Meritocratic Missteps- Part 1 – RantAWeek

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Meritocratic Missteps- Part 1

Posted by mjdudak on April 24, 2013 at 9:35 pm

Following suit of Tyler Miksanek, in this multi-part article, Matthew Dudak discusses another American ideal: meritocracy and how it ultimately hurts America as well. This is part 1. 

The words “We are the 99%,” echo through the streets of one of America’s most prestigious institutions: Wall Street. These words are not shouted by the prestigious brokers and Warren Buffet-wannabes, rather these words echo through the hallowed blocks of Wall Street as a result of a movement which was set afoot September 17th, 2011: Occupy Wall Street (OWS). Take away the numbers, but leave the burning rage and discontentment of the upper middle class which participated in OWS and you are left with a central message: America is broken. The Occupiers, or 99% had a list of grievances, many of which varied from person to person, but among them was one theme: inequality. In the United States, our ideal society is one of pure and unadulterated meritocracy. While a dictionary definition may be unnecessarily complex, meritocracy can be defined simply by looking at the first five letters of the word. The key is merit. Whether athletic, intellectual or otherwise, in an ideal meritocracy, achievement and success is based entirely on objective merit. To illustrate this, imagine two students: the first student may be black, poor, a mother, female and have everything else going against her, while the other student is white, rich, male, and has been spoon fed everything his whole life. Yet in an ideal meritocracy, both students take the ACT, which objectively measures their intelligence. The first student receives a 34, the second a 15. The first student thus then gets admitted into Yale and goes on to law school, while the second flunks out of community college after a year because he is always hungover. Now contrast this with a more dystopian scenario: the first student struggles to get by in life, let alone in school, cannot afford any test prep materials or classes and only gets a 24, although she works very hard on her own for it. The other student, on the other hand, is sent to ACT prep class three times a week by his parents, has a private ACT tutor and 10 ACT books in his house, allowing him to get a 29. In this dystopian world, the ACT measures no intelligence whatsoever, only ability for prepare for the test. While we certainly do not live in either of these two extremes, we are far from this ideal meritocracy. Meritocratic systems on their face present an ideal way to establish institutions, but eventually lead to an entrenched meritocracy which not only produces immense inequality, but also a potentially disastrous hypercompetitive environment.

In order to truly understand meritocracy, it is imperative to examine why we, as a nation, are in love with meritocracy. The ideal of meritocracy is so deeply ingrained within us, that we have a knee-jerk reaction to anything that seems even remotely anti-meritocratic. Call it communism, call it fascism, call it “The Tyranny of the Majority,” whatever we name it, we stray away from anything that is not meritocracy. But the thing is, it just makes sense, especially to Americans. For most Americans, after so many years of becoming so meritocratic, anything else just seems insane. The fact that the SAT was created to allow for an objective way of judging college admissions only after more than 250 years of higher education in the United States seems alien to many people. Standardized testing is considered to be the epitome of meritocracy. It allows educational institutions, from elementary schools up through law schools and medical schools to objectively judge proficiency in a subject. When it fundamentally comes down to it, meritocracy just seems fair. Not fair in any sort of equitable outcome, but fair in achieving equitable opportunity. And if Americans love nothing more, it is being the land of opportunity.

Beyond the idyllic view of meritocracy we as a nation hold, many view meritocracy as a bringer of tangible “good.” David Brooks, a man who has reached one of the nation’s hardest jobs- being a New York Times conservative columnist- views meritocracy as a bringer of “good,” namely character. Brooks believes that many children today dance through life with very little struggle or hardship, which presents a problem for the children’s character. Brooks takes logic which was largely championed by Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed, who essentially argues that middle and upper class children, with a lack of hardship, lack character and often end up as worse as those who experience constant hardship throughout their life. Tough argues that the key for developing this character to sustain a healthy and fulfilling life is in finding a balance of a bit of hardship coupled with the right amount of soft landings at home in order to develop character. However, Brooks argues that hardship is not the only catalyst for character, and instead you can develop character from the sort of competition and drive which meritocracy instills. True meritocrats want to climb up the ladder, and want to contribute society, and this driving force instills in them character along the way (Brooks). Clearly, ideally as well as practically, proponents of meritocracy see it as a system which is worthy of governing our institutions.

In the next part, we will finish examining the arguments for meritocracy before determining why meritocracy may be more of  curse than a blessing.

Brooks, David. “The Merits of Meritocracy.” The Atlantic. N.p., 1 May 2002. Web. 20 Mar. 2013.

Tough, Paul. How Children Succeed. London: Random House, 2013. Print.


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