The True Value Of A Good Education
September 29, 2010, 5:52 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Steve Sailer’s on a kick lately about rich white parents bending over backwards to keep their kids out of highly-nonwhite schools while telling themselves that’s not what they’re doing at all. Good for a chuckle.

It is very illustrative of the leftist problem in general, which is: how does one support a system characterized largely by credentialed, centralized bureaucratic privilege and unconstrained power, while continuing to always posture as an egalitarian populist on the side of the masses? The answer seems to be to continually harness your brainpower to come up with elaborate theories about this and that (why things are so bad for others, etc.), and in particular to extrapolate whatever conflicted personal hang-ups and obsessions you happen to have into a social theory. Hence, ‘I didn’t keep my kid out of that school cuz it was mostly Hispanic, I kept my kid out of that school because, um, the teachers are so bad. Which raises a troubling social question, why are Our Society’s Teachers so bad? We need to fix that, and you should put me in charge of fixing that!’ Etc. While doing this, of course you get cushy jobs and high salaries and live in nice houses and all the rest.

The essential factor in this approach to social/political issues is the lie. The ‘progressive’, fundamentally, is engaged in lying to others and to himself about his (largely self-centered, egocentric) motivations. In order for the lie to be believable, i.e. guilt averted, the lie has to be carefully constructed, backed by grandiose and intellectual-seeming theories, defended with vigor and viciousness against all challengers, and held to with a deep emotional investment – all characteristics of any current ‘progressive’ stance.

If my theory/slander is correct, then you can expect to find virtually any social institution dominated by the left to behave as something built on a scaffolding of lies. I think Education qualifies as an example. The basic lie of Education is that it is hugely important to always go to the ‘right’ schools, etc., because (supposedly) ‘good’ schools, like, teach a lot lot more than ‘bad’ ones (or something), and that this – learning like a lot more stuff from ‘good teachers’, etc. – is what is important for life and career happiness, at any cost. If your kid is bright but you don’t send him to this sort of ‘good’ school, he’ll get dumb. Etc.

When you see parents agonizing over whether their three-year-old will get into Snotwell Academy For Tots, or whatever, and then on up to spending $30k+ a year on some useless four-year-degree, this is the lie they are telling themselves and others. But because they believe the lie (or act as if they do), it leads to an ‘arms race’ among parents of similar and adjacent social classes, to do the same thing for their children. And because it’s a lie, the phenomena is hugely wasteful for all involved. The irony is that the wastefulness of it all is something that’s easy to spot, by everyone, looking at it from the outside – or even among the people doing it. Yet because the lie is so entrenched in our institutions and social mores, people still just do it (not to do it, if you can, would practically make you a pariah – ‘don’t you care about your children??’), and so no one knows the way out.

But we can start by identifying the truth behind the lie. And in the case of Education, I think the truth is something like this:

Your kid is either smart or he’s not. If he’s smart, the smartness will out, regardless of whether the school is ‘good’, etc. Schools being ‘good’ (above a certain basic level of safety, etc.) is mostly a sideshow. Rather: The main effect of where you send your kid to preschool, or middle school, or college, or whatever, is nothing more or less than what sort of kids will your kid know and hang out with. If you send your kid to a chi-chi preschool, your kid will have play dates with the kid of Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones. If you send your kid to a no-name preschool, he’ll have play dates with the kid of a construction worker. If your kid goes to Sidwell Friends or Dalton Middle School, he’ll smoke pot in the park with the kids of Fortune 500 CEOs, politicians, and famous writers. If your kid goes to Suburban Lawns Public School, he’ll smoke pot with the kids of random sysadmins and part-time nurses. If your kid goes to Yale or Princeton or Stanford, he’ll get invited to parties in Kennebunkport or summer houses on Cape Cod to hang out with kids of former Presidents. If your kid goes to State U., he’ll spend spring break in Reno with the kids of no-name semi retired software programmers and middle managers. Etc.

What parents are really choosing when they choosing the ‘best’ schools is: a peer group for their children. Will their precious, special kids be part of and hobnob with an upper-class, privileged peer group? Or will they be part of an undifferentiated, lowbrow peer group of no repute? And the reason parents care about this is largely for their own sake. It’s not like smoking pot in the park or having oral sex at a party is a hugely more beneficial, future-oriented, character-building activity when done with a hedge fund manager’s kid than when done with a gas station manager’s kid. No, parents basically just want to be proud that they got to the point that their kid brushes elbows with so-and-so. They want to feel like their kid is joining the upper crust. They couch all this in terms like ‘opportunities’ and ‘giving them the most options’, and all that, but when you try to boil it down to tangibles it’s pretty clear that this is what they’re really talking about. ‘Opportunities’ means ‘the cool, upper-crust kids’.

Which makes it easy to understand the phenomenon Sailer is talking about, the disguised ‘white flight’ of the upper class to private schools. The parents Sailer cites are obviously doing this basically because they don’t want their kid to be, like, hanging out with a bunch of Hispanics all the time. They don’t want that largely because they don’t want to think of themselves as the sort of parents who raised a kid who ended up being the kind of kid who hangs out with a bunch of Hispanics. That’s a step (or two) down the social totem pole in these parents’ minds, it would be painful (like parting with a portion of their self-image), and so of course they are willing to pay up to avoid it at all costs.

Obviously, this sort of motivation is painfully unthinkable and impossible to admit, especially to anyone who sees themselves as ‘progressive’, so they have to tell themselves a bunch of other reasons they’re doing what they’re doing. They will even ostentatiously devote huge amounts of time (and talk to others about how much time they’re devoting) to ‘research schools’ and ‘go through the process’, if it can help add to the illusion that what they’re doing is anything other than what I just described.

Fundamentally, it’s painful to think of oneself as this sort of person (even though I suspect a huge fraction, probably a majority, of people are motivated by precisely this sort of thing). And to the progressive, doubly so. This, largely, is why ‘progressive’ theories of social failures, inequality, and so on (theories which blame ‘society’ for this and that, and which cry out for ‘progressive’ ‘solutions’) are so desperately needed. The ‘progressive’ self-image demands such theories, and so such theories are produced. They are theories served up to feed the lies at their root, not to serve truth. But truth is always there, lying in wait to show itself.

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in particular to extrapolate whatever conflicted personal hang-ups and obsessions you happen to have into a social theory.

Nailed it in one. This is the foundation of every single “-studies” discipline in modern academia, which is where these people pick up the verbiage they use to make their lies palatable to themselves. 90% of “gender studies,” for instance, boils down to the professor not getting asked to the prom, and still being mad about it 30 years later.

Comment by Bullfrog

Both reward, and opportunity, tend to follow the power law model.

There is a genuine benefit to being in the top 10% of “prestigious” schools; both in the peer group you form, and in the perception of future employers. Significantly better opportunities will be open to you in future.

Otherwise, nope nothing.

Doesn’t matter if you go to a $200,000 private college that isn’t a top 10%, or you go to Fresno state, or you get an extension campus degree at night; your future opportunities will be approximately equal (unless the specific academic program you attend it well known enough to be considered a prestige program within the field. I went to Embry Riddle for example, which in the aerospace industry is one of the top schools, but outside of it, is basically unknown).

Similarly, there is a genuine benefit to being in the top 10% of performers in any organization (maybe even the top 20% even in some organizations); whether it be work, or school, or the military.

You will receive better rewards and better opportunities will be open to you… otherwise, nope, nothing.

Being number number 10 of 100 is substantially more rewarding than being number 11. Being number 11, is only slightly more rewarding than being number 49.

Comment by Chris Byrne

You’re absolutely right that there’s a genuine benefit to being in the ‘prestigious’ schools, etc. (and about the power-law/tiered nature of the privilege). That’s no lie.

The part that is a lie is where that benefit actually comes from. Where it mostly comes from is simply from the fact that if you go somewhere ‘prestigious’ you will then end up with a privileged peer group, and this by itself will open doors, a phenomenon that continues up through and past college, where having a degree from Yale will get you into a job that having a degree from UC Davis never would, even the UC Davis grad learned exactly the same (or more) stuff. The ‘prestige’ by itself, and the people you ended up meeting – not anything resembling substance – is what matters.

The shared lie people tell themselves and others about education doesn’t exactly play this factor up. Instead, people tell themselves and others they want their kids to go to the prestigious schools because of how good the teachers are or because of the teaching theories they use or because of smaller class sizes and 1 on 1 attention and on and on. And so it goes, on up through college, after which the Yale grad gets the investment-bank interview not because he had ‘great teachers’ or Yale is an objectively great school, but simply because the Managing Director went to or only respects Ivy League, and so tossed out all resumes that weren’t Ivy League.

Notice that this reality undercuts the entire progressive project of fixing education. If the main benefit from higher education is prestige-sorting then no amount of reform, and no amount of egalitarian money thrown at education, will ever improve things for the vast middle. No matter what is done with/to education, the upper crust 10% will always find a way to separate themselves from the pack, and there will always be fierce competition for whatever means of signaling/joining upper-crust peer groups are available, among those on the margin.

So we end basically up with progressives in denial, exhibiting classic upper-crust behavior but forming egalitarian theories to cover it up, then agitating for putting those theories into practice, theories that can’t possibly work, as evidenced by the progressives’ own behavior.

Comment by Sonic Charmer



[clap clap clap]

Comment by Borepatch

[…] This is Sonic Charmer’s description of “the leftist problem in general”: [H]ow does one support a system characterized largely by credentialed, centralized bureaucratic privilege and unconstrained power, while continuing to always posture as an egalitarian populist on the side of the masses? […]

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What many of these parents tend to miss is that while credentials, contacts, and “skills” are important, so are meta-skills, or what used to be called “character.” If every time Ethan or Muffie gets a bad grade the parents rush in to threaten the school administration, then that detracts from Ethan or Muffie’s learning of things that are more important than that particular grade.

Almost everyone I’ve seen fail in a corporate environment, beyond the lower levels, has done so more because of lack of meta-skills than lack of skills per se.

Comment by David Foster

hmmmm… *sigh*
I really have to disagree with a lot of what you say here. You live in a cloistered world. The people you work with have all been to decent schools and colleges. I live in a cloistered world too. Most people do, even criminals.
I just rented out my apartment to two nasty little, um, people. Yeah, technically they’re people. A couple. Something strange happened. I really don’t know why I picked them. They’re the only ones I really disliked. Some neighbor of mine said: “so what if you don’t like them? this isn’t about liking someone” and I threw away my instincts. Anyway, the real trouble-maker is the kid, the boy. I actually met his father, who’s a decent guy. The kid isn’t. And he’s clearly uneducated. Now I realize he mentioned his high-school and it’s a bad one. The sort of school where being bad is considered good. Where nobody cares about education. He’s the classic uneducated kid. Sure there are shits in every level of society but my wager is that if he’d gone to a good school he’d know better than to do what he’s doing.

I was also thinking recently of this excellent guy Sven I used to know. He grew up in the inner city in England. He claims to have been the youngest guy to have ever been locked up in the U.K.
When I first met him, he’d stopped being a thief but did act as a fence sometimes. He was also in prison for a couple of years for assault. He sort of liked violence. Anyway, this guy at least had real integrity. I usually hate these criminals but Sven is probably a better person than I am. Even so, the last time I met him, and he’d decided to go straight.. and well, his job was to carry refrigerators. It’s sad. It really is.
The way I see it, that probably wouldn’t have been his life had his parents been wealthy and sent him to a private (i.e a “public”) school when he was a kid. And that regardless his possibly inherent traits.

Another benefit of going to one of these private schools is that so many other pupils there went on to succeed in all sorts of endeavours that besides being well learnt, the pupils grow up believing they can succeed. I’m guessing high schools that are only %10 white have a different atmosphere to them.

I always hated lawyers. Now I’m going to have to hire one! And yeah, I say it’s because of his having gone to one of those lousy schools.
I’d rather have a 20 year old Yglesias as a tenant.

Comment by Anon


I didn’t quite get how your post made your argument, though as usual, I enjoyed it.

Not all the people I work with have been to decent schools and colleges. They have been to a wide variety of schools and colleges. What is true however is that the more plum roles tend to be reserved for the prestige-college folks – regardless of talent or initiative. Part of the impetus for my post is as a reaction to the unfairness of that.

I think I also didn’t communicate quite well that I have no disagreement with claims like, All else equal a kid will benefit from going to a private/good school if you can afford to send him there. I don’t dispute this per se, what I do dispute is that it’s because the kid will get a ‘better education’ at a ‘good school’. Not quite. What he will get is a better peer group, better habits, and perhaps a better self-esteem (or self-righteous snobbishness) – like you say.

Maybe what I’m really trying to say is just that our basic story about what education is and why it is valuable is a phony cover story. I’m not disputing that it is valuable, just wishing we could be more honest about why.

Comment by Sonic Charmer

It’s be fun to have you post a blog about your high-school experience.. what sort of teachers.. what kinds of students, what sort of cliques existed. You make it sound like a typical american high-school but A: my idea of a typical american high school is largely based around movies and B: is anything ever really typical? and C: it would illuminate many things you take for granted as common knowledge.

(ummm and smaller class-sizes is a major plus. Less noise. More discipline. More learning.
Besides, at very good schools the desire to learn is given a helping hand)

Comment by Anon

I categorically deny that it would be ‘fun’ for anyone were I to post about my high-school experiences. :-)

What would be much more fun would be if you were to just go watch the TV series Freaks and Geeks. And actually, what’s depicted on that series was creepily similar in feel to my school experiences (even though my schooling was actually years later than the time period of that show).

As for ‘class sizes’ leading to ‘more learning’ – piffle. What smaller ‘class sizes’ perhaps lead to are tighter bonds of friendship with Michael Douglas’s and Catherine Zeta-Jones’s kid….

Comment by Sonic Charmer

[…] used only for cheerleading purposes, and sheer self-contradiction if not naked hypocrisy to hide the embarrassingly ignorant, self-serving, and juvenile motivations behind the stances people take. […]

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[…] Charmer, September 2010: What parents are really choosing when they choosing the ‘best’ schools is: a peer group for […]

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