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April 09, 2021

今天读到 London Book Review 上一篇反思 Meritocracy 的评论,联想到最近读的一些国内教育相关的新闻,有了一点点想法。


The question about the direction of travel arises again with the closely linked notion – also a kind of metaphor – of ‘social mobility’. I have argued before in these pages ( 8 April 2010 ) that social mobility is a vacuous and incoherent policy goal, at bottom individualist and competitive, heavily invested in the myth of self-making. Its function in social narratives, as with the ladder, is largely to celebrate escape – in practice, escape from the working class to the middle class. What’s more, if a few are to move up, then many must be left behind – and there is silence about the inevitability that some will move down. Only by doing better than everyone who’s stuck in their original social stratum can you be upwardly mobile: if the conditions of existence for the whole of the working class were transformed for the better, it wouldn’t count as social mobility.



Markovits emphasises that it pays to think strategically from an early stage:

Someone who wants an elite income – or, critically, even just an income sufficient to buy his children the schooling on which their own eliteness depends – must do one of a narrowly restricted class of jobs, heavily concentrated in finance, management, law and medicine. Fewer than one in one hundred jobs, and virtually none in middle-class occupations – teaching, for example, or journalism, public service, or even engineering – pays even close to elite wages.

The inclusion of medicine in this short list reflects the peculiarly dysfunctional state of healthcare in the US; in the UK, studying medicine is not usually the route to anything like the returns enjoyed by hedge-fund managers or corporate lawyers, even though some doctors can earn a lot from private practice. More generally, this passage underlines four things. First, that an enormous gap has opened up between the returns from these occupations and those from every other; second, that a narrowly specified form of educational success is the route into these occupations; third, that an income of this magnitude is necessary to guarantee that one’s children have access to such an education; and, fourth, that enabling one’s own children to profit from this system is seen as a natural and legitimate human purpose.

It is revealing that inequalities of expenditure on education in the US, from pre-school onwards, have increased even faster than other indices of inequality: the most competitive pre-schools in New York City admit just 5 per cent of applicants, ‘making them harder to get into than Harvard and Yale’. This lavishing of resources and attention on the children of the wealthy is inevitably at the expense of everyone else’s children. As Markovits puts it: ‘Helicopter parenting is just superordinate labour applied to the project of reproducing status in a meritocratic regime.’ Thus, ‘investments in human capital, made while parents are still alive, have replaced bequests of physical and financial capital as the dominant means for conveying elite status down through the generations’ – a form of wealth transmission that has the further advantage of escaping taxation.