The Country of a Second Chance

I’ve griped at length on this site—and elsewhere—on how the graduates (at all degree levels) of a few elite schools dominate our corridors of power, be they the White House, the Supreme Court, or in our financial centres. A recent Facebook post by Fox News Radio’s Todd Starnes has finally galvanised me to lay out why I think this is bad for the country, and fundamentally “un-American” as we have traditionally understood these United States.

The idea that the graduates of a few schools should dominate a country is well established in Europe. But until the last few years, it’s been a foreign concept here in every sense of the word. Obviously the graduates of these schools think it’s a great idea, and many conservatives are reluctant to challenge the concept. This is because they don’t want to come across as whining populists (although a few broach this barrier.)

To start with, it’s not good for a country which is diverse as ours—and certainly one that has made diversity such an obsession—to restrict its highest places to those trained at a few places. It’s true that ethnic and socio-economic diversity has come to these places—Sonia Sotomayor reminds us of that—but after four (give or take two) years in these places, the intellectual idea—to say nothing of the connections one makes with the people one goes to school with—has a levelling influence, and ultimately an isolating one.

But the ultimate problem with this kind of centralisation is that it flies in the face of the United States as the country of a second chance.

Except for the Native Americans, we are a land of immigrants. Why did our ancestors come here? We know that some came to do the work, some did not. But all of them came because, for one reason for another, they came to the conclusion that they and their families had come to some kind of dead end where they were at. So they left familiar surroundings and relatives to find a better life of one kind or another. They wanted a second chance for themselves, for those who came with them, and for those who came after them.

We even see this in the internal migration in the U.S. Even after arrival, the movement didn’t stop. Black and white alike left the economic dead-end of the post-bellum South for the factories of the North. The reverse migration took place after the disaster of the 1960’s by those escaping the Rust Belt, a cold climate and high taxes. (Some even made the round trip!) And, of course, the West has beckoned ever since the Midwest was the “Northwest” and the South Central states were the “Southwest.”

Social place has been flexible along with geographical place. Although the phrase “know your place” usually has racial associations, originally it came from a society where upward social mobility was slow or non-existent, and it was the mantra of upper classes who wanted to keep their “inferiors” down. Until recently the phrase was a quick way to make an American of any race angry.

It’s always been a source of embarrassment to our elites at how “uneducated” many Americans are or seem relative to others (especially the Europeans.) That was certainly the case during World War II, and it was one of the driving forces behind the GI Bill. But the fact that our society has worked with so little regard for formal education is another part of the second chance. If formal education came up short, either by early school leaving or by scholastic mediocrity, there was always real life to fix the problem. Although there’s certainly a correlation between education and income, traditionally in American society it’s possible for recipients of the “gentleman’s C” (like my grandfather) to do well in life, if they’re prepared to work at it and exercise the social skills a society with a large civic life rewards.

The transformation of our upward social mobility into the prize for those who get into the “right” schools and meet there the “right” people alters that beyond recognition. Those who are a product of such a system realise early that they cannot make it in the society of a second chance when they put all of their eggs into the first chance. When the society doesn’t automatically alter itself to meet their expectations, the “first chancers” turn first to resentment and second to snobbery to express their bitterness, all the while working to insure that advancement is by their own rules.

In terms of the U.S. Presidency, they’ve succeeded, as I’ve documented before, and as one would expect that has worked its way down the line. Now I’m sure that elitists have raised many a latté to the sidetracking of the likes of Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee. But what happens when they cut off people like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs at the pass? Gates did start Harvard but didn’t finish, and Jobs neither finished his undergraduate studies nor darkened the door of Old Ivy. These “second chancers” went on to change the world.

That’s a more urgent question as the left pursues its other objective: bringing a progressively larger portion of our economy into state control. The more of this that takes place, the easier it will be to have a society where “first chancers” rule and the rest take what’s left. But will the rest bother with really going out and putting in the hard work and effort necessary to maintain a society with our traditional dynamism? Or volunteer to put their lives on the line for a society which mouths freedom and opportunity but is in reality organised for the benefit of those who control it? To put it another way, who wants to put the extra effort into a society where the fix is in by the time you’re eighteen, the national future is determined by a small group of admissions committees, and you know you’re on the short end of the stick?

There’s an important spiritual aspect to this too. Christianity is a religion of the “second chance,” a place where the shortcomings of the first birth can be rectified by the second, whose founder challenged the “downtown establishment” of his own day and recruited from amongst those who were deemed not quite up to par for rabbinical training. It’s the religion of the great “mulligan,” and consciously or not Americans have made the connection between the two. I don’t think it’s an accident that more and more challenges to Christianity are coming from a society which operates on the principle that “the fix is in” and there are no second chances once one misses the school with an inadequate Ivy League admission rate.

All of this is why I don’t think that either centralising our “best” people in a few schools or having a largely credentialistic/educational advancement system is good for our country, and believe that not only will we have a very different country for it, but also will have a lesser one as well.

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