Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Iron Law of Meritocracy and Its Application to Education

Christopher Hayes has penned a thought-provoking and troubling book: Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. There is much to discuss in Hayes’s book, but here we will focus on what he describes as the fundamental flaw in the execution of meritocracy, and, as an example, indicate how meritocracy has influenced our educational system.

Hayes describes the United States as a country where the concept of meritocracy is deeply imbedded in our national psyche. Meritocracy might be simply summarized as the concept that the most capable will be rewarded for their skills and capabilities, regardless of irrelevant features such as wealth, ethnicity, race, or gender. Hayes tells us that meritocracy rests on two fundamental principles.

The first is the Principle of Difference:

"....which holds that there is a vast differentiation among people in their ability, and that we should embrace this natural hierarchy and set ourselves the task of matching the hardest working and most talented to the most difficult, important, and remunerative tasks."

The second is the Principle of Mobility:

"....over time, there must be some continuous competitive selection process that insures that performance is rewarded and failure punished....People must be able to rise and fall along with their accomplishments and failures."

This latter principle assumes that the capable poor will be able to rise to the top while the incompetent wealthy fall to the bottom. Note also that inequality of outcomes is a fundamental component of this process.

Given this description of the ideal of meritocracy, Hayes then invokes what he refers to as The Iron Law of Meritocracy:

"....eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility. Unequal outcomes make equal opportunity impossible. The Principle of Difference will come to overwhelm the Principle of Mobility. Those who are able to climb up the ladder will find ways to pull it up after them, or to selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies, and kin to scramble up. In other words: ‘Whoever says meritocracy says oligarchy’."

Hayes uses Hunter College High School in Manhattan as an example of how meritocracy creates the conditions that pervert its fundamental principles.

"The school embodies the meritocratic ideal as much as any institution in the country. It is public and open to students from all five boroughs of New York City, but highly selective. Each year, between 3,000 and 4,000 students citywide score high enough on their fifth-grade standardized tests to even qualify to take Hunter’s entrance exam in the sixth grade; only 185 are offered admission."

Hunter is universally recognized as one of the best schools in the nation, and is an effective gateway to acceptance at top flight universities. Given the great variation in the quality of public school education across the neighborhoods of New York City, is it any wonder that those who can afford to, pay to get their children in elite preschools, in the best private grammar schools, and can provide the private lessons and tutoring classes that have sprung up to prepare students for the test. The result is not equality of opportunity as intended, but an educational process that favors the wealthy and their children.

"....the entering seventh-grade class was 12 percent black and 6 percent Hispanic in 1995, but just 3 percent black and 1 percent Hispanic by 2009."

Given that the city has a population that is 25 percent black and 27.5 percent Hispanic, it is rather hard to associate this process with equality of opportunity.

Hayes describes a comparable process that occurs in our elite colleges and universities.

"American universities are the central institution of the modern meritocracy, and yet, as Daniel Golden documents in his devastating and meticulous book The Price of Admission, atop the ostensibly meritocratic architecture of SATs and high school grades is built an entire tower of preference and subsidy for the privileged...."

"At least one third of the students at elite universities, and at least half at liberal arts colleges, are flagged for preferential treatment in the admissions process."

Hayes tells us that minorities are targeted to represent 10 to 15 percent of a typical student population, but the rest of the preferences are dominated by affluent whites: children of alumni or faculty, student athletes, children of celebrities and politicians, and a category referred to as "development cases."

"This doesn’t even count the advantages that wealthy children have in terms of private tutors, test prep, and access to expensive private schools and college counselors adept at navigating the politics of admissions. All together this layered system of preferences for the children of the privileged amounts to, in Golden’s words, ‘affirmative action for rich white people.’ It is not so much the meritocracy as idealized and celebrated but rather the ancient practice of ‘elites mastering the art of perpetuating themselves."

Hayes claims that the Iron Law of Meritocracy will lead to ever greater inequality over time, a result that seems to be supported by the history of our recent decades.

"Indeed, over time, a society will grow both more unequal and less mobile as those who ascend its heights create means of preserving and defending their privilege and find ways to pass it on across generations. And this, as it turns out, is a pretty spot-on description of the trajectory of the American economy since the mid-1970s."

1 comment:

  1. A "meritocracy" that favors academics strays because leadership involves so much more than intellectual virtue. Here are the functions of a secure, iron clad meritocracy.
    1. To provide every child with the same comprehensive moral reasoning skill set.
    2. To provide every employer the liberty of dividing their income tax dept by the number of their dedicated employees.
    3. To levy a fully progressive income tax.


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