A Second Meditation on Category Failure

We talked a few days ago about the failure of categories to sometimes deliver us useful policy information. The categories, for instance, of Latino and Asian American, which reveal some facts and conceal others. Lots of categories contain differences that can be misleading when lumped together without care, a beige that conceals its red and yellow and black and blue pigment components. And a friend of mine gave me a new one to think about yesterday. As she wrote in her email, with regards to the fallout from last week’s election:

And when I heard yesterday that a LOT of college-educated white women voted for DumpsterFire, I thought, I don’t think “college-educated” holds water anymore, because what is college these days, anyhow?

As I wrote in The Adjunct Underclass, the term “college” is similar to the word “restaurant,” another category that contains vast dissimilarity. Alinea, for instance, is a restaurant. In order to get reservations (two months in advance), you need to go to their website at exactly 11am Eastern time on the 15th of the month and hope that you click first, like a game show. Dinner for two with wine will easily crack a thousand bucks. Taco Bell is also a restaurant, of an entirely different sort.

Now that “college” has become as ubiquitous as “restaurant,” we start to see that the category does less meaningful work. You could have a college degree from, say, Williams—its cost of attendance is $75,000, they accept only 12% of their applicants, students at the bottom range of their incoming SAT scores are in the top five percent of the nation, and faculty teach two small courses per semester. Or you could have a college degree from… well, you can fill that in with your own local favorite, the affordable school that accepts 98% of its applicants and graduates 30% of them, the school where the permanent faculty teach four or more huge courses every semester and the temporary faculty (who constitute most of the teaching force) make $2500 a class. Schools like those can do good things… but they don’t do the same things. They’re just set up to accomplish different outcomes.

There’s a lot of chatter about how colleges have become bastions of leftist bias, which I suppose may be true in English and Women’s Studies and so on at Ivy League schools, but far less true in the state-college free-market business schools or the libertarian professional-prep programs where the majority of our students spend their time.

The Classical (that is, Greek and Roman) model of education focused on the “liberal arts,” or the cultural and strategic knowledge befitting a free man who would have standing in public debate and policy. (Slaves and peasants had to get things done, and were trained rather than educated.) And it’s not etymologically surprising that the core practice of liberal education is deliberation, the work of judicious discussion that reveals the hidden corners of what might have seemed to be settled matters. This model held sway through the early parts of the 20th century, when only a single-digit percentage of young men attended college: they were being groomed to rule the world, as their fathers and grandfathers had before them. They needed to learn strategy and analysis and synthesis rather than information.

But now that a majority of high school grads attempt college, and half of those who start actually graduate, college has become reconfigured in ways that make the category less coherent. The risky and speculative fields of math and science are on the decline in college majors, for instance, while various forms of immediately useful technology have grown by orders of magnitude. Look in the want-ads of your local paper: you won’t see jobs in “math” or “physics,” but you can get a job in medical technology. And so our preparation has geared itself away from deliberation and toward workforce development, the accumulation of settled information and practices that can be correctly applied. The children of wealth and privilege will continue to go to deliberative schools that prepare them for entirely different lives—and entirely different attitudes.

“College graduate” is a sticky political-polling category exactly because it used to be scarce. But now, the National Center for Education Statistics shows that although about 15% of Americans over 70 have college degrees, that’s up to near 30% for people under 35 (and more women than men, another important cultural shift). It’s just another box that holds too much dissimilarity to be deliberatively useful.

We have a lot of handwringing about why political polling is less than perfectly accurate. I think it’s not because people are lying to pollsters, and it’s not because the pollsters don’t understand sampling methods. It’s because they’re relying on antiquated and unexamined demographic categories that aren’t as unified as we might imagine.