The Mandarin Class

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(from here)

A phrase that often shows up on this blog the Mandarin Class–the creation of a well-educated elite that is insular and isolated from the rest of society. Megan McArdle gives one of the best long-form descriptions of the term I’ve ever read (boldface mine):

Passing the tests and becoming a “scholar official” was a ticket to a very good, very secure life. And there is something to like about a system like this … especially if you happen to be good at exams. Of course, once you gave the imperial bureaucracy a lot of power, and made entrance into said bureaucracy conditional on passing a tough exam, what you have is … a country run by people who think that being good at exams is the most important thing on earth. Sound familiar?

The people who pass these sorts of admissions tests are very clever. But they’re also, as time goes on, increasingly narrow. The way to pass a series of highly competitive exams is to focus every fiber of your being on learning what the authorities want, and giving it to them. To the extent that the “Tiger Mom” phenomenon is actually real, it’s arguably the cultural legacy of the Mandarin system….

All elites are good at rationalizing their eliteness, whether it’s meritocracy or “the divine right of kings.” The problem is the mandarin elite has some good arguments. They really are very bright and hardworking. It’s just that they’re also prone to be conformist, risk averse, obedient, and good at echoing the opinions of authority, because that is what this sort of examination system selects for.

The even greater danger is that they become more and more removed from the people they are supposed to serve. Since I moved to Washington, I have had series of extraordinary conversations with Washington journalists and policy analysts, in which I remark upon some perfectly ordinary facet of working-class, or even business-class life, only to have this revelation met with amazement. I once had it suggested to me by a wonk of my acquaintance that I should write an article about how working-class places I’ve worked usually had one or two verbally lightning-fast guys who I envied for their ability to generate an endless series of novel and hilarious one-liners to pass the time. I said I’d take it under advisement, but what on earth would one title such an article?

BREAKING: Cable Runners and Construction Workers Can Speak in Complete Sentences, Make Jokes.

…My experience of working-class life consists of some relatives, a few summer jobs, a stint in the secretarial pool at a nonprofit, three years with a firm that had a substantial cable-installation practice, and one year in a construction trailer at Ground Zero. Most of my work experience is in writing stuff, and then talking about what I write. I’m hardly the Voice of the Proletariat. Or the Voice of Industry, for that matter.

And yet, this is apparently considerably more experience than many of my fellow journalists have, especially the younger ones. The road to a job as a public intellectual now increasingly runs through a few elite schools, often followed by a series of very-low-paid internships that have to be subsidized by well-heeled parents, or at least a free bedroom in a major city…Almost none of the kids I meet in Washington these days even had boring menial high-school jobs working in a drugstore or waiting tables; they were doing “enriching” internships or academic programs. And thus the separation of the mandarin class grows ever more complete

…this ostensibly meritocratic system increasingly selects from those with enough wealth and connections to first, understand the system, and second, prepare the right credentials to enter it—as I believe it also did in Imperial China.

And like all elites, they believe that they not only rule because they can, but because they should. Even many quite left-wing folks do not fundamentally question the idea that the world should be run by highly verbal people who test well and turn their work in on time. They may think that machine operators should have more power and money in the workplace, and salesmen and accountants should have less. But if they think there’s anything wrong with the balance of power in the system we all live under, it is that clever mandarins do not have enough power to bend that system to their will. For the good of everyone else, of course. Not that they spend much time with everyone else, but they have excellent imaginations.

Before we get to the final benediction, this is another reason why policies that are immensely popular are never even discussed, except in the nether regions of the bloggysphere: experiences and perspectives most people have are absolutely foreign to the Very Serious People.

Orationem: This is yet another reason why we can’t have nice things.

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2 Responses to The Mandarin Class

  1. Min says:

    McArdle: “I once had it suggested to me by a wonk of my acquaintance that I should write an article about how working-class places I’ve worked usually had one or two verbally lightning-fast guys who I envied for their ability to generate an endless series of novel and hilarious one-liners to pass the time. I said I’d take it under advisement, but what on earth would one title such an article?”

    How about, “Zingers I have known”?

  2. kaleberg says:

    I’d much prefer having the mandarin test passing class running things rather than the current bunch of corrupt clowns. Remember, Confucius pushed for standardized testing to weaken the power of nepotism and cronyism in the civil service. In theory and in practice, his plan opened government employment to a much larger class of people than the traditional aristocratic model. If nothing else, a much higher percentage of the bureaucracy was literate and capable of doing simple arithmetic.

    If you look at who is actually running the country, it is definitely not the technocrats, the test passers. Under the Bush administration, being able to demonstrate one’s cluelessness, combined with a rapacious desire to rake in the graft, seemed to be a job requirement. If you look at our much vaunted financial sector, it seems to lack both test taking intelligence and any understanding of ordinary human life, but it is lauded by sycophants and apologists like McArdle. The British aristocracy originally argued that it ruled by the divine right of kings. When that wore thin, it argued that it was the aristocrats who fought. When that wore thin, it argued that it ruled because it was too stupid to come up with any better idea.

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