The American Caste System


I’ve been thinking about the education system recently – and mostly about what is wrong with it. After jotting down some notes it became obvious that there is too much material to cover in a single blog post, so I will spread this one out.

First, let me start out by saying I am a huge fan of education.  I believe education should be a lifelong pursuit that does not stop with the acquisition of a diploma or the landing of that first job.

Properly structured, education expands minds and pushes people out of their comfort zones, forcing them to learn about the world as a whole, and not just a tiny subset.  In addition to the usual suspects of math and reading, classes that involve the arts (music, literature, drama etc.) and those that develop critical thinking through face to face dialog and debate should be mandatory in any general education.

But education also needs to be met by each person on his/her own terms. University and college isn’t for everyone, and there will always be people for whom college just doesn’t fit right – like shoes pinching at the toes.  Some people just learn more effectively in different environments, and we should not stifle their dreams by forcing them to do things the same old ways.

Unfortunately society (or at least Western society) doesn’t seem to agree with me.

The world of education is changing rapidly.  Where once these “institutes of higher learning” had a monopoly on information we now find ourselves in a world where virtually unlimited knowledge is never further away than your phone.

Given this quantum shift in knowledge availability, it would be reasonable to expect that the existing education system would be rapidly changing to mine these new resources.  But instead of leading the charge we find that the existing educational establishments are not even keeping pace – how can this be?

There are many answers, ranging from ignorance to profit margins.  But here I want talk about something more subtle, and far more sinister – education (or the lack of it) is a tool for keeping people in their place.  These techniques have been used around the world for centuries, and against all kinds of people:  Slaves, Women, Blacks, etc.

The status quo today mandates that most good jobs require a diploma and, as long as that situation exists, the colleges are able to make substantial sums of money supplying those bits of paper.  To get that coveted prize you must play by their rules, which include steep tuition feeds and expensive (and heavy!) textbooks.

The Caste System at WorkBut let’s be honest with ourselves and admit that, as a whole, we like it that way.  These expensive diplomas help keep the ‘riff-raff’ out, and effectively create a caste system – ensuring that the higher-paying jobs are reserved for those who can afford those hefty school fees in the first place. This creates a catch-22, and thus ensures that there are plenty of people to handle the low paying, menial jobs that most of us would not want to do.

I don’t think most people actually think of it that way, but deep down we would all prefer to compete against fewer people.  The good news is that the current education system provides a handy way to separate “The Haves” from the “Have Nots” without tweaking our social conscience.  Obviously they have lower paying jobs because they are not educated!  Q.E.D.

Unfortunately for The Haves, the Internet is spoiling this game.  Now people can educate themselves to almost any level for free.  And freed from the restrictions of the standard educational system, these outlaw students can tailor their education to where they have talent and passion – a deadly combination that can eventually lead them to create revolutionary products and services that leave the rest of us in the dust.

As one of the people who started in a lower caste (I left school at sixteen) there is a part of me that cheers this revolution and the feeling of justice it brings.  Surely any intelligent, hardworking person should be able to compete on equal terms…That’s part of the American Dream, right?

But having now spent the money to get my degree, there is part of me that says “…as long as it doesn’t affect me and my family.”  It’s tough being a rebel when it puts my livelihood at risk.

Are we educating people because they need those skills, or to separate them from the rest of the herd?  Should we give accreditation to anyone who can prove their intelligence, without requiring a college or university being involved, or should we protect what we have?  Do we even need college education at all beyond areas such as medicine and law?

Go ahead and vote – it’s anonymous, so be completely honest!



Filed under Career, Children, Education, Technology, The Human Condition

6 responses to “The American Caste System

  1. Via email:

    Nicely written article. I couldn’t agree more!

    Let me add a few things:

    Not only have degrees separated the supposed elite (those with) from the flotsam and jetsam (those without) in America, but they also beget another form of caste system; the right school versus the wrong school. I’m sure you’ve overheard nonsense like this before: “So, Clara, how is your son David doing?” “Just great, Selma. In fact, he begins his first semester at Rutgers this fall.” “Oh, isn’t that splendid! Our daughter Karen was just accepted at Cornell and we couldn’t be happier!” Hmm. When this exchange is related at a dinner party, guess which child will already be deemed superior? Of course we know that one’s Alma Mater doesn’t necessarily determine their abilities. After all, George W. Bush was a Yale man!

    Here’s something else to ponder: The brightest and most competent people I know are those inquisitive souls who continue to learn. Example: I have a friend named Jean. She has a masters in teaching, but is otherwise quite unremarkable. Why do I say this? Because her knowledge base is very limited. Oh, she can perform her job well enough, but she lacks intellectual curiosity. As a result, most of her learning ceased ten-years ago when she graduated (and even then it seems it was comprised predominantly of memorization). This is apparent when you try to engage her on most topics. She simply doesn’t know or doesn’t care enough to know. After a few moments speaking with her, you realize that she doesn’t run too deep. Now, I have another friend named Howard. To say that he is well-read is like saying that Rembrandt could sort of paint. He is 65, has a bachelors from Boston U. but will tell you that he barely squeaked by. He is one of the most philosophical people that I know, and is always abreast of current happenings. Beyond this, he is like a one-man encyclopedia. In fact, I often tap him for topic ideas (for the Armchair Reader series of books that I prepare). He can converse on most any topic, has well-considered viewpoints on most, and seems to be a “complete” human-being.

    Last point: I do not now, nor have I ever held a college degree. Oh I have some credits from Montclair State, and some others from another community college, but no degrees. This has proved a hindrance in my life as well as a great liberator. Sound confusing? It is, and is probably best left for another conversation. Still, there is a point to be made here. Through perseverance and self-education, I generally manage to get from point A to B. And I don’t have tens of thousands in student loans to pay back for my troubles.

    Final anecdotal bit: My neighbor’s son recently graduated from college. His mom comes from Taiwan and his dad from the US. I’m not sure what his major was, but his dad tells me that he is totally disappointed with his job and the pitiful offers out there. At this point – please sit down or you may fall over in shock – he makes $11 an hour! He plans to relocate to Taiwan because THAT COUNTRY OFFERS BETTER OPPORTUNITIES!!! Such is the net end result of our American Caste System.

  2. Education ‘to get a job’ may be practical but it is completely wrong! A job is merely a paid position in someone else’s view of life. The whole process of employers and jobs is an artificial and not very effective method of organising work.

    Education develops the mind, and the subject is not particularly relevant. Training imparts knowledge, the basis for a working life. Both are available for free in an online world. With or without education every human is able to work, to expend energy in creating something useful. With education, training becomes easier and work becomes more productive.

    For a healthy economy, individuals need to be encouraged to be educated and trained, and efficient systems put in place so their work is guided towards communal wealth and happiness. The capitalist system is wasteful, the communist system is inefficient. Colleges and employers are proprietary systems. Is there an open online market system that allows everyone to be educated, trained and working?

  3. I appreciate a good debate and love the points you touch on here. And I am going to be in the minority, but I believe a college education is an important stepping stone. With all of its flaws. My husband comes from very humble beginnings and he managed to side-step the educational “caste system” through grants, scholarships and student loans. He obtained not only an undergraduate degree but went on to medical school. Through hard work, ingenuity and his own intellectual merits. Sure the system can discriminate, but only if you let it.

    • I agree that an education is important. I also agree that for certain professions it should be required (and Dr. is definitely one that qualifies for that). But I don’t think a college degree should be required for most jobs since most jobs need training, and you will get more relevant training actually doing the job than being in school.

      Yes, some people can get out of the caste system – and I am one of those too. I did go back to college but only after many years of actual work and my verdict was that, while interesting, I had learned far more through work experience. I enjoyed college, met some nice people, and learned a number of things that I would otherwise not have. But almost none of it helped me to be a better employee. As such, requiring a college degree to get a ‘good’ job is, IMHO, invalid.

      Of course, going back as an adult I missed out on all of the drinking and debauchery, and I am sorry for that 🙂

  4. Great piece, Barry. The caste system in the US is definitely framed by education and privilege, but many other factors are at play as well. As a young, ambitious professional, I felt a college degree was an unnecessary expense and time sink. I took courses in college that appealed to my interests and used that knowledge to get better and better white-collar positions. But, I had come from a low caste, so even being employed in a white-collar position was a huge accomplishment. There was no expectation in my family for me or my siblings to attend college. Neither was there a college fund or any serious attention paid toward that end.

    As a parent, however, I now realize the value of a good education. I’m militant about both of my children attending and completing degree programs in undergraduate and post-graduate schools. Of course, I want both of my children to be financially secure, but getting a degree explicitly for the purpose of better employment opportunities is not the primary reason. A well-rounded and strong educational background yields a more considered worldview. I don’t feel that only a formal education can develop this, but consider it a mandatory part of the equation. The costs of a premium education are staggering and out of reach for most of the country, so it’s likely we will see the have-nots continue to slide into irrelevance. My only hope is, the educated and enlightened haves will work toward fighting this social injustice.

    I’ve always felt America’s chief issue is class. It’s the truth everyone knows, but no one talks about.

    • Thanks Susan.

      I’m with you – education is vitally important. And, like you, I grew up in a very poor area where, frankly, higher education was seen as something that ‘rich’ people did. I managed to have a very successful career without getting a degree – although I did go back later in life and complete it, more to prove that I could.
      My concern is that the education system these days is based upon assumptions that are no longer true. With the constant rise in education costs (far outpacing inflation, and even medical expenses) I think that we are in an education bubble – similar to what we have experienced with the Internet, housing and stock market. Sooner or later people are going to realize that the $200k they spent on an education didn’t little but saddle them with years of debt and the benefit wasn’t worth it.
      With technology today there is no reason why each person cannot have an education tailored to their own learning styles and pace – and it should cost far less. See my latest post for more information.

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