The diploma, then, is a way of measuring a person’s conformity to the dominant culture. As the evidence presented in Chapter Two indicates, although the diploma does not tell much about a person’s ability to produce, it does give the personnel department another kind of information about the applicant. It proves that he was docile enough (or good, or patient, or stupid enough: choose your adjective) to stay out of trouble for 13 or 17 or 20 years in a series of institutions that demand a high degree of unthinking conformity, doing things not because they made sense but because that was what the authorities wanted…By choosing the graduate, the personnel man gets a trouble-free, standardized part and, equally important, he pledges his and his institution’s allegiance to the prevailing cultural values…
Diplomaism gives legitimacy to our social structure without disturbing its essential inequality. It is, indeed, a clever invention: it provides us with the illusion of a system of merit without the inconvenient realities of a true “meritocracy”, and it preserves class bias under a veneer of objectivity. We can proclaim to the world and ourselves that ours is an open system, one in which the road upward is open to anyone who is willing to earn the diploma: meanwhile, of course, much the same people as before end up at the top.
People of upper-middle-class origin win the diploma race because – as is pretty well accepted by now – the race is rigged in their favor. The selection system that we call education sorts people according to the values of the dominant class, and the cost of the higher diplomas – $40-60,000 for a Ph.D. or M.D. – effectively restricts them to those whose parents are well off. The great cosmetic improvement over the past is that the discrimination is no longer absolute and overt. To make it today, you do not have to be an ethnic WASP, just a WASP type. Small numbers of the minorities do manage to take advantage of the diploma route, and are thereby bought off: a remarkably successful form of tokenism. One of them, Spiro Agnew, now believes that the best students are a “natural aristocracy”…
Diploma requirements also serve the purpose of preventing, or lessening, competition for the benefit of those inside the walls. From time immemorial, members of a guild have found it profitable to devise ways of keeping their numbers small and their prices therefore high. Two centuries ago Adam Smith offered this definitive comment on guilds: “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public or in some contrivance to raise prices.” In the American system, which forbids more obvious methods, diplomaism is a “contrivance” that serves to raise prices. Difficult licensing procedures are another contrivance. Thus each guild seeks to add to the “education” required for entry, although they are usually careful to insert a “grandfather clause” exempting those already in from the new requirements. Similarly, compulsory education laws, a sturdy prop for diplomaism, were passed with the help of pressure from unions who wanted to keep teen-agers from competing with adults for scarce jobs. Education was just the pretext; the purpose was to hold down the labor supply. The pretext served to attract important do-good support, just as the guilds can win support for increased diploma requirements under the guise of protecting the public by providing better-educated practitioners…
[Alexis de Tocqueville] had already prophesied the world the schoolmonks would make in his description of the kind of tyranny a democracy would produce:
“An immense and tutelary power…absolute, minute, regular, provident and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood, but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood…It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate…The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting; such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes and stupefies a people.”
…the one-track world of diplomaism expresses values that are as much a part of our heritage as the American Dream of freewheeling personal achievement. It is a world of unitary order in which human sloppiness is forced into a table of organization and a white picket fence neatly marks off the good from the bad. Since there is only one way forward, we are freed – like the personnel man who hires us – from the burden of choice. E pluribus unum, translated by small minds, comes out as Out of many life styles, we make one.
This is the world caricatured by the Suburbia of neatly zoned homogeneity. Malvina Reynolds’ song, “Little Boxes”, is about the building blocks of Suburbia. In its lyrics she captures the importance of the diploma in assuring the ticky-tacky uniformity of those who live in the boxes:
All went to the university,
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same.And they all have pretty children
And the children go to school,
And the children go to summer camp
And then to the university,
Where they are put in boxes
And they come out all the same.”
…The power exercised by the education guilds…is the essentially negative power of an entrenched self-recruiting bureaucracy. They cannot initiate change; they can only prevent it. While they do not as a rule have the power to veto new policies on the public record, they can veto the new people who alone could implement new attitudes toward education. By their control of entry into the profession, the guilds can see to it that the only people in the industry are those who have paid their respects and their cash to the schools of education and the state licensing authorities. These people then become what Trotsky called the “leaden rump of the bureaucracy.” Protected by the diploma against public and pupil alike, the members of the guild pass diplomaism along to the next generation.
…Reform from within the education industry is almost certainly a hopeless undertaking. Not for lack of trying: some of the finest people in America today are members of the industry who are trying to change it from within. The honor roll is long: much longer, unfortunately, than the list of their accomplishments…Of course, reformers have won many changes in schools; but these are mostly small, likely to fade away when the innovator leaves or gets tired, and in any event do not affect the diploma system…The critics within the system are at most a minor irritation…Failure is never the industry’s fault. “I taught it to them, but they didn’t learn it,” is a common remark made by teachers. As Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner observe in Teaching as a Subversive Activity, it is hard to imagine a salesman saying: “I sold it to them, but they didn’t buy it.”