Meritocracy and University: Death by Degrees | N+1mag

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In 605 CE, a year after murdering his father and seizing the throne, the Chinese emperor Yang Guang established the world’s first meritocracy…

…Jean Baudrillard once suggested an important correction to classical Marxism: exchange value is not, as Marx had it, a distortion of a commodity’s underlying use value; use value, instead, is a fiction created by exchange value. In the same way, systems of accreditation do not assess merit; merit is a fiction created by systems of accreditation. Like the market for skin care products, the market for credentials is inexhaustible: as the bachelor’s degree becomes democratized, the master’s degree becomes mandatory for advancement. Our elaborate, expensive system of higher education is first and foremost a system of stratification, and only secondly — and very dimly — a system for imparting knowledge.

The original universities in the Western world organized themselves as guilds, either of students, as in Bologna, or of masters, as in Paris. From the first, their chief mission was to produce not learning but graduates, with teaching subordinated to the process of certification — much as artisans would impose long and wasteful periods of apprenticeship, under the guise of “training,” to keep their numbers scarce and their services expensive. For the contemporary bachelor or master or doctor of this or that, as for the Ming-era scholar–bureaucrat or the medieval European guildsman, income and social position are acquired through affiliation with a cartel. Those who want to join have to pay to play, and many never recover from the entry fee.

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