Meritocracy? What Meritocracy?

Meritocracy? What Meritocracy? August 10, 2023

Yesterday we posted about David Brook’s New York Times column entitled What If We’re the Bad Guys Here? in which he took to task his fellow Ivy League-educated professionals who have formed a new ruling class in America.

I said that I appreciated his self-knowledge and his Lutheran way of using the moral law not to justify himself and his social class but to expose their sins.  I would like to go further, though, in taking a Lutheran religious concept and applying it to a secular issue by challenging the concept of “merit,” as in the term Brooks repeats numerous times, “meritocracy.”

For example, “The most important of those systems is the modern meritocracy. We built an entire social order that sorts and excludes people on the basis of the quality that we possess most: academic achievement.” Brooks observes, “The meritocracy isn’t only a system of exclusion; it’s an ethos.” He quotes Daniel Markovits, author of a book entitled The Meritocracy Trap:  “Meritocracy blocks the middle class from opportunity. Then it blames those who lose a competition for income and status that, even when everyone plays by the rules, only the rich can win.”

Though Brooks criticizes it, he seems to share the assumption that what we have in our current ruling class is, in fact, a “meritocracy.”  I question that.

To be sure, he says that the modern meritocracy is a social order that sorts people according to only one measure of merit:  academic achievement.  This merit is earned primarily not just by graduating from college but by graduating from an elite college.  About which he gives this fascinating statistic:  “Only 0.8 percent of all college students graduate from the super elite 12 schools (the Ivy League colleges, plus Stanford, M.I.T., Duke and the University of Chicago).”  And yet this less-than-1% dominate the professions of law, education, government, the arts, business, and journalism, among others.

While a college degree is a ticket to the middle class, an elite college degree is a ticket to the upper class.  And I can understand how graduates of the super-elite and even the next tier Brooks mentions of the “the 29 most elite universities in the nation” would think that they are very smart, possessing an elite level of knowledge and understanding that puts them far above ordinary Americans.  Because of their high “merit,” they deserve the privileges that come to them.  As for all of those Trump supporters, religious fundamentalists, and other deplorables, they are just ignorant and uneducated.

First of all, getting into the elite 29 and especially into the super-elite 12 universities is not necessarily based on merit.  As we blogged about, nearly a third of Harvard’s students are so-called ALDC students, the acronym referring to Athletes, Legacies (the children of alumni), Donors (children of parents who give money), and Children (of faculty and staff).

Only 5% of the vast number of applicants trying to get into Harvard are ALDC.  But they make up 30% of the students who are admitted.  The effect of these “legacy” admissions is to create a self-perpetuating elite, comprised of wealthy families who have leveraged their high-status education to create a hereditary aristocracy.  Thus, Harvard, like 37 other colleges, has more students from the top 1% of family incomes than from the bottom 60%.

As for the other two-thirds of the students, selective schools can put together very talented classes. And studying with other high-ability students can bring out a student’s best efforts. But academic merit is hard to assess, a task made even harder by the current practice in many of these schools to do away with objective measures, such as test scores and tough grading.

Furthermore, it is a truism in higher education, where I have spent a long career, that the education you receive from a prestige institution is not that much different than what you would receive from a good state university or a private liberal arts school.  They all use pretty much the same textbooks and the same assignments.  Ivy League professors are not necessarily better classroom teachers than those in a less prestigious institution.  In fact, they may be worse, since faculty in elite institutions tend to be chosen and rewarded for their research contributions, whereas “teaching institutions” put a higher premium on classroom effectiveness.  By and large, with some exceptions in some disciplines, graduates from regular universities learn just as much as graduates from the elite universities.  What the latter do give you, though, is prestige, a higher social status that you can leverage with employers–in academia, law firms, the corporate world, etc.–who, in turn, want the prestige that Ivy Leaguers can give them.

To be sure, there are meritocracies in American life.  And there are many kinds of merit, with academic merit being perhaps one of the least important.  Sports is perhaps the truest form of meritocracy.  Many businesses still make it possible for employees to work their way up in the organization based on sheer effectiveness, rather than social privilege.  The military has long been a model of meritocracy, giving service members plenty of opportunity to rise in the ranks, being judged not by their background but how well they perform.  Many members of minority groups have taken full advantage of that kind of meritocracy by having brilliant military careers at times when other professions would exclude them.

Today, though, the educational “meritocracy” Brooks complains of  permeates big business, with Ivy grads bringing with them the postmodernism and the identity politics that they learned at school.  The same social class and its mindset can also be found in the Pentagon.

The biggest evidence that our ruling class is not a meritocracy can be seen in the state of the professions that they have been controlling.  Brooks cites his own field of journalism, once a blue-collar profession, which is now dominated not only by college graduates but by elite college graduates, with over half the staff writers at the New York Times and Wall Street Journal having attended an elite university.

So we can ask, how is the journalism profession now that it’s a “meritocracy”?  Both newspapers and online news organizations are shutting down, newsrooms are shrinking, and the public’s trust in journalism has dropped off the edge.

How is the legal system doing with all of the graduates of Ivy League law schools?

How effective is our government, manned as it is with so many elite experts?

How is academia doing, the gatekeepers for who will belong to our new ruling class?  What’s the effect of critical theory, postmodern relativism, and identity politics when they move outside the walls of academe?

In our recent blog post Americans Distrust Nearly All of Their Institutions, we list a study of American’s confidence in various institutions.  Here are the bottom five, with the percentage of Americans expressing confidence as of 2023):

Newspapers (18%)

The criminal justice system (17%)

Television news (14%)

Big business (14%)

Congress (8%)

All bastions of our meritocracy!



Photo by Jack Moreh from Freerange Stock

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