RPW linked to an article he wrote about the relationship of education to socio-economic structure in the West. He says that in order for a society – an “articulated structure of roles occupied by, and functions performed by, adult men and women” – to sustain itself it must ensure that all roles can be occupied, and all functions performed. It follows from this Sociological Truism that sustainable societies – such as ours – cannot have roles and functions that can only be fulfilled by those with unique qualifications: “[N]o society can survive that depends on a regular supply of outstandingly talented young people. A little reflection will make it clear that every society must define its adult social and economic roles so that averagely gifted young people can fill them.” This insight, he says, undermines our ideological justification for the “steeply pyramidal structure of the rewards and privileges associated with the various roles in adult society [such that] there are a relatively few really good jobs with big salaries and great benefits, and lots of mediocre jobs with small salaries and very few benefits.”
Those at the top, they tell themselves in self-congratulatory fashion, are the truly gifted and exquisitely trained. But as we observed above, this is surely not true. No society, not even ours, can survive if it must rely on finding an endless supply of outstanding lawyers, doctors, or CEO’s to fill its positions. The simple truth is that despite the ferocity of the competition, those in the favored roles are, by and large, only averagely competent at them.
Wolff’s Sociological Truism (as well as what he’s learned from years in Academia) persuade him that
[A]ny group of averagely intelligent young boys and girls, given the proper support, socialization, assistance, and opportunity, can prepare themselves to fill successfully one of the good jobs in American society…The boys and girls of every city, town, or village in every society in the world, are capable of becoming averagely competent and productive members of the adult world. If they are failing to do so, it is the fault of the adults in the society. With attention, guidance, and with the unshakeable conviction on our part that they are going to succeed, they will in fact succeed in becoming averagely successful.
Maybe Wolff draws the right conclusion from his years in Academia, but the Sociological Truism, though (quite obviously) true, does not support the claim that (presumably excluding those beneath a minimum psychological threshold) if you pluck a child at random and socialize it properly it will be capable of filling any social role. The Sociological Truism does not entail that in any successful society everybody will be capable of being socialized into occupying all roles and fulfilling, it entails only that in any successful society, there will always be enough people available to fulfill all functions and roles. But this can be true even if all minimally competent children cannot be socialized into certain roles. (For example, there is no a priori reason to rule out the possibility that only 1 percent of children can be socialized into occupying a role that only 0.01 percent of children need to occupy.)
Still, the Sociological Truism has some “heretical” implications. It means that everybody – even someone who occupies one of the “top jobs” – is, socially speaking, expendable. It is thus (almost) always delusional – a false self-image – to think of oneself as professionally irreplaceable. And it is conceited to value oneself on the basis of that delusion. (Perhaps this conceit is what Wolff aims to explode when he rebukes those “at the top” who tell “themselves in self-congratulatory fashion [that they] are the truly gifted and exquisitely trained,” although, I suppose, it is also possible for someone to think himself truly gifted, exquisitely trained and expendable. I expect you’d have to torture logic and good sense to get there, though.)
Further, from a political point of view, insofar as we justify our society to ourselves on the basis that with enough good sense, industry and effort anyone can rise to the top,* the Sociological Truism implies that ours is a false justification; there are always more qualified people than there are top jobs.
* A justification that can be made to sit, albeit uneasily, with a judgment of personal irreplaceability.