In recent weeks, you might have heard about two seemingly unrelated issues that are actually quite connected. In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio signaled his desire to scrap the highly competitive exam for eight New York public high schools, including Stuyvesant High School, and began taking more limited steps to admit more black and Hispanic students. In Boston, new revelations emerged from a lawsuit that alleges Harvard University systematically discriminates against Asian Americans in its admissions process. These developments come from very different directions, but they indicate an assault on one of the foundations of modern society — meritocracy.
Meritocracy is now an idea under siege. On the right, many of President Trump’s supporters see it as a code word for an out-of-touch establishment that looks down on ordinary, hard-working Americans. In Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May’s call for a more meritocratic society was assailed on the left as a concept that breeds elitism and inequality.
Let’s remember when and how meritocracy became the organizing ideology of modern society. Before it, people moved up in the world through a clubby, informal system that privileged wealth, social status and family connections. As Nicholas Lemann recounts in his fascinating book “The Big Test,” America was run in every corridor of power by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants until the 1950s. Chief executives, college presidents and senators were, almost without exception, all WASPS. That WASP aristocracy was slowly but surely dislodged through the rise of merit-based systems, largely in education, that opened up elite institutions to people of talent, no matter their background.
The New York challenge to meritocracy involves its selective high schools, which are a wonder of the modern public-education system. Admission is currently based on a single test. Having wealth or connections will not get you in, nor will your race or athletic prowess. As a result, Stuyvesant High School — the most prestigious — accepts a smaller percentage of applicants than Stanford or Harvard. Most importantly, these schools have an astonishing track record of moving smart kids out of poverty and into the middle class.
De Blasio (D) says the schools “have a diversity problem.” Blacks and Hispanics constitute just 10 percent of these schools, compared with 68 percent of the city’s student body as a whole. The tests are said to favor one group, Asians, who make up 62 percent of the students. But de Blasio’s stance is both wrong and wrongheaded. First, these schools are incredibly diverse. The category called “Asians” encompasses people who trace their ancestry to China, South Korea, Vietnam, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines. They come from wildly different cultures and socioeconomic conditions, speak different languages and worship different gods.
Perhaps more important, the test is designed to find talented students, not to raise up specific minorities, which the rest of the vast New York City school system works hard to do. Behind de Blasio’s challenge lies a discomfort on the left with the idea of any kind of hierarchy of talent. In an op-ed in the New York Times supporting the mayor’s plan, scholar Minh-Ha T. Pham wrote, “All of our schools should be elite schools.” This is, of course, a contradiction in terms. No matter how you organize society, there will be an elite. The question is: How does it get formed — through talent or other criteria, such as political ideology or financial connections?
The Boston challenge is different, asking for genuine meritocracy. The lawsuit argues that elite universities pretend to be meritocratic but don’t actually practice what they preach. A mountain of evidence suggests persuasively that many highly selective colleges are systematically biased against Asian Americans. As laid out in recently filed documents, the lawsuit alleges that Harvard uses soft criteria such as “personality” to downgrade applicants with high test scores and grades and considerable extracurricular activities, harking back to methods they began using in the 1920s to reject qualified Jewish applicants.
Let’s be clear. Tests are not perfect, and they should be supplemented by other factors, but we should be wary of de Blasio-type efforts. They could lead down a path that returns the selection process to one in which elites make highly subjective judgments, as in the days of the old-boy networks. Historically, that was a process that smuggled in prejudice and preferences, based on class, race, religion, politics and money. It did not find or promote talent, nor create much social mobility.
Meritocracy is under assault, but those who attack it should ask themselves: What would you replace it with? To select a society’s elites, as Winston Churchill said of democracy, a meritocracy is the worst system — except for all the others.