Disarming the College Degree Arms Race

Our elaborate, expensive system of higher education is first and foremost a system of stratification, and only secondly—and very dimly—a system for imparting knowledge. It’s time to disarm the college degree arms race.

| September/October 2013

  • A master’s degree, we might find, burns brighter than a draft card.
    Che Guevara once declared that the duty of intellectuals was to commit suicide as a class; a more modest suggestion along the same lines is for the credentialed to join the uncredentialed in shredding the diplomas that paper over the undemocratic infrastructure of American life. A master’s degree, we might find, burns brighter than a draft card.
    Illustration By Elena Okhremenko

  • A master’s degree, we might find, burns brighter than a draft card.

In 605 CE, a year after murdering his father and seizing the throne, the Chinese emperor Yang Guang established the world’s first meritocracy. Weary of making bureaucratic appointments solely on the basis of letters of recommendation, Yang set aside a number of posts for applicants who performed well on a new system of imperial examinations. In theory, any peasant who took the trouble to memorize 400,000 characters — which is to say, anyone who conducted six years of study with an expensive tutor — could join the country’s political elite.

Over the centuries, as China’s scholar–bureaucrats grew more powerful, their metrics of assessment became increasingly intricate. Those who passed were stratified into nine grades, and each grade was further divided into two degrees. Exam performance corresponded exactly to salary, denominated in piculs of rice; the top brass received more than 17 times as much rice as the lowest tier. But the true rewards of exam success were considerably higher: besides the steady salary, bribe collection made it very good to be a bureaucrat.

As time went on, more and more people took — and passed — the exam’s first round. Test prep academies proliferated. Imperial officials started to worry: there were now more degree-holders than there were positions, which threatened to create an underclass of young men with thwarted ambitions. When the Ming dynasty fell in 1644, their successors, the Qing, resolved to make the test more difficult. By the middle of the 19th century, 2 million people sat the exam, but just over 1 percent passed its first round; only 300 candidates — .016 percent — passed all three.

Failure could be discouraging. In 1837, after botching the exam’s second round for a second time, Hong Xiuquan, an ambitious 23-year-old from a village near Guangzhou, suffered a nervous breakdown. The precocious Hong had come in first on the county-level test, but after he turned 15 his family could no longer afford the customary tutor. Nor could Hong afford to bribe the examiners, as many test-takers did. The notional possibility that anyone could pass the test concealed a bitter truth: for a poor countryman like Hong, making it past the second round was all but impossible.



Sick and delirious, Hong began to see visions. While in the provincial capital, he had encountered missionaries from the U.S. who gave him a tract on Christianity. It made a big impression: soon Hong had a dream in which he saw the Christian God remonstrating with Confucius about his faithlessness. In another, angels carried Hong to heaven, where a man with a long golden beard presented him with a sword and instructed him to rid China of its demons.

Hong sat the exam twice more, failing both times. With each failure, his reverie deepened. Eventually he convinced himself and a band of other young men defeated by the test that he was Christ’s younger brother. A consensus emerged among the converts that it was Hong’s destiny to build a heavenly kingdom purged of sexual depravity. He assembled an army and began the work of conquering China.