Wilfred M. McClay has an article in The Chronicle Review describing how higher education‘s devotion to meritocracy is problematic for America’s political community. McClay explains that “objective” aptitude tests (like the National Merit Scholars exam) are inadequate because extraneous factors like household income and parenting styles impact students’ performance. Additionally, any type of meritocracy that claims to organize society based on people’s natural talents fosters resentment and frustration among the middle and lower classes.
He argues that democracies should adopt a different and healthier kind of meritocracy—one that is not rigidly stratified by educational credentials, celebrates all kinds of occupations, and enables anyone, not just experts, to contribute ideas in the public sphere.
McClay is a JMC fellow and a member of JMC’s Board of Directors. He has published extensively on American history and holds the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma.
Higher Ed’s Dysfunctional Devotion to Meritocracy
From The Chronicle Review
It is impossible to ignore the dangerous and growing structural inequalities in our society. These have long been central concerns of the left; they have now also become concerns of many elements of the center and right, animating populist sentiments across the spectrum and thrusting themselves into the 2016 presidential election. The various and growing social and economic chasms that separate so many Americans betoken a loss of common culture, or even the possibility of one, and a loss of access to the dignity of work, affecting huge portions of our society. Although these inequalities have a great many sources, those of us who work in higher education need to consider what contribution we might be making to this state of affairs. Specifically, we should consider the adverse effects, some of them highly ironic, of our society’s commitment to an ideal of meritocracy.
That is a troubling thought. There us no more quintessentially American ideal than the belief that no one’s prospects in life should be determined by the conditions if his or her birth, and that individuals should advance strictly on their merit and not because of any other external advantage. From its beginning, American banished titles of nobility and other hereditary distinctions that had long been characteristic of European aristocratic society. Even if we too often honor that belief in the breach rather than the observance, we do continue to honor it, and periodically redouble our efforts to honor it more fully. But even the most equality-affirming polity has to find a way to select the most talented and effective leaders while remaining true to its professions of egalitarianism. How can that be done?
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