Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Mandarins

McArdle wrote an interesting piece.

...many of the mandarins have never worked for a business at all, except for a think tank, the government, a media organization, or a school—places that more or less deliberately shield their content producers from the money side of things. There is nothing wrong with any of these places, but culturally and operationally they're very different from pretty much any other sort of institution. I don't myself claim to understand how most businesses work, but having switched from business to media, I'm aware of how different they can be.  
In fact, I think that to some extent, the current political wars are a culture war not between social liberals and social conservatives, but between the values of the mandarin system and the values of those who compete in the very different culture of ordinary businesses--ones outside glamour industries like tech or design.

...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. The fact that I have a somewhat meandering work and school history, and didn't become a journalist until I was 30, gives me some insight (she said, modestly) that is hard to get if you’re on a laser-focused track that shoots you out of third grade and straight toward a career where you write and think for a living. 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.    

I’m hinting at the final problem, which is that 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.

You'll have to read the essay to know who 'the mandarins' are now.

It is a puzzlement.  There's no question that meritocracy has its raison d'etre.  The question is 'what is merit?'


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