The Dutch minister of Education, Science and Culture recently wrote about the value of higher education:
Higher education prepares the leaders of the future. Leaders, not in the sense of rulers, but in the sense of value conveyors. People such as teachers, judges, nurses and architects. A democracy as we have in our country exists by virtue of people who think about what kind of community we want to be. People who set the tone in how we interact with each other in society, what we find important and which choices follow from this. Higher education should not just prepare for making those choices, but also for leading and focusing the debat about this. (my translaton, Dutch text here)
In a Dutch opinion article I called into question the minister’s aristocratic vision. The minister is basically advocating what has been dubbed by Mark Bovens the ‘diploma democracy‘: a society ‘ruled by the well educated, the citizens with college and graduate diplomas, whereas the least educated tend to be absent in most political arenas.’ I think it can also be argued that we’re seeing an explicit return to an aristocracy (which literally means ‘rule by the best’, whoever the ‘best’ may be).
The minister’s remarks are all the more curious, because several months ago she said that it bothered her that ‘everybody always wants to get ahead.’ Many people were outraged by this statement, as if she denied social mobility for the masses (which she didn’t). She later explained she meant to say that all educational levels should be judged on their own merits. ‘I observe that too many people display disdain for vocational training, as if only academic training is valuable.’ She has a point.
Unfortunately the minister seems unaware of her own role in (re)producing this disdain for ‘lower’ levels of education. In her view, the higher educated are apparently not only ‘better’ educated but also ‘better people’ who should define our society’s values and future. In this way, she communicates that their position is superior.
Plumbers and professors
That the minister supports a diploma democracy once again illustrates that getting more people into higher education is by no means a solution to the problem of social inequality, or class inequality. If we truly believe that each individual, regardless of education, is valueable and worthy, we should indeed judge each educational and job level on its own merits.
We should then also acknowledge their equal, inherent and indepensible value to society – plumbers matter as much as architects, cleaners as much as professors, ‘unemployed’ caretakers as much as anyone who’s on a payroll. That we accept large income inequalities in itself flies in the face of the equality ideal. That policy makers betray the democratic ideal by seeing only the higher educated as leaders is outright unacceptable.
The (longer) Dutch opinion article can be read here (Sociale Vraagstukken website).
Photo: ‘Past aristocracy’ by carreragt on Flickr