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If we must say “meritocracy”
Can we at least acknowledge its pretentiousness?
In the late 1950s Michael Young, a British sociologist and political activist, lampooned the concept of “meritocracy,” a term he coined to denote government by the intelligent and talented. In the early 1970s American sociologist Daniel Bell snatched the label and dropped the satire, and meritocracy ever since has been a straight-faced concept in American thinking about who gets what in our system of political economy.
In fact the idea predated the label. Thinkers since Plato have dreamed of putting public affairs in the hands of the most able, by which they usually meant the brightest and most virtuous. America never adopted that model in politics, preferring democracy. But meritocracy became the watchword of American higher education around the middle of the twentieth century, as elite institutions like Harvard and Yale tried to shed their reputations as finishing schools for the children of the upper class.
The concept has played a central role in the debate over affirmative action. Sometimes meritocracy has been used to attack affirmative action itself, as when Asian students have been denied admission to elite colleges in numbers reflecting their grades and test scores. At times it has been used by defenders of affirmative action, in criticizing “legacy” admissions—of the children of alumni—as being at least as anti-meritocratic as affirmative action.
These days almost no one challenges the premise of meritocracy. The general belief is that of course it’s right that the most capable students should go to the best schools. Perhaps exceptions should be made in the name of diversity—but defenders of diversity often assert that diversity reveals capability of kinds unrecognized by the usual standards of grades and test scores.
Leaving aside the details of what those standards actually reveal, there’s a fundamental problem with basing educational policy on meritocracy—namely the connotation of moral worth implicit in the label. Even if the Ivies and other selective schools provide better educations than smart students would find elsewhere, do those students truly merit—that is, deserve—favored treatment?
To the extent their grades and scores reflect hard work, maybe. But grades and test scores are at least equally reflective of innate abilities and early opportunities, for which the students themselves deserve no credit. They simply won the genetic and socio-economic lottery.
It’s possible to make a case on public policy grounds that the smartest kids should go to the best schools, but that’s a separate argument from one claiming moral merit for such an approach. Anyway, there are big holes in the argument. Universities win reputations on the strength of research, not on the quality of undergraduate education. Professors at Princeton are not necessarily poorer teachers than professors at less selective colleges, but they're not demonstrably better. Besides, in this golden age of self-education, when the internet puts all forms of knowledge at the fingertips of any inquisitive person, a case can be made that there is greater social utility in focusing teaching resources on the less gifted. The brightest kids will find their way on their own.
Of course, private schools can set their own standards, within boundaries imposed by their willingness to accept public dollars for research and by the tax breaks for the donations that keep them in business. For selective public universities, like the University of Texas at Austin, where I teach, the boundaries are somewhat stricter.
Perhaps this is all a waste of breath. Elites have historically devised schemes for reproducing themselves. Sometimes the reproduction is literal, as when the children of elites are introduced to each other and pair off and have children. College selection serves this purpose very effectively, given that college is a time and place when many young people find their mates or at least figure out what they are looking for in a mate.
Whatever system is established for handing out scarce goods—prestigious diplomas, for instance—the smart and the rich will find ways to game the system. That’s what brains and money do. And they’ll end up with the prize.
But, please, don't make us pretend they deserve it.