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meritocracy in american educationFrom early in our history, Americans have been proud of being a “meritocracy.” Anyone, we claim, can rise to the heights of our society through brains, effort, and perseverance. And it certainly is true that we have no traditional, inherited aristocracy. But what is the “merit” that it takes to succeed in America today, and how does it affect our society?

In earlier times, there were very real “merits” necessary to survive, let alone thrive, in America. Strength, fortitude, common sense, and an ability to both depend on oneself and, in almost all cases, cooperate in small communities all were essential in the face of an often hostile landscape. Of course, with the taming of the wilderness and the settling of the Wild West, survival became less of an issue and success came to depend more on intellectual than physical skills. But advanced societies select for certain traits no less than those closer to the edge; they simply “choose” different virtues as keys to different kinds of success.

The further a society is from bare survival, the more varied the virtues necessary for its flourishing. This means that success will be measured in a variety of ways. It also means that each society will both reward and educate for differing sets of virtues. Hereditary aristocracies traditionally rewarded, in addition to birth, military virtues. Kings and nobles were expected to train for war, to be brave, and to learn to be good at fighting wars. As war became less a matter of personal bravery, the aristocracy’s grip on power and prestige eventually loosened, particularly when combined with the increased importance of commerce, something aristocrats traditionally held in contempt.

Democratic societies have a distinct tendency to also be commercial societies. This means that the “merits” chosen for rewards in societies like ours tend to have much to do with the ability to amass large sums of wealth. This is not to say that other virtues and skill sets are not rewarded. Until fairly recently, martial virtue still received honor, though now it seems all but totally subordinated to the demands of social experimentation by political elites. Athletes and actors, of course, still may achieve wealth and a certain status in great amounts through the skills and virtues of which they exhibit. Academics, though once the locus of a fair amount of honor themselves, now enjoy high status only when and to the extent that their practitioners manage to be somehow “politically relevant,” their profession having sacrificed its intrinsic purpose in the name of ideology. Most pathologically, we have created an entire chattering class of politicians, pundits, and members of the press whose skill set focuses on the ability to “sell” their ideologies in a manner that seems both entertaining and knowledgeable.

And this brings us to the central problem of late or post-modern meritocracy. Earlier societies left learning to specialists, who themselves might have significant rewards within their sphere. But these societies reserved power and the highest status for those born to rule and to fight. As societies became commercial and democratic, however, learning became a necessary component of socialization into the world of commerce as well as politics and even the military. Increasingly, then, success in our “meritocracy” has meant success in education and, in particular, success at entering into and graduating from a prestigious college or university.

The necessity of a higher education to “make it” in America did not develop overnight. But increasingly over the last century and a half, credentials became essential to success even beyond the so-called “learned professions” (e.g. medicine and law) and into commerce. Commercial success historically had rested on skill sets not amenable to university teaching. It was development of large-scale corporations and their complex infrastructure in finance, planning, production, and marketing that came to be seen as requiring extensive education. Today, while some few entrepreneurs may be able to “beat the system” through their own efforts, for success the smart money is on the Harvard MBA. As to the chattering class, politicians and reporters have increased their powers exponentially, in part because politics and the government have become so central to our lives and in part because the complications of our laws have justified a demand for the seeming intelligence and knowledge to analyze them.

It remains the case, of course, that some people will succeed without prestigious educational credentials. The computer age, along with the call of athletics and acting, combine with the occasional business success to make this group appear larger than it is, however. The decline in college attendance by young American males is no sign of increasing success for this increasingly underemployed group. At the same time, the college degree, if from a non-elite institution, has been dropping precipitously in value even as its cost has skyrocketed due to the demands of student comfort, political correctness, and the bureaucratic imperative. And this only makes the scramble for acceptance into schools with elite reputations, contacts, and networking opportunities all the more desperate.

We continue to see our credentialist society as one rooted in merit. After all, one must “earn” one’s degree as one “earned” entry into the degree program. And there is some truth to these claims. Despite the significant impact of affirmative action (not to mention “legacy” admissions) on qualitative judgments in university admissions, many people owe their matriculation and graduation to their abilities. Graduation, of course, is no longer much of a problem at prestigious universities, where the average grade increasingly is an “A.” But it remains possible to flunk out—though America’s most prestigious schools maintain 4-year graduation rates in the upper 80 to over 90% range, far higher than the vast majority of less prestigious schools.

Our “best and brightest” are, of course, convinced that they deserve good grades, and many do, even in an era of grade inflation. But my point has less to do with the “ease” of college life at prestigious schools (it actually can be quite demanding) than the irrelevance of the “merit” involved in admissions and of education itself to their missions.

As for education, it has for some years been all but irrelevant at elite institutions. Alumni loyalties and contacts have continued to guarantee entry into the upper echelons of economic life even as educational programs have been gutted in favor of ideological trends. Admissions policies are the key to entry into the best jobs, graduate schools, and careers. And those admissions policies emphasize two things: first and foremost scores on standardized tests (the SAT or ACT exams); second, for those belonging to chosen minority groups and those not in such groups but otherwise merely competitive in terms of test scores, appealing stories of diversity, struggle, and above all politically correct views, experiences, and volunteer work “in the public interest.”

It would be easy to spend time and effort on this second criterion. But the focus belongs on the first because Americans for decades now have blindly accepted that these tests objectively measure the capacity of themselves and their children for success in college and beyond. Forces on the left for many years questioned the cultural neutrality of these tests, claiming that they in effect select for a particular, privileged background. And to a certain extent they were correct all along. The average child from a well-to-do background, given an elite primary and secondary education aimed at getting him into a prestigious college, will do better than his average competitor from a family of more modest means. But there is a deeper problem, deeply ingrained in our increasing reliance on tests to winnow massive, national applicant pools to find those best “fitted” for success. That problem is one of scale and method.

National standards must be narrow and instrumental. That is, national examinations cannot test the “whole” person. Instead, for the most part (perhaps exclusively now that the SATs may eliminate essay components) they reduce learning to what can be shown on multiple choice questions. What do these tests, in fact, test? Retention of data and skill at making quick choices. These are not irrelevant measures of intelligence. Charles Murray has powerfully argued that they have helped turn ours into an IQ culture. And, as any admissions counselor will tell you, they are tightly in line with the requirements for success at our schools. So, what is the problem? Our schools have followed our tests in selecting for, rewarding, and encouraging quickness of wit—sharpness. Well and good you say? Perhaps. But is “sharpness” what we really want from all of our educated classes? Is it the virtue we want to uphold above all others as the key to success?

The ability to knock out that answer and move on to the next one seems very much in keeping with our high-tech society. Master the minimum, keep up the pace, manage the data, and do not get bogged down by the details. In a morally ordered society such traits can be a definite bonus for the society, and for the morally ordered person possessing them. But, when such traits become the central, universal measure of one’s value, the society and the person will no longer be morally ordered. The context of morals and understanding, once provided by education, have long been derided and minimized in our public life until now the sharpness is almost all that remains. What we end up with is “IQ” covered by the thin veneer of left-wing ideology; a veneer imparted by teachers with no interest or even belief in a moral order properly limiting the use of one’s “sharp wits” beyond a shallow, self-centered “toleration” that ignores moral standards outside fashionable “facts” about issues like climate change.

It often is said that students leave behind the leftist indoctrination of their college years soon after graduating. And the poll numbers seem to bear this out. But graduates do not leave behind the ignorance bequeathed them by an education that holds our traditions in contempt. And they take with them their character, which increasingly is formed by the drive to succeed in showing that one is the sharpest tack in the room, rather than the best person one can be. And a society that values such sharpness above all else will not value human persons, or the duties we owe one another. The need will only increase for government programs to replace human virtues. And those programs, and that society, in the end will fail.

Already we are seeing a divergence of career tracks, with the sharpest entering a new ruling class while the not-so-smart are destined for softer professions like teaching and social work. This split in our society is disastrous, as nurturing becomes the realm of those who cannot “make it.” It is doubly tragic as many who are, in fact, quite intelligent either give up on “soft” professions as indicative of failure, or go into them, only to find that their own intelligence is seen as a danger and treated as such.

A balanced, well-ordered society requires a balance of virtues. Our society increasingly values a morally stunted intelligence, along with “entertaining” skills that themselves lack moral compass. The direction in which this is heading should frighten even those at the top of our current heap. Standardized tests will not succeed for long in preventing an amoral public life from devolving into a war of all against all.

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3 replies to this post
  1. John Witherspoon, when he was president of Princeton, said that he had known “many youths of bright genius, in their own esteem, who have looked down with contempt at the plodding boys, and yet the latter have become men of spirit, and capacity, while the others have turned out to be rakes and bullies and even blockheads.” Generalizing a bit more, he said, “Multitudes of moderate capacity have been useful in their generation, respected by the public, and successful in life, while those of superior talents by nature, by mere slothfulness and idle habits, or self-indulgence, have lived useless and died contemptible.” All true teachers know this, but it is good to have the Bruce Frohnens of our generation to remind us.

  2. Another problem is that we have conditioned students to think that the value of an education is determined solely by how it helps them advance their careers. As a political science and history major I’ve often been asked why I didn’t chose a more “practical” major. The thought that an education should be anything thing other than job training is completely foreign to them. This expectation makes it even harder for good teachers who would try to lead students to virtue; most students aren’t interested in anything that doesn’t directly help them get a job.

    Josh

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