Higher Education And The Great Chain of Being

Mitchell Langbert

In the twentieth century, psychologists who studied  human resource management  realized that employment tests were the best way to select  job applicants.  Tests need to be verified or "validated," though. Much of the personnel psychology literature is devoted to the study of whether one test or another is valid for various purposes.  One finding  is that IQ tests work.  They explain a fourth of the variance in job performance. Despite the efficacy of employment testing it seems likely that the chief method of allocating human resources in the United States is the college or university attended. Graduates of prestigious institutions obtain jobs in high-end Wall Street, advertising and consulting firms.  Other college graduates get good jobs in corporations and government. Non-graduates often do not. Baccalaureate institution attended is accepted by all as a human resource allocation method.  But it lacks validation. Having recently been exposed to medieval history I learned a concept prevalent in the medieval world that seems to explain the fixation on college rankings--"the great chain of being". In medieval times, it was believed that the social hierarchy reflected the celestial hierarchy. The king was like God, the nobles like angels, etc. The interest in ranking colleges and universities and using them to allocate human resources is atavistic.   The twentieth century rejected the nineteenth century's individualism in favor of medieval institutions.  The idea that higher education is first and foremost a liberal and learning experience seems to have been sacrificed in the interest of the great chain of being.

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March 23, 2011

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