How to Create an Obedient Mandarin Class

This is a theme I’ve hit before, but William Deresiewicz does it so eloquently (boldface mine):

See, things have changed since I went to college in the ’80s. Everything has gotten much more intense. You have to do much more now to get into a top school like Yale or West Point, and you have to start a lot earlier. We didn’t begin thinking about college until we were juniors, and maybe we each did a couple of extracurriculars. But I know what it’s like for you guys now. It’s an endless series of hoops that you have to jump through, starting from way back, maybe as early as junior high school. Classes, standardized tests, extracurriculars in school, extracurriculars outside of school. Test prep courses, admissions coaches, private tutors. I sat on the Yale College admissions committee a couple of years ago. The first thing the admissions officer would do when presenting a case to the rest of the committee was read what they call the “brag” in admissions lingo, the list of the student’s extracurriculars. Well, it turned out that a student who had six or seven extracurriculars was already in trouble. Because the students who got in—in addition to perfect grades and top scores—usually had 10 or 12.

So what I saw around me were great kids who had been trained to be world-class hoop jumpers. Any goal you set them, they could achieve. Any test you gave them, they could pass with flying colors. They were, as one of them put it herself, “excellent sheep.” I had no doubt that they would continue to jump through hoops and ace tests and go on to Harvard Business School, or Michigan Law School, or Johns Hopkins Medical School, or Goldman Sachs, or McKinsey consulting, or whatever. And this approach would indeed take them far in life. They would come back for their 25th reunion as a partner at White & Case, or an attending physician at Mass General, or an assistant secretary in the Department of State.

That is exactly what places like Yale mean when they talk about training leaders. Educating people who make a big name for themselves in the world, people with impressive titles, people the university can brag about. People who make it to the top. People who can climb the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy they decide to attach themselves to.

Training our putative elite their entire childhoods to do what they’re told and to take pride in it, consequences to others be damned is a very subtle, but very important reason for why we can’t have nice things.

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2 Responses to How to Create an Obedient Mandarin Class

  1. joemac53 says:

    I was a great hoop jumper, but I didn’t make it into that top tier. I decided to do what I had wanted to do, work with kids (teaching and coaching). Just enough money to live a modest life and have a great family and career. It could be said that I lacked ambition, but I ain’t complaining about how things turned out.

  2. Tercelet says:

    This is great, because it really connects the dots.

    Unemployment is up. Selectivity at top colleges is up. Across the board, all higher educational costs are up. Why?

    Because we are experiencing a sustained, intentional, artificial scarcity of opportunity. That is the overwhelming change in our economy, really over the last 12-13 years (and possibly longer),but culminating in the most recent ones. Opportunity at every level is ever thinner and thinner on the ground, available more and more only to those who come from a privileged background to start with & who are willing to keep their heads down and suppress any and all objections to the system as the price of a ticket, and who will mortgage more and more of their futures to get it. You train a dog not by beating it (that’ll remind it you’re its enemy), nor by rewarding it every time (that’s a trade between equals), but by spacing the rewards out more and more — establishing a power relation in which it knows you could give it a gift, and will do anything to please you even as the actual hope of a treat becomes slimmer and slimmer. And eventually it obeys just by the power relation alone, and you no longer need to give it anything at all (other than the basics to keep it alive).

    I mean, the ruling classes have always known this, but I think Tiananmen Square — the successful suppression of the revolt — really drove the point home. Wealthy urban Chinese, up until very recently, abandoned political protest in favor of the slim hope of getting rich. Do we really think American boardrooms haven’t noticed?

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