J. R. R. Tolkien’s “One Ring” saga – the Lord of the Rings trilogy plus The Hobbit, coming soon to a DVD near you – is one of the prized discoveries of the Baby Boomer Generation. You know, the Generation that picket-signed its way into making the world do its bidding, and, 2008 notwithstanding, still expects the world to do its bidding throughout its long and (for itself) prosperous retirement.
Have you ever noticed that every major character in the “One Ring” saga – every major character, black or white [sic] – is a leader or a scion of a local, regional, or ‘national’ hereditary aristocracy?
Every character but one: the hobbit Sam Gamgee. Sam is the only major player through four long books/movies to become a member of a local aristocracy – starting as a gardener at the Baggins estate, ending as Mayor of Hobbiton, founder of the prominent Gardner family, and (with symbols clashing) the last Ring-bearer to enter Aman.
And this fate befell Sam against the wishes of his own folk. His father, Hamfast, related to his peers at the pub how their [NB] master Bilbo had taught Sam to read, “meaning no harm, mind you”, and, disgusted with Sam’s interest in the tales and legends of the wider world, told off his son with the words:
Elves and dragons! Cabbages and potatoes are better for me and you.
(Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba heard words like this often enough himself, at Sam’s age.)
Even Sam’s name was against him. Tolkien, one of the most prominent English-language linguists of the 20th century, derived Samwise from samwís, “half wise” – in other words, “halfwit”, “simpleton”, “fool”.
Thus, the leading generation in today’s United States of America, the Land of the Free, the Land of Opportunity and of Justice for All, embraces a tale that is all about the actions of those in the top layer of a highly stratified society. A layer accessible only if you’re born into it, or are adopted by it – in the case of the eavesdropping Sam Gamgee, literally by being snatched out of the garden and dumped into the conspiracies of the ruling class.
A layer with which that leading generation identifies.
What got YFNA thinking about all this was an email from the Alumni Association of Dawg U., exhorting me to take their latest survey.
“Please be assured that this is not a fundraising solicitation”, the message intoned. “And it’s only seven minutes.” Yeah, but by the time YFNA got two minutes into the survey and discovered that the questions were all about to what part of the university he will be giving (the more the better), how much (preferably all he has), and how soon (yesterday), he realized, like the musician he sometimes pretends to be, that he didn’t much like their intonation:
Dear Dawg U. I am terribly sorry that the tuition, fees, and other charges that I have already paid, in exchange for the pieces of fancy paper that you market, have proven insufficient to keep your senior administrators in the personal Dreamliners to which they wish to become accustomed. I am likewise sorry that, therefore, you feel it necessary to dog me for more – not only myself but also my heirs and assigns unto the fourth generation, who already bear the burden of the debts I have incurred to acquire the aforementioned pieces of fancy paper.
Be assured that I feel my obligation to you most deeply, especially in that place where I would keep my wallet if I could afford one. As soon as the credentials that you have sold me procure employment that will pay back the direct and opportunity costs of obtaining those credentials, I will be sure to let you know.
YFNA is convinced that, whatever the intentions of the “university education for all” policies, in place in at least the Western world since the 1960s, may have been, the policies as implemented have been disastrous.
* They have produced vast increases in the cost of university education. Any business presented with increased demand will raise prices as much as the market will bear, to pay for expansion and increase profits while the profits are to be had. Universities are businesses.
* They have cheapened the value of the education. The principal product of universities, as YFNA has argued in the past, used to be graduates prepared for the professions. Now, the principal product of universities is courses and degree programs. The customers are the students, not the professions, so the quality constraints imposed by the professions are, with few exceptions, no longer relevant. The universities have strong incentive to simultaneously raise the prices on courses and reduce their investments in them.
* They have cheapened the marketability of the education. When degree holders are few, and the standards of that degree are rigorously controlled, then the holder of a degree is scarce, and the price for the services represented by that degree can be as high as the market will bear. But when degree holders are many, and standards are slack, the price that the degree can command lessens accordingly – as any of the countless folk who are using their Bachelor of Arts degrees to flip burgers will tell you.
* They have permitted the trashing of public primary and secondary education. Why should a community tax itself to pay for elves and dragons for their children, when cabbages and potatoes would suit them better anyway? After all, anybody who can afford it is going to go to college.
(Don’t believe this? Spend some time studying the schools in Hawai‘i. Where anyone who aspires to anything goes to the private schools, and no one sees the need to spend money on the public schools or the kids in them, because they’re all just going to work in the hotels anyway.
Cabbages and potatoes Sugar cane and pineapples …)
Anybody who can afford it … We the People have been told for decades that a university education is a passport to the middle and upper classes of society, for anyone who had the appropriate talents. But given the crippling debts that students now have to bear to attend tertiary education, it’s hard to envisage the degree as a passport to anything but bankruptcy court. Rather, it seems to Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba that it’s become a rite of passage – for those who have the appropriate birth. Have We forgotten so soon that President Dubya got into Yale, not on account of his grades, but on account of his family name and fortune?
Got talent but no bucks? Well, YFNA supposes you can always hope that your masters will discover you and pluck you out of the cabbage patch. Otherwise, he’s afraid you’re SOL.
Back in the 1860s, the nobility of Europe held great hopes for the newly-declared Confederate States of America. In the South’s plantation economy, the Europeans saw a stratified society much like their own, and far more to their liking than that of the damned egalitarian Yankees in the North. It would be only a matter of time, they reasoned, before the Southrons who were lords of their manors in fact became so in name – thereby establishing a formal aristocracy in English-speaking America.
Kinda like now.