Billionaire secretary of commerce and Harvard alumna Penny Pritzker: a modern meritocrat. / U. S. Consulate General Munich
Ravi Mangla,  October 7, 2016

The Death of the Autodidact

And the unstoppable rise of the modern meritocrat

Billionaire secretary of commerce and Harvard alumna Penny Pritzker: a modern meritocrat. / U. S. Consulate General Munich


Harry S. Truman seems likely to be our last self-educated president. Currently we are on pace for five consecutive Ivy League-primed commanders-in-chief. Of the twenty-three cabinet or cabinet-rank members in the Obama Administration, thirteen graduated from either Harvard or Yale (and, in the case of Samantha Power and John King, both). All eight sitting Supreme Court justices attended either Harvard or Yale Law School—though Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in classically rogue fashion, transferred to Columbia Law.

In the rosy aftermath of the 2008 election, a columnist in the Daily Telegraph used the glowing phrase “modern meritocrats” to christen the initial round of Obama appointments, but to regard this oval-shaped circle jerk as genuinely meritocratic is not just fallacious; it’s outright delusional.

After all, herein lies one of the more confounding paradoxes of our digital era: It is easier than ever to self-educate to a high standard, yet the number of autodidacts (by which I mean self-directed learners with limited formal schooling or vocational training) at the top of their chosen fields is dwindling faster than the stock of Atlas Shrugged hardcovers at the Reagan Library gift shop.

The pioneers of the tech sector have strayed far from their nonconformist roots.

Meanwhile Silicon Valley, that strange and prodigal place, has long touted itself as a safe haven for the autodidact, harboring dropouts as if fugitives on the run. But this self-styled meritocratic oasis is most assuredly a mirage. (Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are too invested in the corporatization of education to coax kids to ditch. And while Peter Thiel is bankrolling the exodus from higher ed, this Darwinian endowment appears to have less to do with fostering talent than making some splashy ideological statement.) An analysis of over one million job postings for software developers found that Silicon Valley firms are the least pliant in their credentialing requirements; 77 percent of postings indicated an educational status. Of those positions, 98 percent requested either a bachelor’s or master’s degree. Developer jobs without a minimum education level were advertised with a starting salary of 36 percent less than the postings requesting a bachelor’s or higher. It seems the pioneers of the tech sector have strayed far from their nonconformist roots.

In this daunting context, it’s curious that the lore surrounding Abraham Lincoln’s bootstrap upbringing continues to be bandied about in school classrooms both as a testament to some uniquely American resolve and as evidence of the meritocratic values on which this country was based.

Granted, the exigencies, discriminatory practices, and economic barriers that steered many toward self-education no longer exist. Children, in this country at least, aren’t being handed lunch pails and bused off to factories. But we shouldn’t assume that just because a person can reliably attend school that they should, and that all tributaries should flow into the same college-bound river. Autodidacticism is as old as civilization; in many ways, it is the story of civilization. The problem with public advocacy campaigns urging kids to stay in school is that they treat education as a fundamentally passive pursuit. Jump through these hoops, however rote and arbitrary they may seem, and you will become a card-holding member of the professional class. If the aim truly is to develop a highly skilled and adaptable workforce, then we should be encouraging people to get educated through means as numerous and unusual as possible.

As the hiring process is an uncertain and potentially costly venture, employers depend on cues from a candidate’s education, reasoning that a productive individual would have an easier time attaining a degree than a less productive one. (This is where the idea of “merit” comes from.) A more realistic view locates the value of the elite degree in what economist Michael Spence would call its “signaling” capacity. Ivy League educations are in essence Veblen goods: more notable for the status they confer upon their recipient than for the quality of their offerings; they narrow the pool of potential candidates for a job to those who have a nifty institutional name on which to hang their hat. A recent study conducted by researchers at Teachers College at Columbia University and Yeshiva University found little discernible difference in academic rigor and instructional quality between elite universities and lower prestige ones. (The principal difference is the price tag, with tuition and expenses at the aforementioned Columbia cresting $70,000 per year.)

Among the more insidious contributors to the decline of the autodidact is the practice of networking, which has taken on a heightened role in professional climbing, with an estimated four out of five jobs being the result of a few spins of the Rolodex (most of which are pocket listings, inaccessible to the layperson). Brick by brick, the well connected have erected a fortress that insulates them from the routine indignities of job seeking.

Your barber has an occupational license, as does your neighbor’s interior designer and—in Louisiana—your florist.

Occupational licensing is another boot to the keister of the autodidact. The number of workers with some type of occupational license has risen from 5 percent in the 1950s to around 25 percent of employees today, according to a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The surgeon holding a sharp instrument inches from your arterial wall and the pilot jumping a hunk of metal over roiling waters have a license—a talisman that helps us sleep better at night. But so does your barber and your neighbor’s interior designer and—in Louisiana—your florist. In the majority of cases these requirements are another form of rent-seeking, a way for more established professionals to keep outsiders and upstarts from encroaching on their territory.

Consider that modern architecture was birthed by the self-educated practitioner. Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright each completed less than two years of college. Mies van der Rohe boasted no postsecondary schooling. Le Corbusier trained as a watch engraver. Yet current NCARB regulations would prevent them from practicing their craft. Between education and training, the licensing process takes an average of thirteen years to complete. New York State has a continued education requirement, whereby an architect is expected to log thirty-six hours of additional learning every three years through an approved sponsor, and, as the lengthy FAQ section on the NYS Education Department website makes clear, independent study is not an acceptable alternative.

No Wainwright Building or Farnsworth House or Fallingwater.

But then again, what is more threatening to the status quo than a liberated learner?

Ravi Mangla is the author of the novel Understudies. He lives in Rochester, NY.

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