“The Credentialist Prejudice” of the “College-Educated Elites”

Sandel in the passages quoted below is on to an important problem: that success depends too much on credentials. But in later passages than those quoted below, he misinterprets the deeper cause of the problem. He thinks the problem is that we value a person’s “merit.” I think valuing merit is fine, but we too much identify merit with credentials. Merit depends on character and skills. Credentials, at best, are one noisy signal of merit.

(p. 5) It is important to remember that most Americans — nearly two-thirds — do not have a four-year college degree. By telling workers that their inadequate education is the reason for their troubles, meritocrats moralize success and failure and unwittingly promote credentialism — an insidious prejudice against those who do not have college degrees.

The credentialist prejudice is a symptom of meritocratic hubris. By 2016, many working people chafed at the sense that looked down on them with condescension. This complaint was not without warrant. Survey research bears out what many working-class voters intuit: At a time when racism and sexism are out of favor (discredited though not eliminated), credentialism is the last acceptable prejudice.

In the United States and Europe, disdain for the less educated is more pronounced, or at least more readily acknowledged, than prejudice against other disfavored groups. In a series of surveys conducted in the United States, Britain, the Netherlands and Belgium, a team of social psychologists led by Toon Kuppens found that college-educated respondents had more bias against less-educated people than they did against other disfavored groups. The researchers surveyed attitudes toward a range of people who are typically victims of discrimination. In Europe, this list included Muslims and people who are poor, obese, blind and less educated; in the United States, the list also included African-Americans and the working class. Of all these groups, the poorly educated were disliked most of all.

Beyond revealing the disparaging views that college-educated elites have of less-educated people, the study also found that elites are unembarrassed by this prejudice. They may denounce racism and sexism, but they are unapologetic about their negative attitudes toward the less educated.

For the full commentary, see:

Michael J. Sandel. “The Consequences Of the Diploma Divide.” The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sunday, September 6, 2020): 5.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Sept. 2, 2020, and has the title “Disdain for the Less Educated Is the Last Acceptable Prejudice.”)

Sandel’s commentary is related to his book:

Sandel, Michael J. The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020.

The paper co-authored by Kuppens and mentioned above is:

Kuppens, Toon, Russell Spears, Antony S. R. Manstead, Bram Spruyt, and Matthew J. Easterbrook. “Educationism and the Irony of Meritocracy: Negative Attitudes of Higher Educated People Towards the Less Educated.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 76 (May 2018): 429-47.

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