On this week’s episode of Mere Fidelity, Derek, Andrew, and I discuss a recent article by Helen Andrews on the subject of meritocracy.
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I’ll start with this link so I don’t forget it later:
I think I was mostly curious to read Lemann’s book above because it’s really about the company I’ve worked for for the past several years, the Educational Testing Service. The general topic of the problems with meritocracy have been rolling around in my head since I read it, though influenced as well by some other critics of capitalism.
Like with many other social ideas, I think this is an area where there are both big similarities as well as significant difference between our countries. I won’t make any presumptions beyond that about how the idea of meritocracy functions within the UK.
The earliest mention I have run into about the idea was from the writings of Thomas Jefferson.he proposed that the educational system in America should work as a sort of funnel. The top students at each level in the process would be selected to move on to the next stage of educational advancement, culminating in an educated elite to take on important functions in society. (As an aside, I’ve long thought that Jefferson should be credited as one the most influential philosophers in the western world. The entire way America works is pretty much his idea.)
Lemann only goes back to the beginning of the 20th century or so (it’s been a little while since I read it), when education reform got under way. The concept of advancement by merit, combined with the growing idea of intelligence as a measurable quantity led to the formation of something called the College Board and its cousin the Educational Testing Service. The hope was that instead of admitting students into top universities by privilege and family connection, it would be done by test scores. ETS has done quite well for itself since then.
I enjoyed the way you and Andrew particularly discussed the idea on the podcast, as being one of those ideas that just seems intuitively obvious to modern people. One of the problems I’ve seen discussed (and I don’t recall it coming up on the podcast) is what a capitalist/meritocracy system does psychologically to people who don’t rise through the ranks. It now isn’t an option to just say “this is the place God has put me in, so I’ll just learn to be happy here.” If you’ve failed, it’s because you deserved it. You weren’t smart enough or good enough or hard working enough.
That’s about as far as I’ve gotten in thinking through this, so I should probably stop there. You may want to read the Lemann book, though I’ll just warn you that it’s a bit uneven. The historical section in the first half is excellent, but his analysis later on is less helpful.