In The Tyranny of Merit, philosopher Michael Sandel says that the United States, and the world, have not been served well by the US system, in which graduates from a small number of highly selective universities dominate the top of business and public life. Sandel should know.
For four decades, he has taught at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, including at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, whose faculty members have served as advisers or run agencies in Democratic governments in recent decades — including the present one.
Sandel says that, for 40 years, “meritocratic elites” have presided over stagnant wages for most workers, inequalities of income and wealth not seen since the 1920s, wars in the Middle East, and the 2008 financial crisis. By contrast, he writes, the people who led the United States from 1940 to 1980 helped to win the Second World War, strengthened the US welfare state, and dismantled segregation.
A parallel argument is advanced by David Goodhart at Policy Exchange, a think tank in London that is close to the present Conservative UK government. In Head Hand Heart (2020), he says that the “cognitive class” — his name for people who hold many academic qualifications — has reduced the pay and status of other skilled jobs, such as the caring professions, where learning often also takes place outside universities.
Both books imply that universities are also worsening societal divisions, in part because students are more likely to vote for left-wing parties, and those schooled outside universities are more likely to lean to the right.
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