The Bear’s Lair: What should we do with higher education?

The current U.S. and British education systems are increasingly dysfunctional. Far too high a percentage of the population has been bullied into attending college, with very little benefit in most cases and with costs that have escalated several times faster than inflation or even incomes. The faculty and administration of top colleges are increasingly isolated from the political outlook of their fellow citizens – and increasingly unconstrained in forcing their warped worldview on the untrained youthful minds in their care. Fortunately, help is at hand, from online learning and artificial intelligence. These will revolutionize both learning and job possibilities, forcing change that may allow us to cut down to size both colleges and their costs.

In attempting to structure a new higher education system, we must first determine what purpose it should serve. In this context, it is worth looking at the most long-lasting education system in human history: the Chinese system of examination for the mandarinate. This is usefully examined in a new book: Yasheng Huang’s “The Rise and Fall of the East” (© Yale University Press, 2023) which sets the system in relation to China’s current challenges.

The main mandarinate examination, the Keju, was established in AD 587, under the short-lived Sui dynasty; it was then developed further in the Tang and Song dynasties, where it reached its intellectual peak, before a hiatus under the Mongol Yuan, followed by a further numerical expansion to near-universality under the Ming and to a lesser extent Qing dynasties. It was abolished only in 1905, after a run of over 1,300 years.

The Keju operated in three successive rounds: the Provincial, Metropolitan and Palace rounds; success in each guaranteed ever fancier jobs in China’s national and provincial bureaucracy. (This was already gigantic, a millennium before Western bureaucracies advanced beyond a few clerks and a tax-collector with a suitably well-oiled rack.) It required a detailed memorization of sophisticated Confucian texts, thus serving the dual purpose of sifting the intellectually brightest to the top and ensuring that those who survived were committed to the Confucian policies of the Imperial regime. The first two rounds were entirely meritocratic, with an elaborate “double-blind” system to ensure that the examiner knew neither the identity nor the provincial origin of the candidates. Only the Palace round, used to select the most senior officials closest to the Emperor, involved personal interviews in which nepotism might play a part.

There is no question that the Keju examination system was far more sophisticated a selection system than any in the West before 1900. It had two gigantic disadvantages. First, it siphoned all the best and brightest in the society into the Imperial bureaucracy, leaving only the dregs for the private sector and commerce generally. Second, by its ideological purity, it weeded out divergence of thought.

This allowed China to retain a stable autocratic system, with no political strife in even the mediaeval Western sense. However, it also deadened entrepreneurship, and most important, technological innovation – Huang points out that China’s major technological advances were mostly achieved in the confused inter-dynastic period from AD 220-580, when central control was minimal and the Keju examination system had not been thought of. Technological advance then slowed through the Tang and Song dynasties before coming to a halt altogether under the Keju-maximal Ming. With intellectual advance stalled, the Chinese polity was helpless after 1750 against the dynamic West, becoming both disrupted and impoverished as modernity and change impinged upon it.

The higher education system to which we have moved bears a strong resemblance to that of Keju. For the top jobs, the state, the largest private companies and the most prestigious/lucrative consultancies and financial institutions select only from the Ivy League and a limited number of other elite colleges, the procedure for getting into and graduating from which bears a strong resemblance to the three-tier Keju examination procedure. Graduates of other colleges and those without a college degree are in the same position as the Keju failures, barred from the best paying and most prestigious jobs and forced into low-level commerce or trades such as plumbing.

Within the top colleges – and this has changed within the last generation – rigid ideological conformity is enforced, as it was through the Confucian Keju system. No matter what specialism a student may undertake, a large part of his/her education will consist of ideological purity classes, enforcing the gospels of diversity, LGBTQ and admiration for global socialism. Successful graduates of such institutions will be ideologically both narrow and rigid; they will have a carefully cultivated view of the universe and will regard deviations from that view with disdain or even horror. Naturally the college professors enforcing this rigidity will be carefully selected to weed out the non-conforming so that even the best scholars will be unable to obtain academic tenure or will be expelled from the elite levels of the system should they question its workings. In such an atmosphere, scientific advance that disrupts the academic consensus will become impossible – indeed, it is already becoming so.

The subjection of the best and brightest to ideologically rigid education and their funneling into the top jobs, primarily in large organizations will have the same effect in the United States as it did in China. Small business and entrepreneurship will be starved of talent, since the selection system directing the best and brightest into the top colleges is efficient. Of course, “legacy” admissions, admitting the dozy lacrosse-playing sons and daughters of well-connected fathers, will dilute the quality of the Ivy League output somewhat, but even such lesser mortals will find a suitable home at McKinseys, where they can produce endless 1,000-page reports telling the client what he wants to hear, while paying suitable obeisance to DEI and LGBTQ. On occasion a youth of high intelligence but without connections will find himself rejected as “uneducable” by the Ivies because of his tendency to think for himself. Regrettably, such people will have no access to capital and will if they attempt entrepreneurship, find themselves unable to compete with the behemoths, with their capital, connections and most of the best people.

In the long run (we are approaching this point but are not there yet) our Keju education system will have the same result as did China’s: preventing technological and scientific innovation, possibly for the next thousand years as in China. With the brightest people indoctrinated with an inflexible dogma and inserted into government and huge corporations, the least innovative parts of the economy, and others frozen out by a rigid social and political system, there will be nobody to innovate or invent anything.

It need hardly be said that a society with the innovative incapacity of Ming and Qing China will see declining living standards and general unhappiness. If some presumably hostile society becomes truly innovative — Russia is a much more likely antagonist than Europe or China in this respect (Europe is almost fully infected with the U.S. left-intellectual virus, while China appears to have reverted to its Keju-era rigidity) – living standards will go into catastrophic decline.

To solve this problem, a two-pronged approach is necessary. First, the university system must be defunded, with a view to closing as many colleges as possible and reducing the 4-year college attendance percentage below 10%. Online courses already offer a way to acquire the knowledge college gives, at a tiny fraction of the cost.

The newer innovation of AI should have two effects. AI will provide a tuition capability for most subjects. It will do this rather too well in liberal arts subjects, in which AI can write the essay – I would expect that AI will devalue the market value of liberal arts degrees beyond its already depressed level, so that only the very rich and the vocationally dedicated will attempt them. In science, AI should solve the problem that much of science is bloody difficult, so learning it by yourself may be impracticable for all but the most gifted. The typical first- and second- year college course with 200 students and a part-time untenured instructor does not overcome this problem. For example, I never really mastered tensors – but a good AI system, infinitely patient, should be able to make even the doziest and most inattentive student understand the tensor mechanics he will need to become an engineer.

There is another problem, on the demand side. The providers of prestigious and lucrative employment opportunities need to recruit far beyond the Ivy Leagues, as they did 60-70 years ago. This will open opportunities for the self-taught and broaden the abilities and outlook of the employers concerned. A dense network of professional institutions, open to the self-taught as well as professional graduates, could then replace the networking benefits of the college system.

With both the supply of students and the demand for their increasingly worthless credentials reduced, the Ivy League will be brought down to size, both socially and educationally. In an ideal world, a further reform would be to abolish the charitable income tax deduction and make income on college endowments taxable. It would not hurt those overstuffed institutions, deprived of their gigantic and lucrative endowments, to have to compete in the marketplace, like the rest of us.


(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)