William Katz:  Urgent Agenda






OUR NEW MANDARINS – AT 9:54 A.M. ET:  Reader Thomas Wharton refers us to an excellent piece by Newsweek and Daily Beast reporter Megan McCardle on America's "new mandarins," the college-educated elite who believe that, because of their educations, they should occupy a very special place...above us.  Important reading:

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?


I include myself in this group. Though I completely lacked the focused ambition of the young journalists I meet today, I am a truly stellar test-taker, from a family of stellar test-takers. I have a B.A. from Penn and an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago, credentials that I am well aware give me an entree that other people don't have. Nor do I think that these are bad things to have. Verbal fluency, fast reading, and a good memory are excellent qualities—in a writer.

But they are not the only qualities worth having, and the things that mandarins know are not the only things worth knowing. My grandfather had maybe 10 books in his house (that weren't written for children), but he could take a failing service station and make it succeed, while I'm pretty sure that I would take a successful gas station and make it fail. He also, I might add, was very successful at actually running a small town (as an alderman) and a charitable institution (the local Rotary). I'm not sure we're better off cutting off the paths to success and power taken by people like him, so that we can funnel it all through a series of academic hoops. I'm not sure we haven't ended up with a class of people who know everything about gas stations except what it takes to make one succeed.

COMMENT:  Very well said.  Do read the entire piece.  I've seen the new mandarins at work in both journalism and Hollywood, and I've seen the good and bad they bring.  Yes, they are "better educated" than previous generations, but they bring an arrogance and a dependence on test scores that is deadening and narrowing.   How can a person learn when he thinks he already knows everything?

I'm reminded of an incident in my own life.  One day in 1960, when I was an aide to Senator Paul Douglas of Illinois, himself a distinguished academic, a former professor of economics, we were riding through Rockford, Illinois, in the northern part of the state.  I was a junior at the University of Chicago, and made a typical, arrogant, undergraduate comment about "the kind of people who live here."  Mr. Douglas stopped me and delivered a stern lecture, telling me of something he'd learned in life.   He said:  "Bill, never underestimate the wisdom of a small town."  It's something I've always remembered, and keep telling myself over and over.  Mr. Douglas was right. 

Years later I interviewed Charles Kuralt, who did the "On the Road" series for CBS News.  I asked him, "In all the years you've traveled around this country doing that series, what is the most important impression you've received."  Without any hesitation he replied, "I've been amazed at how well informed Americans are."  He was right, too.

There are different kinds of knowledge and wisdom, and they aren't always found in places that revere test scores or high grades. 

February 25, 2013