Thursday, July 15, 2010

Class Spectrometry

"Please save my son the Engineer" cries the Irish mother, across the raging surf. It's an old joke, funny because it's true. University degrees in Ireland, and elsewhere, are all about status, and status is mostly about sex.

Everything that breeds is obsessed about status. It's our polite way of rating how much our genes like the look of your genes. Good breeding, as my mothers generation would have more bluntly and honestly called it. Potential mates (and rivals) advertise their genetic fitness with symmetric faces and good skin. It's hard coded into our brains, and drives our behavior long past breeding age. Anyone spending more than a few euros on a watch, or a few thousand on a car is succumbing to the same programming, advertising status, and flaunting style and taste as proxies for supposed good genes.

Degrees are magnificent instruments for the measurement of status. They cannot easily be faked. They require some level of intelligence, conveniently quantified by the final grade. They require persistence of effort over years. Even in a land of free fees, they cost money, both directly, and in income foregone. This gives a good indication that the holders parents have at least some money. Successfully getting into college implies a family stable enough to get the graduate out to school for some years prior, and a home environment sane enough to let them get some study done. All good proxy indicators that the potential mate is unlikely to yield a brood of unmarriageable misfits.

Within the degrees, each detail is nuanced. Ireland, and other countries, operates a 'points' system, where access to degrees is controlled on a supply and demand basis by the number of points earned in a high stakes schools system. Thus, when I went to college, everyone knew someone in electrical engineering or pharmacy (both near maximum points at that time) could be expected to be excellent breeding material, but seducing a civil engineer would be a very dicey proposition indeed. In other countries, where fees are the norm, it's even better. By looking at what institution was attended, you can practically figure out the family tax returns. It's like submitting potential mates to an IQ test, a medical exam and a financial due diligence process all with one simple question "And what did you do in college?". Like a mass spectrometer sorts atoms out into streams of different mass, Universities sort us out in streams by wealth, privelage and genetics. Class Spectrometers.

Degrees are way better indicators of genetic fitness than money. With money, people can get lucky, win the lotto or find themselves on the right side of an asset boom ("Nouveau Riche" as my mother would have dismissed them). Monomaniacal pursuit of money might even be a warning sign of mental imbalance. Scions of new money should be approached with great caution. Educational achievement is much less likely to mislead than wealth, especially when considered in a basket of other reasonable indicators.

Precisely the same things make degrees useful to potential mates make them useful to potential employers. Those seeking intellectual grunt may pick their PhD, those seeking 'class' may filter for Oxbridge, and so on. In designing a system for one outcome, we have achieved another.

Behind the newspeak and propoganda of education for the knowledge economy, social inclusion, education as an end in itself and so on, we forget that the degree, in it's very DNA, is an engine of social inequality. It's evolved that way because we made it so. Humans, innately sensitive to our place in the social pecking order, have seized and developed it as an measurement instrument of that order. It's not good, or evil, it's just human. It's probably the most astonishingly obvious thing never said about higher education. It's mostly all about sex.

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