy and important than everyone else. …
Higher education is becoming the ginseng of the policy world: a sort of all-purpose snake oil for solving any problem you’d care to name, as long as we consume enough of it. Education is a very good thing, but it is not the only good thing. An indiscriminate focus on pushing more people into the system is no cure for society’s ills–and indeed, often functions as a substitute for helping the people who are struggling in the current system.
What if people in the policy elite stopped assuming that the ideal was to make everyone more like them, and started thinking about making society more hospitable to those who aren’t? My grandfather graduated into a world where a man with a high-school diploma could reasonably hope to own his own business, or become someone else’s highly valued employee, a successful pillar of a supportive community. His grandchildren graduated into a world where a college diploma was almost the bare necessity to get any kind of a decent job. Why aren’t we at least asking ourselves if there’s something we can do to create more opportunity for people without diplomas, instead of asking how many more years we can keep everyone in school? Why do all of our proposed solutions essentially ratify the structure that excludes so many people, instead of questioning it?
I have some ideas about what those policies might look like: broad deregulation, especially at the state and local level, to ease things for business creators and make it easier to get various sorts of jobs that are currently protected by licensing requirements; more co-op and apprenticeship programs; wage subsidies for entry-level workers, and perhaps a broad system of government internships that could help people gain experience outside of the classroom. I’m sure that there are many more I haven’t named. But we won’t find them as long as the only politically interesting solution is ever more years in school.
Read the whole thing.