I just read an interesting article called Death by Degrees over at n+1. The subject of degree inflation and the higher education bubble in general is something I’m really interested in monitoring. The situation definitely isn’t getting any better any time soon.
The article starts off with some historical context. In ancient China, Emperor Yang Guang rose to power and created what is believed to be the world’s first meritocracy. How do you decide who has more merit than another? You create a test. So to join the country’s political elite, you had to pass a test, but if you had money to higher an expensive tutor you were in luck. People of lesser socio-economic status started to see this as a sure-fire way to improve their positions in life.
We all know what happens next. More and more people start to take the test. If everyone has passed the test it no longer holds as much meaning. Eventually they got to a point where there were far more degree holders than positions available. The solution was to make the test increasingly more difficult. Finally one guy was pushed too far.
Sick and delirious, Hong began to see visions. While in the provincial capital, he had encountered missionaries from the US who gave him a tract on Christianity. It made a big impression: soon Hong had a dream in which he saw the Christian God remonstrating with Confucius about his faithlessness. In another, angels carried Hong to heaven, where a man with a long golden beard presented him with a sword and instructed him to rid China of its demons.
Hong sat the exam twice more, failing both times. With each failure, his reverie deepened. Eventually he convinced himself and a band of other young men defeated by the test that he was Christ’s younger brother. A consensus emerged among the converts that it was Hong’s destiny to build a heavenly kingdom purged of sexual depravity. He assembled an army and began the work of conquering China.
So began the Taiping Rebellion, the bloodiest conflict of the 19th century. By the time Hong’s forces were defeated in 1864, 20 million people had died.
I’m not saying that our current education system is going to push some college dropout to start another civil war, but the parallels are very interesting. The article goes on to talk about other surrounding issues, like credentialing, and if you’re at all interested, I highly recommend reading Death by Degrees.