Sunday, March 24, 2019

College Admissions and the American Elite

Every society I know of has an elite; even among mostly egalitarian hunter-gatherers, some people become leaders. Over the past 300 years western society has been immersed in a long, sometimes bitter fight about how our elite should be chosen. We inherited from our medieval and classical predecessors a mostly hereditary elite, with some entry for the most ambitious and successful commoners; the battle cry of the Enlightenment and many subsequent reform movements and revolutions was to sweep all that away and replace it with an "aristocracy of virtue and talent." In the twentieth century the English word "meritocracy" was coined to describe this system.

I grew up hating aristocracy, and I mean really hating. The idea that somebody would consider me beneath him because of who our ancestors happened to be enraged me. Everything I read about how aristocracy functioned in the past, from the beatings noblemen regularly dealt out to uppity commoners to the scorn old money heaped on the nouveau riche, made me ever more sure that it was a fundamentally evil system. The ease with which our ancestors accepted this system did more than anything I learned from anthropology to convince me that culture is everything; not even a tribe that believed black and white were the same color would have seemed odder to me than the acceptance of hereditary power.

Since then I have lost my talent for being certain of things, and most of my hatred. I remain an enemy to hereditary privilege, and I can still get a visceral reaction to snobbery. But I have become more and more aware of the problems with meritocracy, to the point that sometimes a hereditary system doesn't look so bad.

The more thoughtful commenters on the latest college admission scandal have said that the fundamental problem is how much we think it matters which school we (or our children) go to. Given that the number of places in the most elite schools is more or less fixed, the rising demand for those slots means that the competition has gotten crazy. There is outright bribery, mainly by way of having the parents make a big donation to the alumni fund. But I think what happens among those not rich enough to buy their way in is more scandalous.

Some high school kids are pressed to shape their whole lives around the best possible application. It's all about looking perfect: perfect grades, just the right extracurriculars, an essay with the perfect blend of ambition and compassion. This is, as they say these days, everything. Either you get into the right school or you have failed right at the starting block, so you have to pick all your courses and everything else you do with an eye toward that crucial admission. It's crazy, really. Worse, it breeds a corrosive cynicism. If getting into the right college really matters more than anything else, and the way to do it is to pursue a regimen that inflates your abilities and makes you look like someone you are not, then life as a whole is a gigantic scam. A scam, of course, in which the rich have a decisive advantage.

What sort of values does that teach? Is it even possible to thrive in this system without becoming cynical about it? And no wonder most Americans are scornful of our elite's claim to be legitimate leaders, when all they are really good at is networking and resume padding.

Or so it sometimes seems. And it is not obvious that the solution to this crisis is to somehow reduce the cheating and the bias to achieve a more wholly meritocratic system. As Ross Douthat says, our elite is already pretty high-achieving:
The “more meritocracy” argument against both legacies and racial quotas implicitly assumes that aptitude — some elixir of I.Q. and work ethic — is what our elite primarily lacks. But is that really our upper class’s problem? What if our elite is already diligent and how-do-you-like-them-apples smaht — the average SAT score for the Harvard class of 2022 is a robust 1512 — and deficient primarily in memory and obligation, wisdom and service and patriotism?
Which brings us all the way back to the Enlightenment, when reformers sought virtue in the new leadership as much as ability. How to achieve that is, it turns out, a very hard problem. I have seen several times recently the argument that because our elite thinks they earned their positions by merit, they are even more scornful of the plebes than aristocrats used to be. I am not sure that is true, but it on the other hand it is hard to argue that the quality of our political leadership has gone up since FDR's day.

And on some yet other hand: if we moved away from meritocracy, what would replace it? Random hiring? It has been suggested that top universities hold a lottery among all the applicants who meet some standard; that might help, but obviously Harvard and Stanford will set the bar so high that the intense pressure will remain. Plus, being told that you didn't even meet the lottery standard might be worse that a plain rejection.

I believe, as I have said before, that the best thing we could do to make the competition less grim is to flatten the pyramid. If the rich weren't so rich, because they were paying 90% taxes, it wouldn't matter so much who gets to be the CEO. Of course there are still only a certain number of top slots, either in the corporate world or on the National Security Council, and somebody has to hold them. It would be nice, of course, if we could judge each other by our abilities instead of our credentials, but that seems a fantasy; more likely ignoring what college people  went to would just lead to even more hiring of people who look and act just like the people doing the hiring, already a major problem.

We are stuck with meritocracy. Our leaders are going to be hyper-achieving strivers, and I don't think there is much we can do about that. But maybe if our world were more equal and life nicer for middling folks, it wouldn't be quite so appalling.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

Any system can be made to work when the gap between rich and poor is small.

You could institute a God King ruling over an Absolute Feudal Theocracy, and so long as the system ensured that resources were distributed more or less evenly and people could live their lives without repression or injustice, it would be acceptable.

The problem is finding a system that best minimizes the gap between richest and poorest, which can survive the march of time and not end up subverted.

Because ultimately, people will fight to subvert everything. Give humanity utopia, and there will be selfish individuals within that utopia who seek to place themselves above others, and work to undermine society in the pursuit of their greed, rigging systems in their favor, ingraining injustice into institutions and traditions, warping the entire society on a fundamental level to serve their own interests first and foremost, no matter the cost to others.

It happened with Capitalism, which was never a very moral set of ideas to begin with, and which inherently rewards the greedy and the selfish.

It happened with Communism, which was far more moral and idealistic in origin, but which in so many cases was corrupted by the necessities of making war to achieve it, and in living in a mindset of constant conflict with the rest of the world.

It happened with Feudalism, and it happened with Tribalism, and it's happened in every form of governance ever attempted by humanity, because all of them failed to stamp out greed and avarice, and instead became complacent with whatever successes they achieved over time, and assumed that whatever code of society they lived by then would always and forever remain adequate for preventing greed from becoming the dominant force in society in the future.

Tribalism promised that if only everyone worked together for the good of the tribe, life would be grand. Feudalism promised that if only everyone was chivalrous and dutiful to their lords and to their vassals, life would be grand. Capitalism promised that if only everyone would engage in rational self interest, life would be grand. Communism promised that if only the workers of the world would unite, life would be grand.

None of them properly safeguarded against greed and those seek to undermine a given system or philosophy to bend it to their own desires, and line their own pockets.