The Funny Worlds of Our Meritocrats

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.

Further Reading

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.

4 thoughts on “The Funny Worlds of Our Meritocrats

  1. Why are you saying “meritocratic system”? The system as a whole is not meritocratic, since privilege trumps merit when push comes to shove. But should this be regarded as a feature of the system, or, instead, a distortion or corruption introduced by external factors?

  2. John,
    Durkheim makes a distinction between the sacred and profane worlds of society. The meritocracy is still the sacred value to which we all pay homage, even as they break the rule, or at least engineer the exceptions that benefit the privileged into the rulebook. Thus, even the privileged need to at least fake it, and even in faking it, these values are reproduced as sacred.

    The point is that the sacred structures the profane, too.


  3. Tony,

    Sorry, I don’t see how invoking Durkheim solves the problem. If we assert that meritocracy is a sacred ideal violated by profane arrangements then what sense does it make to say that the privileges accorded to the Tennesseans are part of the meritocratic system? Instead of behavior alien to that system?

    You may, of course, reply that both ideals and behavior are part of a larger system in which, among other things, the ideals determine what counts as a violation of them but other non-ideal components affect the way the system works. One can then ask sensible historical questions about the degree to which meritocratic ideals are effective and note, on the one hand, that many traditional barriers, e.g., of race and gender, have, while still present, been notably weakened or, alternatively, the disturbing fact that in international comparisons, social mobility in the USA is now lower than in many other societies, including, for example, the UK. One could, in short, look at the privileges of the Tennesseans in some more illuminating manner than simply bemoaning the fact that they violate meritocratic ideals and issuing a sweeping condemnation of a “system” that, if conceived in anything like a sufficiently rich ethnographic or historical sense, has changed quite a bit over the years. I respectfully suggest that you need both a more sophisticated theoretical apparatus and a lot more careful attention to the material and cultural context of the issue you are discussing.

  4. Hi John:
    As your analysis points out, Durkheim is a good starting point for a perceptive analysis. The Tennesseans must still make a stab at the meritocratic SATs, even if they do not matter as much for him as for everyone else. They must still must pay homage at that altar, even though in the process they use some rather profane shortcuts.

    But the disadvantage of Durkheim is that it is functional, and does not point out any obvious solution to the problem. My own feeling is that as long as we are stuck with the current form of meritocracy, it should be made to operate as fairly as possible. Which means no hidden preferences for alumni, major donors, celebrities, etc. Al Gore, Jr., would have done just fine at Chico State—but for whatever reason, his parents disagreed, and pulled the strings to get him into Harvard.

    As you point out this is done in a number of modern wealthy countries—this is the context you are referring to, right? Most western European countries, Japan, etc., all have comparable or even better standards of living than the US. They also have their own forms of meritocracy. My impression from having lived in Germany was that they had their share of cheating, but it was not in the same places as in the US. In particular, it was not typically in university admissions, which is the subject discussed here.

    I know that in Japan they have a very rigid system of meritocratic examinations for admissions to the universities. They also have a much lower GINI coefficient than the US. What is your impression of this? I know also that in Japan there are other forms of social stratification based on gender, where you work, where you went to school, ethnic status, and so forth. Are these distinctions reflected as strongly in terms of economic advantage as they are in the US (I suspect not).


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