Lion of the Blogosphere

The bobos project: education

If you haven’t yet, read the first post of this series.

The first chapter of David Brooks’ book Bobos in Paradise is titled “The Rise of the Educated Class. While it begins with a humorous analysis of New York Times wedding announcements, instead of telling us about bobos, most of the chapter is devoted to explaining the history of elite colleges in the 20th century and the decline of the WASP establishment.

According to David Brooks, prior to the 1950s, the people who attended elite colleges were nearly entirely from the WASP establishment. Colleges had quotas to prevent too many Jews and other non-establishment WASPs from being admitted. But the faculty at the elite colleges in the 1950s didn’t approve of the elitist approach to admissions and moved the colleges to admit based on academic merit and SAT scores. (We seem to be going in the opposite direction today, with the elite colleges putting less emphasis on test scores on more on “well-rounded” students, but that’s my observation and not something Brooks wrote about.)

The result was a radical change in who was running the country. The country is still run by graduates of elite colleges, but the background of those graduates is a lot different today and no longer dominated by establishment WASPs.

As late as 1976, the labor market economist Richard Freeman could write a book called The Overeducated American, arguing that higher education didn’t seem to be paying off in the marketplace. But the information age kicked in, and the rewards for education grew and grew. In 1980, according to labor market specialist Kevin Murphy of the University of Chicago, college graduates earned roughly 35 percent more than high school graduates. But by the mid-1990s, college graduates were earning 70 percent more than high school graduates, and those with college degrees were earning 90 percent more. The wage value of a college degree had doubled in 15 years.

This excerpt is important for understanding a key element of Brooks’ viewpoint, but it’s also seriously flawed. As Brooks would have you believe it, college is a magic ticket to an upper middle class salary and lifestyle.

This depends a lot on what college you are talking about. A degree from Harvard, even a degree in something which doesn’t seem to have direct value in the market place such as English Literature, does indeed seem correlate with a six-figure career tracks, but that’s one super-elite school. Even at the bottom of the Ivy League, there are graduates who don’t find their way into those good jobs, and that was even true before the NASDAQ crash of 2000 and the even bigger economic crash of 2008. It’s significant that this book was published in March of 2000, the same month as the NASDAQ crash, so it seems to me that Brooks was influenced by the heady days of the last year of the tech bubble.

When Brooks is analyzing the New York Times wedding announcements, he mentions all of the elite schools like Stanford, Harvard and Princeton, so why is he talking about the average college graduate? The average college graduate went to a directional state school; that’s a school like Eastern Kentucky University where no one is a bobo.

The deepest thought I got from this chapter is that the faculty of elite colleges are dominated by liberals. The liberal ethos is absorbed by the students, and because these students graduate and become the new elite who are running the country, the result is that the country is being run by an elite that has been strongly influenced by the anti-rich liberal ethos. And thus they become bobos, who engage in conspicuous consumption, but do so in a manner that demonstrates liberal values like helping the environment and, ironically, rejecting crass materialism.

This chapter also made me think about the Occupy Wall Street movement. The members of the movement absorbed the idea that by going to college, they were therefore entitled to a career that not only gives them a decent salary but also gives them self-actualization. “Self-actualization” is a word I’ve used a lot, and Brooks also uses in the book. The upper-middle-class ethos is that a career is not just for making money, but also for self-actualization. There’s an exception for jobs that make a LOT of money like investment banking (my observation, not Brooks’). The kids at Occupy Wall Street therefore didn’t see going back to school to learn something practical and in-demand like nursing as a valid option, because nursing isn’t a career that gives you self-actualization.

Written by Lion of the Blogosphere

December 30, 2012 at 12:14 AM

Posted in Bobos

13 Responses

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  1. Ugh. If there is one thing that is going to seriously reek of late 20th/early 21st c. flawed thought, it’s the everyone-go-to-college-and-become-upper-middle-class mantra of Brooks and Cowen, et al. I guess they don’t tune into Prairie Home Companion.


    December 30, 2012 at 11:01 AM

  2. Well good news- the most recent subway murdered turned out to be a Hate Crime so now the press doesnt have to ignore it in favor of cute white kids in CT being murdered.

    Bloomberg made a point of saying we cant lock up the mentally ill because of post WIllbrook laws and its just peachy with him. Ugh.

    Lion of the Turambar

    December 30, 2012 at 11:02 AM

  3. I agree that many people feel entitled to a self-actualizing career. Not everyone can have one, though. So then the response is usually “how about self-actualization through one’s family?” But some people don’t intend to start families.

    Where does one find self-actualization if not through career or family? Hobbies? Volunteering?

    Maybe not everyone can climb the Maslow. Usually those who happen to be blissfully ignorant of the hierarchy and even of concepts like self-ac. It’s these folks who are aware of Maslow and self-ac, who may not be capable of achieving it, that are the interesting case. Caveat being “well, if they worked their asses off!” But even that won’t guarantee anything…


    December 30, 2012 at 11:55 AM

    • Um, ahem, we can’t afford to start families.


      December 30, 2012 at 9:41 PM

  4. *Usually those who can’t, happen to be


    December 30, 2012 at 11:56 AM

  5. How do you know it’s the association with the elite school, and not the privilege the person was born into (and likely the higher IQ to go along with it) that hands them greater earnings and success in life? Anyway I’m pretty sure it’s been disproven that ivy league grads outearn their lower-tier peers. There was a study that found individuals accepted at elite institutions, but who went to less prestigious schools, did just as well financially as those who attended the elite schools.


    December 30, 2012 at 1:11 PM

    • In wall street and tech, at least, it’s much easier to make it if you come from a top school. It’s like if you don’t have a degree from a good school, then you must have done something wrong in the past (while in school), especially now since the system is so much more meritocratic than it used to be. This applies to college graduates much more strongly. And we all know that it’s hard to change career tracks. It just is. In other words even if you’re smart and work hard, if you start in the wrong career it hard to change and experience won’t help you. To get into the right career you have to go to a good school first, and second, get a good GPA if possible. The school is much more important than the GPA. A hedge fund will list the people and mention where they went to school, but won’t list their GPA — the school is used as a marketing tool, while the GPA isn’t. The GPA is only a proxy for how good the student did in school. (somewhat correlated with motivation, smartness)


      December 30, 2012 at 9:09 PM

  6. The OWS kids were those who bought into the promise of self actualization, merely to find that for most it was a bait and switch.


    December 30, 2012 at 4:43 PM

  7. Speak for yourself. Nursing can absolutely be a self-actualized career. Obviously there is the point you reach your maximum potential and the satisfaction of a job well done. Then there is the feeling of self-worth that making a significant impact in the life of people brings.

    The problem is nursing is hard. Making it to the point where you are competent is hard and being great is harder still. Most young people in our “now” culture can’t comprehend putting in long hours for that. Not to mention that “helping people” isn’t a goal in an of itself for the new generation. Being saluted for helping people, now we’re talking.


    December 30, 2012 at 5:05 PM

    • It’s the ego thing. A nurse is subordinate to a doctor, and deals with a lot of unpleasant facts of the human body (poop, piss, spit). English majors don’t want to deal with that.

      I’m with the line in Fight Club: ‘You are not a special and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying matter as everyone else.’


      December 31, 2012 at 9:07 AM

  8. After WW II many of the returning servicemen were paid to go to university. Thus a huge number of smart people (who never would have been able to afford university otherwise) were suddenly in university. Not all the servicemen were smart of course, and some of them would have gone to university even without the War. But there was a substantial number of them who were smart but who came from families who couldn’t or wouldn’t pay for them to attend university.

    Maybe by the mid 50s places such as Harvard realized they were going to get pwned by the public universities if they didn’t begin to admit by merit and that is why they changed.


    December 31, 2012 at 4:03 AM

  9. I graduated from Berkeley in 1991. At the time, it was still mostly true that a liberal arts or social science degree would get you into a better job than 4 years of work experience with a HS diploma would, and that, if you were reasonably prudent, that better job would keep you in the middle class. But that was at the beginning of a recession, and the bloom was coming off the rose fast. Engineers, even us lowly Civil Engineers, could expect 50% more pay than someone with a Sociology or History degree, and could expect to find work doing something related to our degree. But there were plenty of corporate management-trainee and sales jobs for those English majors willing to quit smoking cloves and buy a suit.

    Of course, it was less true for grads of San Jose State, but the entry level jobs for J. Random Degree were actually jobs which people who couldn’t complete college would probably not do nearly so well at, and the cost of a middle-class lifestyle in California wasn’t so high, mainly because housing wasn’t so damn expensive. Though we thought it was expensive even then.


    December 31, 2012 at 1:05 PM

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