In the West, from the beginning of written history until the near past, two types of people held power: aristocratic families and military conquerers. Ancient Athens only allowed aristocratic families (well, men) in its governing councils, as did the Roman Senate. The only non-aristocrats to ever become Roman emperors were military generals, often by force of arms. Medieval times were dominated by hereditary nobility punctuated by frequent battles between those nobles to take more power. Even as recently as the 1800s, power in Great Britain and Italy and Russia was concentrated in the hands of a few noble families.
Democracy and the abolition of the privileges of nobility changed all of that. The American Revolution and the French Revolution sparked a wave of egalitarianism which has swept across the West. Today, very few people believe that anyone has the right to rule because of their family bloodline, and we are generally opposed to rule by military conquest. But if that is the case, who manages the government now?
The answer is, to a large degree, the college educated. Only about 32% of Americans over 25 years old have a bachelor’s degree. Yet the vast majority of our civil servants have college degrees or master’s degrees. Our politicians are almost entirely educated at top universities, as are the judges in the judicial branch. A college education has become as sure a requirement for those who wish to rule as an aristocratic bloodline once was. And with that collecting of power, the college educated in America have also collected most of the wealth — the average household headed by someone with a college education is about five times wealthier than that of a non-college-educated peer.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this system. It is certainly more fair than relying on aristocratic families or military conquerers, both of which tend to breed incompetency and authoritarianism. And our top universities are becoming more diverse, which means that — barring some great change in the system — straight white males will increasingly share power with the diverse country they have run for so many years.
But there is at least one thing which worries me about this system, or perhaps simply the way it is currently managed. The aristocracy in most countries was raised with a superiority complex, but it was (theoretically) a benevolent superiority complex. Their responsibility was to serve the benighted peasantry over which God had ordained them to rule, and it was their responsibility to ensure that everyone had enough to eat, sufficient medical care, a job, a home. This system often failed, and people often starved or went homeless, but the idea nevertheless persisted: the privileges of the aristocracy come with a responsibility toward society.
So what responsibility does the privilege of a college education come with? The women and men educated in American universities hold the vast majority of power and wealth in the United States, and I was often informed in school how my education would benefit me in terms of future earnings and career prospects. Yet few at my university ever informed me which responsibilities those privileges carried. I was lucky enough to attend a university operated by a generous religion, whose faculty and staff reminded us of the responsibility we had to help the poor and serve our country as part of our religion. But it was rarely linked to the actual education. And I don’t hear of an explicit link between a college education and a responsibility to help society, except perhaps at a few Ivy League schools in the Northeast.
I think this is wrong. On Sunday, I spent the day exploring Athens, Greece. On the south edge of the city, next to the ocean, a businessman named Stavros Niarchos built a beautiful library/garden/opera house complex and then donated it to the city. In exploring the site, I was delighted to find children playing on playgrounds, adults strolling through well-kept gardens, students studying in the library, families paddling rented boats on the outdoor pond, and (just as important) staff everywhere, indicating that funds had been provided for long-term upkeep. I thought of the millions of dollars which the Niarchos family had willingly given for the benefit of the city (and the chance to have his name on a cultural monument). And I thought of how much more we could use this type of behavior in America.
It’s not that rich businesspeople don’t donate in the United States. There are many funds and foundations set up by those people, and they are good. But there should be more to it.
Take the hollowed-out factory towns of the Rust Belt, for example. Why don’t college-educated Americans see it as their responsibility to lobby for or pay for schools in those towns, which can train factory workers put out of jobs by the free trade which they so glibly preach in their board rooms? Even better, why can’t they just accept lower profits for their stocks and lower growth rates for their companies in order to continue manufacturing in America, so as to make the changes in these towns more gradual rather than sudden? Sure, globalization and mechanization will take jobs away — but they work gradually. The college-educated were the ones who made the sudden decisions to build factories in Mexico and China and Malaysia (and to pay workers in those countries one tenth for labor and claim that by so doing they had “raised thousands out of poverty,” at least until they moved their operations to a cheaper country when those workers began demanding a fair cut of the profits).
Or take the plight of black Americans, who have struggled with racial discrimination since their ancestors were brought as slaves. The college-educated sometimes blame these Americans for having children out of wedlock, or for allowing drugs and gangs in their midst, or for accepting government welfare. Yet I don’t see college-educated Americans seeking many alternatives for them — building (or applying political pressure to build) factories and colleges near those communities, building or subsidizing affordable housing so those middle-income jobs go far enough to cover the bills.
Frankly, I don’t even see enough of the Stavros Niarchos-type projects around the United States. Federal and state governments fund almost all of our public installations, and as a result there are rarely enough, particularly in poor neighborhoods. A park remodel with private security would be nice. Or a small art museum with a section for subsidized courses and enough funds for long-term maintenance. Or a series of subsidized software-programming academies across the US to train young people in one of the essential skills of the modern era. The subset of college-educated Americans who gain vast wealth, through ownership or management of large organizations, should actively look for ways to share that wealth beyond the taxes they pay.
It’s easy to say this when I don’t have much wealth, and when — if I become a professor — I likely will never have much. But if I do end up as a professor, I hope to instill a deeper ethic of this type in my students: if they seek the privilege of a college education, they should accept the responsibilities which naturally follow. That includes those who still struggle to get by after graduating from college, saddled with student debt and rising housing costs. In our own way, big or small, we should be investing back in society what it has invested in us with the privilege of education.