College admissions season has arrived, with all its attendant stresses. Harvard accepted only 5.2 percent of its applicants for the graduating class of 2020, and the New York teen who was accepted into all eight Ivy League schools is now on a bona fide press tour. Our fascination with educational placement reflects both celebration of and increasing concerns around the meritocratic ideals we still profess.
The word meritocracy was coined by British sociologist and politician Michael Young in 1958 to describe a system in which intelligence and merit were the central tenets of society. It was meant to be satirical — the United Kingdom he described was a dystopian, stratified society in which a power-holding elite ran roughshod over a disenfranchised underclass, who eventually revolted against their masters.
Today, however, America seems to have settled into an ironic embrace of the meritocratic ideal: that people should and do move ahead in life based on their talent and achievement. In many cases, we assume that those who are successful in government, business and academia are the smartest people we could find. Our elites are our elites because they’ve earned it, somehow. Even Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has recently remarked on how America is supposed to be a meritocracy and proposed new ways to reinforce that ideal.
Suspiciously, however, our meritocracy does not work quite as cleanly as one might think it should. Though we laud the occasional individual who has clearly risen through hard work and visible intelligence, the vast majority of those who succeed rely on much more than pure merit. Rather than pulling up the best from all ranks, our meritocracy rewards those who are already ahead.
At Harvard, for example, 45 percent of students come from families making $200,000 or more per year, and standardized test scores — originally created to be an unbiased sorting mechanism — increasingly track the wealth and education levels of the test-taker’s parents. In tech, supposedly one of the most forward-looking and innovative societies, those who decide what merit comprises — executives, hiring committees, venture capital investors — see merit most often in those who look exactly like themselves. Rather than promoting unique thinkers or those with unusual capabilities, the professed meritocracy serves more as a self-perpetuating mechanism: one that ossifies existing stereotypes around race, gender and capability.
If meritocracy is no longer working, we will need to look for new ways to identify talent and prepare leaders. Are we at the point where it is worth revising the way we define success? Are the stories we tell about merit and achievement still true?
Over the next few days, we’ll hear from:
Tracey Ross, associate director of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress
Bill Bishop, co-author of The Big Sort: How the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart