To me, the most interesting reaction to the recent Guardian/Glenn Greenwald reporting on the US Government’s vast, creepy, and stupid engagement in various programs of indiscriminate eavesdropping is the shock and disbelief evinced by, mostly, partisan defenders of the President to the effect that there is something deeply disturbing and unbelievable about the idea that a “high-school dropout” could have advanced, succeeded, and come into a six figure salary. Nevermind that the technology industries have always valorized the dropout narrative and that there are prominent tech billionaires offering substantial grants to kids who skip college in order to do something useful with their lives. I’m reminded of some educational activists who point out that in the eyes of the New York Times et al., $250,000 a year is too poor to live in Manhattan, but a teacher making fifty grand is an entitled sinecure living high on the hog. The point is . . . no, the question is: is $200,000 a lot of money to make in a year? Well, in the eyes of the professional classes and their media interlocutors, the answer is: no, if you’re the right kind of person; yes, if you’re not.
The people who express these doubts in the media, who find it so extraordinary that a guy with a mere GED could make what still passes for a decent living in this country, and indeed, find it in a sense offensive that this should be the case, as if the lack of a particular kind of credential is in fact a moral demerit that renders personal financial success not merely suspect but anathema to the proper order of an economy, are the sort of people who eagerly get on board with notions like, “every child should have the opportunity to go to college.” You can ignore the word opportunity; it is a mere formalism. They mean, everyone should go to college. (The obvious economic rejoinder is that if the thing is no longer scarce, it is no longer valuable. Witness, ladies and gentlemen, the Bachelor’s degree. But I digress.) Usually this exhortation is coupled with some vague notion that we—America, if you were wondering—are being outcompeted by China in the war to endow our children with “the skills they will need for the jobs of tomorrow.” No one ever quite gets around to mentioning what those skills are. I assume they mean computers. And it appears, InshSteveJobs, that what a guy or gal needs in order to figger out them crazy computers, is not a college degree, but access to a computer.
In fact, the universalizing of college education has completely elided the distinction between credential and skill. In the days when college was just finishing school for men of a particular class, there was a lot less confusion. I’ll confess to being a conservative sympathizer in certain domains, but I don’t pine for those days. They were shitty. Nevertheless, there was a very real recognition that reading history didn’t make a man fit to be a banker; it made a man clubbable, and then he learned to be a banker. But I propose to you that if Edward Snowden had a BA in English and Creative Writing from Oberlin College and went on to become a high-paid analyst at a defense contractor, no one would say boo about it, even though he would be in a practical sense no more qualified, and hell, probably less so, than any randomly selected dropout blogger. Guys, I know whereof I speak.
What about a degree in visual arts and documentary filmmaking—here I will reveal my conservative sympathies and laugh that such things exist—qualifies a person to judge, one way or other, the professional and vocational qualifications of a person to be a data systems/IT guy? Did you even set up your own home WiFi? Was Edward Snowden a qualified employee? I don’t know, but the dispositive evidence one way or other has nothing to do with whether or not he got into Phi Beta Kappa. The sheer de haut en bas snobbery of it is pretty astonishing, especially as it comes from the sort of technocratic centrists and liberals for whom class distinction is supposed to evaporate in the upward movement of social progress. Hey, I think the IT guy who fixes my copier who probably has a 2-year degree from somewhere makes more money than I do, but you know what, I’m just a manager, whereas he has skills.