By Jennifer Ruth (Portland State University)
The conversation prompted by Excellent Sheep has turned into a referendum on “meritocracy.” Deresiewicz mercilessly takes meritocracy to task – “The meritocracy purports, like every ruling class, to act for the good of all,” he writes; “Its ethos is in fact, by definition, one of self-advancement: not duty or responsibility, not character or even leadership, but individual aggrandizement, a single-minded focus on the self and its success” (226). For Deresiewicz, meritocracy is the culprit behind the Reagan-era culture of “winner take all” that continues on today among our elites who are “brilliant, gifted, energetic, yes, but also anxious, greedy, bland, and risk-averse, with no courage and no vision ” (228-9). These political and business elites can’t wrap their heads around why they keep falling on their faces when they are so manifestly intelligent. Here’s Deresiewicz on Obama: “With his racial identity and relatively humble background, his election has been called the triumph of the meritocracy. The sad thing is that that's exactly what it was” (230). Obama is a failure because “he plays it safe, like every other product of the [meritocratic] system” (229).
Meritocracy’s defenders also do it no favors. Steven Pinker’s rebuttal to Deresiewicz’s
piece “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League” starts off with a reasonable-sounding defense of the ethos of
meritocracy as the prioritizing of ability and effort over various forms of
inheritable privilege. By its end, however, Pinker’s piece has become a party
in honor of standardized tests. Pinker believes that merit—defined as
intelligence—can be measured
objectively. The problem for him then is not that colleges follow a
meritocratic admissions process but that, with their legacies and athletes and
trombone players, their process is not nearly meritocratic enough. New Republic
Pinker doesn’t worry about wealth buying merit because he thinks it can’t. All those advantages the well-off give their children—from piano lessons to the best private schools to test-prep courses? They only budge their kids’ scores by a negligibly few percentage points, Pinker tells us. Ensconced at Harvard and annoyed that students prefer competing in lacrosse games to attending class, Pinker doesn’t seem to grasp the main issue. Isn’t the issue that entrenched inequality has destroyed any illusion that rewards are distributed meritocratically in American society? And, further, that if meritocracy did once act as a vehicle of redistribution, it acts to exacerbate inequality now?
Chris Hayes hammers this point home in The Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy (2012). Hayes discusses the structural tension between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. He argues that the generation that profited when we moved from an old boy patronage system to a meritocracy (or equality of opportunity) has pulled the ladder up behind them. Though the meritocratic culture once lead to greater equality of outcomes, in its second and third generations it has led to greater inequality of outcomes.
Each ruling class, it seems to me, is always in danger of devolving into a patronage system regardless of the nature of its original legitimation. The middle class Barbara Ehrenreich discussed in her 1989 classic Fear of Falling has been hollowed out but her analysis of a certain psychology applies to today’s elite. They do not want their children to have to experience a lower standard of living than they enjoy. The impulse to rationalize advantages and even game the system when people you care about are involved is irresistible for many. The fight against this—what Deresiewicz refers to as “self-overcoming”—is never-ending.
It’s not just parents with kids. I see it at the departmental level. People from relatively modest backgrounds who got into Stanford and Harvard and are now Professors of English or Cultural studies will push hard to hire friends or family. They not only don’t see a problem with this but they see themselves as doing something compassionate by championing the people they know over the people who are as yet words on a page. The ever-flawed striving for some modicum of objectivity—the holding at bay of connections and kinship—doesn’t come easily to any of us, no matter our personal trajectories. If we desire a fair society, though, we are doomed to repeatedly breaking up patronage systems—even patronage systems generated by meritocracies.
Hayes argues, however, that at this point simply breaking up patronage systems is not enough. We can only restore the equality of opportunity from which today’s elite benefitted by moving decisively in the direction of equality of outcome. This begins with redistributing wealth back to public education because, whatever it might be, a meritocratic society is certainly not one with such extreme and stubborn inequality that the vast majority of its 18 to 24 year olds are deprived opportunities for quality education, gratifying work, and socio-economic mobility.
Deresiewicz ultimately arrives at a similar conclusion:
If service workers can demand a $15 minimum wage, more than double the federal level, then those who care about higher education can insist on the elimination of tuition and fees at state institutions and their replacement by public funding furnished by taxes on the upper 10 percent. As with the minimum wage, the campaign can be conducted state by state, and it can and should involve a large coalition of interested groups: students, parents, and instructors, to start with. Total enrollment at American colleges and universities now stands at 20 million, on top of another million-plus on the faculty. That’s a formidable voting bloc, should it learn to exercise its power. Since the Occupy movement in 2011, it’s clear that the fight to reverse the tide of growing inequality has been joined. It’s time we joined it.
These words are from Deresiewicz’s essay “The Miseducation of America” in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The last pages of Excellent Sheep strike the same power-to-the-people note and, while I’m grateful that he concludes on such a note, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that he tacked on these pages after someone read the manuscript and asked: Okay, but what do you have to say about the nation’s students who really need help?
Deresiewicz justifies the attention he lavishes on the Ivy League cohort by pointing out that they become the elites who have outsized power over the fates of the rest of us. Fair enough. But until we restore funding to our public universities, it will be hard to resist the siren song of select schools. “The economist Caroline Hoxby has shown,” Pinker writes, “that selective universities spend twenty times more on student instruction, support, and facilities than less selective ones, while their students pay for a much smaller fraction of it, thanks to gifts to the college.” Betsy Hammond, The Oregonian’s higher education reporter, recently published a piece entitled “Are Oregon Universities Efficient at Producing Graduates?” Relaying the information provided in the
the study "Trends in College Spending: 2001-2011" by the American Institutes of Research, Hammond reports that my institution, Portland State, “remains one of the most efficient public research universities in the nation, spending just $40,700 on education and related expenses for every graduate it produces.”
’s use of the word “efficiency” has
the bizarre effect of implying that the less a public university spends on its
students, the more praise it deserves. The fact that state funding for Hammond
decreased by 80% over the last two decades surely is a tragedy, not a case
study in virtuous efficiency. Portland State University
Is the problem the concept of meritocracy—a concept, after all, that demands that every effort be made to even the playing field before the games begin? Isn’t the problem that we’re no longer bothering to level the field by even so much as an inch?
Deresiewicz tells us that Ivy League students don’t hang out on the beautifully manicured campus lawns or brood over Rilke, because they have been trained to avoid activities that don’t further their careers. As the numbers above demonstrate,
students do not
have the same fertile environment to squander. Even if they did, most of them
wouldn’t be able to take advantage of it since the vast majority of them work
outside school. Many of them hold 30 to 40 hour a week jobs. They take these
jobs to pay for their classes and yet the punishing work schedules turn their
classes into just more obstacles on their weekly obstacle course. Portland
Deresiewicz’s weakness for grand flourishes simplifies what’s at stake: “We’ve had meritocracy; it’s time for democracy,” he says as if we all know and agree upon what both “meritocracy” and “democracy” mean. But Deresiewicz is right about what he calls “the essential thing.” “The new dispensation must ensure--this is the essential thing—that privilege cannot be handed down;” he tells us; “The education system has to act to mitigate the class system, as it did in the middle decades of the twentieth century, not reproduce it.” If we want a society that plays more people than it benches, we have to win that campaign Deresiewicz talks about—the one to eliminate tuition and fees at state institutions and replace them by public funding derived from taxes on the upper 10 percent. Where and when is the campaign kick-off party?