Twofish's Blog

July 23, 2006

Chinese history and massive degree overproduction

One thing that has helped me figure out what to do has been to read about the massive degree overproduction that happened in the mid-19th century in China. Since the Tang dynasty, the route to power was through the scholar-bureaucrat examinations.

In the early 19th century, you had about a century of peace and economic prosperity. You also had efforts by the Qing dynasty government to promote education and scholarship (which was motivated in large part to make the basis of power non-ethnic). The result of this was that it was more and more affordable for a family to afford to train a child to pass the scholar-bureaucrat examinations.

The result, which mirrors what has happened with Physics Ph.D.’s and what I think is going to happen with University of Phoenix MBA’s was a massive overproduction of people who were passing the examinations. They had spent huge resources getting a paper that they thought was the ticket to wealth and power, and found themselves in line with everyone else that had the same dream.

What this resulted in were a large number of people who were “scholars-in-waiting” who had gotten their degree and waiting for a government post to open up which didn’t happen because there weren’t government jobs. What I do know is that they ended up being tutors, starting businesses, and in the end leading a revolution that brought down the system. They were also the butt of jokes, with a popular stereotype being the poor scholar looking for a degree,

What I don’t know is how these people *felt* and I’m sure that there is a 19th century equivalent of a blog that would be useful to me. What I also don’t know is the connection between this story and the huge fraction of MIT that is Chinese-American. I know that there is a connection, but I wonder what it is.

One thing that *is* interesting is how the overproduction influenced the content of the test. The scholar bureaucratic tests of the 19th century were mostly about classical literature and philosophy and unlike the tests of earlier dynasties, did not have much in the way of “practical adminstrative knowledge.” This was intentional. In debating whether to change the test, the Qing dynasty concluded that if they changed the test, then they would have all of these degree holders with “useless knowledge” since administrative knowledge is useless if you are not an administrator. On the other hand, if you make the test about classic literature, then you have lots of people with knowledge of Chinese cultural heritage in their heads which they could spread around even if they didn’t get the government job.

Discussion question: (UoP students might get the joke)
1)  Assume University of Phoenix is massively successful and that every single person that wants one in the United States goes through the program and gets an UoP MBA and the skills associated with it.

What happens?

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