The meritocracy is a ideology that is too often known for its failures, rather than its strengths. Cindy Van Gilder noted this on this blog. And if that’s not enough, I am reading The Price of Admission by Wall Street Journal Reporter Daniel Golden which demonstrates that the most meritocratic of America’s universities—those at the top of the US News and World Report list—maintain admissions offices that are carefully structured to favor the already privilege, including well-heeled donors, the powerful, alumni, the wealthy, and celebrity. As with the archaeological dig Cindy described, the privileged at America’s “best” universities move to the front of the line, ahead of all those over-achieving national merit scholars who already at age 17 already have stellar resumes.
The lesson is: look too carefully, and you find that the meritocracy is often dead or perhaps dying. Cindy did this when she found that someone with a Y chromosome was awarded the privilege of going on an archaeological dig rather than someone who had accumulated archaeological merit. Privilege, wealth, gender, race, etc. are triumphant not only in Ivy League admissions offices, but across much of academia.
But manipulating the system actually goes far beyond gender discrimination. To keep his story up close and personal, Daniel Golden starts off his story of Ivy League privilege by describing how two Tennesseans got their sons into Harvard and Princeton respectively. Former Vice President Al Gore and former Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, both had sons who, despite problematic academic records from elite academic prep schools where they had been coached in the mechanics of the SAT test since childhood, were nevertheless below the institutional averages to which the rest of us are held. Nevertheless, the two sons were admitted to the Ivy League, when (presumably) their test scores meant that they should have done no better than being sent to me at Chico State. Golden’s point goes further though, when he notes that such admissions are in fact a zero sum game, since by providing the Gore and Frist offspring admission, two over-achieving National Merit Scholars were denied. The implication is that if the preferences for the privileged were removed, we would have a more productive and just meritocracy.
The odd thing though is that the very term “meritocrat” was created as a 1958 satire in The Rise of the Meritocracy: 1870-2033 by Michael Young. Surprisingly, Young’s satirical point is not the same that Cindy (and Golden) make, though. Both Cindy and Golden imply that a well-oiled meritocracy is desirable. Young’s point is that isolating the best and the brightest from the rest of society is a recipe for short-term success, but long-term social tension. The problem he writes, is that the resume gods with the perfect SAT scores come to believe that their status is due to the merit represented by SAT scores, rather than the privilege of having been raised in the environment that such tests reflect. The result is that they begin to isolation into little mutual admiration societies where they believe excellence is equivalent to well, themselves: People who can precisely fill out Scantron bubbles in the same way that the test designers seek. They become as Max Weber wrote 100 years ago:
“Narrow specialists without minds, pleasure seekers without heart, ; in its conceit this nothingness imagines it has climbed to a level of humanity never before attained…”(p. 158)
So when the meritocracy breaks down, as Cindy described, I don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or just roll my eyes cynically. I laugh when the admissions offices try so assiduously pretend that SAT scores and G.P.A. reflect an intrinsic worth, rather than simply a tool of the existing elite uses to justify its own privileges. But on the other hand, the SAT and G.P.A., imperfect though they may be, are better than older systems in which academic privilege was assumed to be identifiable through bloodlines and Y chromosomes.
So we live with this new meritocratic system, even if it does reward the narrow specialists without mind, and pleasure seekers without heart emerging from the habitats of the privileged. If nothing else, it beats the arbitrariness of older forms of discrimination based on hereditary privilege, chromosomes, skin color, and the networks emerging from gentlemen’s clubs.
But I become cynical when realizing that despite the pompous claims to a regime of vaguely defined excellence; that the children of the Tennesseans, despite having all the advantages of a prep school education and tutors, still cannot best the SAT scores of many of my students at Chico State. The reality of the presumably meritocratic system is that it preserves power in the existing elite first, and foremost.
Brooks, David (2000). Bobos in Paradise.
Golden, Daniel (2006) The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys its Way into Elite Colleges and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates.
Karabel, Jerome (2005). The Chosen: the Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.
Weber, Max (1904-1905/2009) The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Translated and Introduced by Stephen Kalberg, 4th edition
Young, Michael (1958) The Rise of the Meritocracy.
Tony Waters is czar and editor of Ethnography.com. He came to us from the Sociology department at California State University at Chico where he has been a professor since 1996. In 2016 though he suddenly found himself with a new gig at Payap University in northern Thailand where he is on the faculty of the Peace Studies Department. He has also been a guest professor in Germany, and Tanzania. In the past, his main interests have been international development and refugees in Thailand, Tanzania, and California. This reflects a former career in the Peace Corps (Thailand), and refugee camps (Thailand and Tanzania). His books include: Crime and Immigrant Youth (1999), Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (2001), The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: Life Beneath of the Marketplace (2007), When Killing is a Crime (2007), and Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child (2012). His hobby is trying to learn strange languages–and the mistakes that that implies. Tony is a prolific academic, you can read more of his work at academia.edu.or purchase one (or more!) of his books from Amazon.com.