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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The necessity of slaughtering the meritocracy of excellent sheep in order to breed more excellent sheep

I was considering reviewing William Deresiewicz's new screed against the meritocracy, follow-up to his now-ancient essay on his difficulties communicating with his mechanic, but in keeping with my all-important New Year's resolution to stop beating dead horses and a Twitter friend's affirmation that this horse was indeed dead, I decided not to. But what is this blog if not an equine cemetery? So I'll still mention it here. I do like Deresiewicz's writing for the American Scholar a lot, especially "Love on Campus," but on the meritocracy question, he is emblematic of the bipartisan impasse in cultural writing whereby we slam elite colleges without providing any real alternative to them.

That's not to say people don't make suggestions - admission lotteries, or Great Books for all, or most commonly, the commencement speech standby: a pop-transcendentalist excoriation to individual students to stop grade-grubbing and go introspect, preferably on an alpine mountaintop or some other Romantic setting, and then to thine own self be true, or whatever. But no one is really capable of wishing for anything other than a society - and by extension an educational system - in which the best flute players get the best flutes. Because on what other basis would we award the flutes? Parentage? Wealth? Hair color? The alternatives are inconceivable to us, and that's as true of those who can imagine the dangers of a pure meritocracy as of the tech-utopians who prefer computer overlords to less intelligent human ones. So everyone who begins by roaring about the imperative to dismantle "the system" ends by bleating pleas to improve it. The problem initially set out is meritocracy itself, but by the end, it's only our current approach to merit that's wrong: it's too narrow or biased, it excludes minorities, the poor, the rural, the sad. What that really means is that merit is still the standard, but that we need a better meritocracy, not "another kind of society altogether," as Deresiewicz boldly announces in his TNR book plug.

The two halves of Deresiewicz's essay perfectly depict the contradiction of this way of thinking. In the first part, we have the classic Rousseauian critique of conventional education*: it denatures man, teaching him to live for others under conditions where real citizenship - the wholesale Spartan dedication of the self to the common good - is no longer possible. The result is confused and contradictory men who are at war with themselves, "always appearing to relate everything to others and never relating anything except to themselves alone." Elite schools suppress individual nature with their insane admissions demands and their "greasy pole" ideology of success. The result is basically zombies:
Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.
The really Rousseauian solution to this is of course to dismantle universities altogether and educate all men "for themselves" rather than for society, but it follows from this that we may have to dismantle society too, so commentators understandably shy away from that conclusion. Then the waffling begins. And what are Rousseau's most recurrent and ubiquitous injunctions but, "Don't waffle!" and "There is no half-way!" (That's a direct translation.) So the romantic, Rousseauian beginning quickly deteriorates into a technocratic, anti-Rousseauian ending. When all of society is the system to be smashed, everyone suddenly drops the sledgehammers and takes up the duct tape instead.

This dilemma explains the blatant bait-and-switch in the second half of Deresiewicz's essay. It's entirely a lament of the unjust exclusion of the poor from an educational system that Deresiewicz has just denounced as corrosive to the soul. Now the problem is suddenly that the opportunities for corrosion are not universal enough. In Part 1, for example, we are informed that the "national leadership" into which a degree from these schools will catapult you is "nothing more than getting to the top. Making partner at a major law firm or becoming a chief executive, climbing the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy you decide to attach yourself to." In Part 2, a deficient understanding of leadership is apparently no longer the problem, but rather that "we have contracted the training of our leadership class to a set of private institutions." In Part 1, the problem is that students pursue staid, unimaginative careers like medicine and live programmatic lives. In Part 2, the problem is that they get their medical degrees from Penn instead of Ohio State, and live in, I guess, NYC instead of Dayton. What about the souls of the poor? How will they benefit from joining the Ivy League Zombie Track? Will they not be zombie-fied just like their affluent peers? How will the zombie track be improved by their presence?

Instead of answering these questions, Deresiewicz borrows from Charles Murray's "bubble" logic the feel-good suggestion that if the children of doctors just socialized more with the children of coal miners, America would be better. No mention whether its universities would be better or its students less "anxious." Was any of their anxiety, timidity, and lack of intellectual curiosity caused by their lack of exposure to the children of coal miners in the first place? Were the defects of the university curriculum or its culture caused by it? Unlikely. But wouldn't society be better off if it weren't so economically stratified? Now we've totally abstracted from our concern for the individual soul into a concern for the national soul. We've become social engineers. And like Murray, Deresiewicz recommends many ways that you - elite university student that you are - can turn your very presence into a form of charity and uplift for the poor by voluntarily and sacrificially placing yourself in their midst. No more building houses for charity over spring break and all that condescending frivolity; now the thing to do to help the poor is to play-act at being poor yourself.

How to do this? You might find the types of places where the poor like to congregate - waitressing jobs, state schools - and frequent them. Once there, you will learn from their down-homey values how to act like less of an "entitled little shit" (though, as a volunteer for this lifestyle, you will still technically be one), and they from your maniacal work ethic and ambition how to...work maniacally and ambitiously. The suppressed intellectual curiosity of the Ivy League striver will finally be satisfied by his summer of washing dishes and wiping tables, while the other dishwashers will learn from him the poetry of Alexander Pope that he listlessly memorized for class and be inspired to attend the Ivy League themselves, where they will be turned into gradgrinds and sent home summers to wash dishes in order to inspire subsequent poor people to become like them. In the process, all schools will somehow become excellent so you won't even need to go to an Ivy League school to get a good/bad education and simultaneously satisfy your no-longer-contradictory longings to live for yourself and be approved by others. In sum, it's gonna be real good in the future, when there is a better meritocracy that is therefore no longer a meritocracy at all, and everyone is rewarded for their equal and unequal talents equally and unequally, thereby eliminating altogether the social scourge of entitled little shits.

The problem is, if you're not willing to consider distributing the best flutes by lineage or height, then you're not really against meritocracy. Rousseauian individual soul-training is tempting, but Rousseau is emphatic that there can be no educational system made from it, and maybe even no education in the first place, so it may not offer the best model for the systemic reform of education. One can worry about perfecting souls or about equalizing systems, but equalizing systems of soul perfection may prove impossible. Judging by his earlier articles, Deresiewicz is at bottom a soul-perfecter and not a system-equalizer, which is almost always the better thing to be anyway.

*As the great mid-century thinker Lesley Gore once said: It's my blog and I'll generalize if I want to.

29 comments:

Miss Self-Important said...

Blogger eating comments. Sayeth Ben A.:

In Ricky Jay's latest movie, he talks about the process of becoming a (great) sleight-of-hand magician.

No one has industrialized the process. Mastery derives from intense self-directed practice (Jay spends hours alone with a deck of cards almost daily), but also from the cultivation of taste, judgment, and personal style. Crucially, almost every top tier magician goes through a period of intense discipleship to a expert in the craft.

I suspect the first rate education, if ever adequately defined, will look like the result of a similarly bespoke process.

When Deresiewicz writes: "I’ve come to see that what we really need is to create one [a system] where you don’t have to go to the Ivy League, or any private college, to get a first-rate education" he describes the world as it is today. You don't need to be a part of a system to be an educated person. You just need to desire to be educated, and find someone from whom to learn. But this doesn't get to democracy or avoid meritocracy, it just defines it differently. I feel sure Deresiewicz was an excellent teacher of the enthusiastic and thoughtful, and lavished time seeking to perfect them. One doubts he spent his (scarce) efforts seeking to elevate careerists who just wanted to get into McKinsey. Why would he?

Flavia said...

Deresiewicz is at bottom a soul-perfecter and not a system-equalizer.

This clarifies exactly what has always bugged me about him (as does the rest of this post, for which many thanks). As a multiply-degreed graduate of an Ivy who's pretty passionate about teaching at a state school (and who at this point looks likely to teach at one or another for the rest of her life), I think he fudges on both counts. There are lots of students at elite schools who care a great deal about soul-perfecting. Not all of them, but it might be approaching 50%--and, frankly, a greater proportion than you find at most state schools (for reasons that have to do with leisure, economic background, hiring trends, etc.). If Deresiewicz cared at all about educational equality, he'd know something about the non-elite schools, how they really work, what they do, and what their struggles are.

I have no problem with the existence of elite schools, and at this point in their history the problems of exactly how meritocratic they are or how reflective of America just doesn't interest me. They could do things differently and better, but their admissions policies aren't scandalously bad--and, more importantly, these schools represent only a tiny fraction of all the colleges out there.

Instead, let's talk about making the non-elite schools better (including more capable of soul-perfecting, if that's what he wants).

Deresiewicz is absolutely and totally obsessed with elite schools and has no real knowledge of or interest in other kinds of schools; in this he's no different from the students and parents he hectors.

Miss Self-Important said...

Yes, I think both of these points are right. Ben A is right that education is fundamentally an individual undertaking, which is why soul-perfecting is not specific to any particular school (the Love on Campus essay demonstrates this). Pedagogies and school cultures only approximate in broad generalizations what education really consists in for any particular person, and they certainly can't head off the necessity of asking what you're doing this for, what's worth knowing, and whether and how much it's necessary to impress other people. There is no Harvard Past or Ideal Harvard Future in which status anxiety will be abolished by some kind of institutional reform; people need to work that problem out for themselves. Accounts of individual educations are valuable for this reason, because they at least tell us something about how someone answered these questions.

But, given that we must have some sort of educational system, the problem with it is neither the meritocratic selection principle nor hierarchies of institutions. So long as neither the selection principle nor the hierarchy works perfectly on a national scale, things will be ok. That is, most people are simultaneously impressed by and skeptical of elite institutions. They believe both that the Ivy League has no monopoly on intelligence and capability in America and smart people can come from anywhere, but also that to be a top student at one of these schools is a commendable thing. That is sufficient balance as far as "the system" is concerned, and this balance should by all means be defended by maintaining high standards within elite schools and ensuring that elite schools aren't the only places where high standards exist.

Problems with the system will arise if it somehow begins to sort perfectly, as Deresiewicz seems to want it to do: if ALL the best students in the country are really funneled to Harvard and ONLY dunces ever go to Penn State. Then the dispersion of educational opportunities (and the variety that necessarily comes with dispersion) will end, and maybe we will be doomed. Fortunately, life is full of personal circumstances and constraints, and we are not such great intelligence sorters as we imagine, so this doom is unlikely to transpire anytime soon.

And yes, I agree w/ you Flavia that Deresiewcz's is totally obsessed with elite schools and only elite schools. This is revealed in the fine-grained distinctions he seems to think are decisive between Williams (first tier, according to him) and Wesleyan, Reed, etc ("second tier"). No one in America perceives a qualitative difference between such places unless they're already invested in these detailed hierarchies, at which point, they've probably lost sight of what higher ed is for most people in America. In order to be as opposed to the Ivy League as Deresiewicz is, you first have to believe that these schools really are America's most powerful arbiters of individual destiny, and that where you go to college determines your whole fate. Only then can you think it a horrible injustice that some people get to go to UPenn while others must settle for Penn State. But the only people who actually believe this are Ivy League hyper-achievers whose destinies were in fact determined by their alma maters, not the masses they seek to enlighten. It takes a Yale grad to imagine that the real problem plaguing America's rural poor is that they don't get to attend Yale.

Alpheus said...

I'm not sure Deresiewicz's position is as self-contradictory as you make out. If the basic problem of our meritocracy is that it defines merit too narrowly and discourages the risk-taking that's often essential for real personal development, then the two halves of Deresiewicz's essay are linked: in practice, getting into Yale (or wherever) is just one version of climbing the greasy pole instead of working on oneself. I suppose I would diverge from Deresiewicz by emphasizing that many of the people who got into the top schools -- not all, of course -- were already predisposed to become the sorts of students he deplores.

In principle, it wouldn't be impossible to correct for the problem of a too-narrow meritocracy through a revision of our cultural standards. It's such a cultural change for which I take Deresiewicz to be arguing. But I think with a little imagination we can dream up specific systemic reforms as well: anything that deemphasized credentials in favor of task-based evaluations of aptitude would be a step in the right direction. After all, isn't that how you'd normally select the best flute player?

Ben said...

Thanks for rescuing my comment. I would be remiss If I did not also post the great line from Caitlin Flanagan about achievement culture, which speaks to the point of viewing Penn State vs. UPenn as hugely salient:

This is the critical factor, it seems, the one thing on which all voices are in concert: no parent can do this alone; everyone has to agree to change. But of course parents can do this individually. By limiting the number of advanced courses and extracurricular classes a child takes, and by imposing bedtimes no matter what the effect on the GPA, they will immediately solve the problem of stress and exhaustion. It’s what I like to call the Rutgers Solution. If you make the decision—and tell your child about it early on—that you totally support her, you’re wildly engaged with her intellectual pursuits, but you will not pay for her to attend any college except Rutgers, everything will fall into place. She’ll take AP calculus if she’s excited by the challenge, max out at trig if not. It doesn’t matter, either way — Hello, New Brunswick!

But the good mothers will never do that, because when they talk about the soul-crushing race to nowhere, the “nowhere” they’re really talking about (more or less) is Rutgers.

Oh no, not Rutgers!

[http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/04/the-ivy-delusion/308397/?single_page=true]

lance lancerson said...

If somebody asked me for advice (nobody is) I'd tell him to go to a school with an SAT about 150 points lower. Doesn't that make sense? The opportunities are just going to be much greater. Whether it's in classes or extracurriculars or in dating, you'll be a giant. Competing against a bunch of self-selected high achievers with 99% percentile SATs is a bad idea, unless you're a complete narcissist and can thrive in that sort of environment. And it'll just be more fun to go to Denny's at 2 in the morning if you know that mom & dad aren't mortgaging the house.

By the way, the Natalie Merchant post was hilarious. Glad you're back to posting.

Withywindle said...

One critique is about the deformation of education; one about the deformation of society such that entry into a narrow educational elite is necessary for high-flying success. Not sure you can fix the former without fixing the latter, and not sure how the latter can be fixed.

Miss Self-Important said...

Alpheus and Withywindle: But is the problem really that elite schools view merit too narrowly? In the essay's opening, Deresiewicz describes several kinds of "merit" considered for Yale admission: academic rigor, parental super-wealth, parental lack of education ("hardship"), musical ability, number of activities. Is that a narrow view of merit, or one that's actually too broad for the institution it serves? Would expanding this understanding of merit to an even broader set of characteristics - even outright quotas for the poor - make all students more risk-taking and adventurous? Or would it just encourage the same narrow-mindedness among those of the poor competing for their reserved spots?

The heart of the difficulty is that the number of elite college seats is by definition extremely limited, and any criteria you set for winning one - whether it's good grades or good pig-breeding - will turn into a soul-narrowing greasy-pole competition so long as ambitious students believe that winning a seat at these places is the only road to Withywindle's "high-flying success." The solution cannot be to broaden the understanding of merit to include activities more characteristic of the poor or rural or whatever other ill-represented group, since that will only rope more people into joining this race without in turn increasing the number of seats for them to win. More climbers, but the same number of greasy poles.

Instead, something might be said for the extent to which success is NOT determined by graduation from an elite school. One might begin by asking what success - high-flying or otherwise - actually is. Then we can ask whether attending one of the two dozen elite colleges in the country is its real determinant.

One important question is whether you want there to be a greater variety of student types at elite schools b/c the credential from these schools is so decisive that we have to use it to socially engineer a diverse or proportionally representative "national leadership class," or whether you want an elite school credential not to be so decisive in the first place, so that it hardly matters what kinds of people end up at Harvard or how anxious or whatever they happen to be. In the first case, you'd want greater centralization of the system, in the second case, decentralization.

Grades and test scores are the task-based evaluation of aptitude that colleges have at their disposal, and I think task-based evaluations persist in job applications as well: nearly all jobs in journalism and law ask for writing samples, they call references for evaluations of your prior experience, and so on. But these sorts of quality controls go hand in hand with credentials and the personal networks developed at elite schools. Would it be worth the cost to regulate hiring decisions to ensure that there is no such overlap?

Miss Self-Important said...

Ben: It is totally a hugely salient difference...for the people who perceive it as hugely salient difference. No reason to increase their ranks.

Lance: Well, that in effect is also Deresiewicz's recommendation, although he prefers the social justice reason for it rather than the skirt-chasing one.

Withywindle said...

Sorry, by "narrow" I actually meant "limited in number". I actually want "many billionaires to improve and/or create enough pretty darn good schools that you can get into a good school without having to spend your entire life as a meritocrat-in-training, and instead live the good and mellow life of a 1980s pretty-smart teenager." But if the point of the schools is to be a gatekeeper limiting the number of entrants into the elite--if the schools are doing what society wants of them--that won't help either.

I'm trying to say that the country seems to be shifting toward having a small super-elite and a whole lot of relative and absolute economic losers, that the colleges may simply be reflecting this rather than causing it, and therefore no educational fix may alter that transformation. Shifting the sort of person who gets a seat in the elite doesn't matter so much (it seems to me) as the fact that there are decreasing numbers of seats.

Again, I see a problem without being able to formulate a solution.

abrahamandsarah said...

Isn't affirmative action a real anti-meritocratic thing that people actually believe in and do?

Alpheus said...

MSI, I meant what I wrote in my previous comment to apply to employment -- and society generally -- as well as to higher education. I completely agree that an elite degree shouldn't be as important in determining success as it is. To reiterate: I think what's going wrong at top schools is that top schools have been disproportionately attractive to credential-grubbers. Reduce the importance of the elite schools as a path to success, by producing fewer and less miserable "losers" relative to the winners and/or by making it easier to "win" without credential-grubbing, and the phenomena Deresiewicz complains about will decline.

Miss Self-Important said...

Withwindle: But there are already many good colleges available, so you can get into a good school after living the mellow life of a 1980s pretty-smart teenager. The problem is not a dearth of good schools, or even a diminishing number of seats at elite schools (it's actually growing, just not in proportion to the number of applicants).

The problem you describe seems to be one of two possibilities:
1) There is a widespread perception among a subset of (affluent, well-educated) Americans that attending an elite school (and not merely one that offers a good education) is a pre-requisite for "success" or admission to the "elite" in America. Based on this perception and their own experiences of elite schools and assumptions about non-elite ones, these Americans have become alarmed that opportunities to attain this success are not equally distributed among the population as a whole, including that part of the population that doesn't even care about elite schools or the kind of success that people in Westchester are after.
2) There is an actual systemic devaluation of good educations obtained outside of elite schools. That is, a top history major out of Penn State either earns less than his peer at UPenn, or is simply locked out of jobs that are open to the UPenn grad b/c of his alma mater.

I think #1 is definitely true but not necessarily an indication of anything other than the perception biases of the people who perceive this way, while #2 would be the actual problem but I don't know if it's true. #2 would indicate something like a structural economic transformation of which educational segmentation is a result and not a cause. On the other hand, there is no need to resolve #1 b/c it's not much more than a delusion that no good life is possible without an elite education, one usually held by people who had such educations and can't imagine any life but their own. Most people do think this way, more or less, including me.

Also, I wonder whether it's wise and correct to conflate 'elite' with 'wealthy' and so to assume that growing income inequality demonstrates the growing clout of a few top colleges. Does income inequality actually map onto graduation from an elite school? Inequality is correlated with college completion, but not necessarily elite college completion, despite the fact that a larger proportion of elite college graduates go on to high incomes. But there are a lot more rich people in America than there are rich elite college grads. In my own experience, college major is much more highly correlated with income than college rank. Which is to say, all the accounting, economics, and marketing majors from my high school who went to less elite schools than me are now making far more money than I am.

Abrahamandsarah: In a way yes, but its advocates don't see it that way. They instead see it as a way to improve meritocracy by infusing into it students who are just as qualified as their non-minority peers, but whose talents are overlooked or under-appreciated by a race-blind selection mechanism. That framing is nothing if not meritocratic. No one, on the other hand, advocates using AA to admit the lowest-performing minorities, or the richest ones, or the most attractive ones.

Miss Self-Important said...

Alpheus:
"I think what's going wrong at top schools is that top schools have been disproportionately attractive to credential-grubbers."
This is why I think Deresiewicz's essay is a bait-and-switch. If that's true, that's sad for elite schools, but lack of poor people at them is neither the cause nor the solution to the problem of too much credential-grubbing.

On the other hand, if under-representation of the poor at these schools is a problem because credential-grubbing is the only way to get by in America these days, then this is the problem Withywindle points to: there has been an economic transformation not caused by elite schools and not fix-able by them. No educational policy can make credentials less valuable if the problem is that there are now fewer high-paying jobs and more applicants for each one.

"I completely agree that an elite degree shouldn't be as important in determining success as it is."
But is it? Can we stop and define "success" here?

Alpheus said...

You call it bait-and-switch; to me it looks like considering different aspects of a large and complex problem. No doubt Deresiewicz's essay could be more rigorously structured, but there's no inconsistency between diagnosing a problem locally and then suggesting an array of both local and global solutions. In Deresiewicz's case, the local problem is the failure of elite institutions to educate. He proposes or implies various local solutions: reforms that allow for more engaged teaching, more genuine diversity in the admissions process, encouraging exposure to and interest in the sort of work elites almost never do, etc. Such solutions might indeed have an impact on the local problem. They might even have a broader impact by raising the quality of our elites, but Deresiewicz admittedly doesn't stress that possibility (IIRC).

And then there's the larger-scale solution: create a society where opportunities for self-development are more equal. Difficult, yes, but so what? Trying to view the big picture and suggest directions for broad social change is the sort of thing articles in The New Republic are meant to do.

If I had been Deresiewicz, I would have been more explicit about what I take to be one of his key ideas: meritocracy isn't doing what it's supposed to do. It's not giving us the elites we ought to have. Again, Deresiewicz first observes this on the local level, via the education and students at elite universities, then shows how society has produced this outcome. He moves from that to proposing an effort to replace or reform the idea of meritocracy itself, but the move is not an illogical one, nor does it invalidate the relevance of such local solutions as he proposes.

(This is already getting long, so I'm not going to try to define "success." Does an evaluation of Deresiewicz's case depend upon such a definition?)

Withywindle said...

MSI: I suppose my point would be "create fifty more schools as well endowed with professors, laboratories, snack bars, etc., as Harvard, MIT, and Amherst, such that there is no difference at all save for social cachet." I don't think we're quite at that point now.

Diminishing number of seats in proportion to the American population.

I do also believe that the education in many non-elite places really is lacking. I will repeat what I've mentioned before: B-average students I taught at Flagship Northeastern State could not be trusted on grammar or essay structure, and they were planning to be high-school teachers. A-average History Majors at Flagship were not qualified to enter the History Graduate Program. The teaching provided in lectures (not least by me) was an inadequate substitute for the small seminars I attended in Elite Liberal Arts College.

I dislike the thought of urging Shirebourne to be a meritocratic grade rat, but I will also tell him that my experience of the alternatives does not make me sanguine about the education he would receive there.

Your chances of being rich, or simply sufficiently well off, are better if you go to Harvard than Penn State. If you're a parent, you know you can't control everything in your kid's life--I know, anyway--all you can do is try to make a few big choices that act as rough proxies for helping them out. Wanting your kid to go to the best school possible is a rough proxy for helping them do well in life; you focus on that because that's where you can do the most good, however uncertain that good must remain.

Well in life, success--you try to help with the economic aspects. The character aspects you do at home, you don't depend on the school for that. And ultimately, your kid will have his own standard of happiness. (Ideally influenced by yours, but who knows?)

Miss Self-Important said...

Alpheus: But the large and complex problem in this case would have to be something extremely broad, like American society is not as good as we'd hope. Then we can look at hyper-competitive Ivy League students and socioeconomic inequality as two parts of the whole badness. But that's pretty weak.

Deresiewicz is arguing that the reason that Ivy League students are credential-grubbing zombies is because they're not sufficiently exposed to poor people, and that more exposure to the poor - both by admitting the poor to the Ivy League and by sending rich Ivy Leaguers out to rub elbows with the poor - will cure this ailment. This does not follow at all. Poor students admitted to a place where the zombie culture is so dominant will either have to become zombies (if they weren't already in order to be admitted) to get by, or they will be miserable. And when "entitled little shit" zombies view it as a social justice project to deign to attend SUNY instead of Columbia, how likely is this to ease their anxiety or improve their classmates?

Part of my point is that you can get nowhere by saying that meritocracy is not doing what it's supposed to do. What is it particularly supposed to do? Meritocracy is just a selection principle - instead of awarding offices by lottery or by wealth, we award offices by qualification, or apparent qualification. Offices in this case are university seats, and qualification is demonstrated academic ability. What ought such people be expected to do with their offices, as against what democrats or oligarchs would do in their place? Are they expected to be more just, or more efficient, or more virtuous b/c of the principle by which they were selected? Actually, this is an interesting question: can meritocracy be a regime in the Aristotelian sense?

In general, I think there is a tension in your arguments (and Deresiewicz's) b/w technocratic centralization and decentralization. The desire to turn elite schools into more complete or thorough meritocracies is essentially a centralizing impulse. It would mean, in the end, state takeover and a national exam which allocates university seats by score, or some other means of vastly expanding the selection pool for these schools, so that no potentially qualified student is excluded b/c of a failure to apply or inability to pay. Every effort to perfect the fairness of diffuse and voluntary systems like university admissions requires centralizing and requiring them.

On the other hand, the desire to lower the stakes in college admission requires decentralization, and that's where the exhortations to smart and ambitious students to attend Sewanee instead of Yale come in, so that excellence is spread around and the Ivy League's monopoly on it (or the perception of it) is broken. But these exhortations are at odds with asking Yale to make a greater effort to lure the kid who'd otherwise go to Sewanee. Instead, I'd think we'd want Yale to become so homogeneous that it loses all credibility as a national institution and returns to the parochial status it held in the 1930s, and students in turn become less eager to attend it. Decentralization also means leaving more to chance so it cannot guarantee equal opportunities for self-development to all.

Miss Self-Important said...

Withywindle: There are 50 such schools- just look at the US News liberal arts colleges ranked 20-50 (there are probably more than 50 schools in those slots given how US News ranks). All these schools have faculty whose PhDs are from top schools, labs, and snack bars. The student quality between Amherst and Beloit probably differs, but not the opportunity for a good education.

State flagships are interesting cases b/c they presently draw the most disparate sorts of students: everyone from valedictorians who can't afford private colleges to bottom feeders who barely made it into the Ag School, which has the lowest standards of all the sub-colleges in the university. Isn't that great?! No elitist hyper-achiever bubble there! Your roommate is from a farm upstate and spent his high school years sexing chickens! You should be applauding this rather than castigating it. (And as it happens, everyone I know from your particular state flagship is smart and managed to find a decent education there and then to go on to...grad school at Harvard or Yale or someplace like that, which is how I met them.)

But your broader complaint is I think somewhat tangential to Deresiewicz's - that American secondary ed has declined. I think what is actually happening is that secondary ed is about the same, but more people are going to college who in the past would've finished schooling with high school. But in either case, that's a justification for hyper-achieving, not a criticism of it. What makes a good education is not ranking or lifetime income chances, but the company of other very smart students, who are in extremely limited supply by definition. So it's imperative to get into a very top school to have such company. Well, if all parents think this way, of course they will have to push their children to outdo each other, since the difference between a Williams and a Kenyon really IS vast, and it has nothing to do with the quality of faculty or course syllabi, but simply that by the time you go far enough down the ladder to reach Kenyon, you've simply run out of sufficiently smart 18 year olds. But on this view, 50 more schools won't do a thing b/c there aren't enough smart kids in America to fill their seats.

Yes, it's true that your future chances for wealth are statistically higher out of UPenn than Penn State and parents make rational decisions by pushing their kids to go to the highest-ranked school they get into. However, that's a different sort of calculation than does a degree from UPenn make you richer than someone from Penn State? The answer to that is no, despite the fact that going to UPenn increased your chances of being rich in the future. If you want Shirebourne to be not just educated but rich, then you will want him to get an econ degree and go into finance, which is in many ways the opposite of getting an education. Because, as you must see from those around you, getting a humanities degree and going to grad school will ensure that you will probably never be rich, no matter the rank of the college you attended.

Withywindle said...

It's interesting to think of it in terms of a scarcity of smart students; thank you. Or a scarcity of "fun, bright friend & sweetie possibilities". I wonder how much students think of it that way as they apply to colleges?

Miss Self-Important said...

It's probably a common consideration, but that thinking is mixed up with all the other inducements - sometimes contradictory - of college: career opportunities, rigor of academics, location, school culture, even quality of football team (a high school classmate chose Michigan over UChicago for this last reason). All these things are difficult to disaggregate even for educated adults, no less 17 year old applicants.

Alpheus said...

I think we saw very different things in the article. I didn't take Deresiewicz to be saying: zombies + poor kids = no more zombies. I took him to be saying that the admission to elite schools of people from a wider range of social backgrounds could be one of a range of solutions to the zombie problem, insofar as it might help the zombies awaken to a sense of the larger world. I agree that the dangers you point out are real -- especially the danger of the people from unconventional social backgrounds being miserable -- but the idea doesn't seem to me to be totally crazy, and I don't think D. is suggesting that it's a cure-all.

I'm interested in your point about meritocracy. The "timocracy" in Plato's Republic seems to me roughly equivalent (mutatis mutandis for the Greek context) to our notion of meritocracy, and a lot of people who criticize our meritocracy would say it's declined into oligarchy, just as Plato described. I wouldn't quite say that -- at least not with those exact words -- but I think D. is (implictly) right that meritocracy isn't supposed to exist just for the sake of perpetuating meritocracy: like Plato's timocracy, it's defined by the presence of other ideals. The vagueness or absence of those other ideals in the minds of the best and brightest is not an encouraging sign.

I'm not sure the desire to reform the Ivies and their ilk is a centralizing impulse. I wouldn't favor state takeover of Yale, and I didn't get the sense that this is what D. wants. Ideally, the elite schools would recognize the problem and reform from within.

Andrew Stevens said...

Reading the post and the comments, I have generally agreed with MSI about virtually everything. Except one thing:

If you want Shirebourne to be not just educated but rich, then you will want him to get an econ degree and go into finance, which is in many ways the opposite of getting an education.

It is, of course, quite possible to get an economics degree and go into finance and also get an education. I'm not saying that's a common outcome, but nothing precludes it and it certainly happens.

Miss Self-Important said...

"I took him to be saying that the admission to elite schools of people from a wider range of social backgrounds could be one of a range of solutions to the zombie problem."
This connection is too tenuous. The first claim is about a failure of pedagogy. The solution too should be in pedagogy, not improved social engineering. D. notes that the current zombie crowd is very conscious of the larger world - as a laboratory for social justice projects. He tweaks the zombie-children for caring more about Guatemala than Arkansas, but he views Arkansas no differently than they view Guatemala. His alternative is identical to Charles Murray's arguments to bubble-denizens to voluntarily disperse themselves among those outside their bubble are hair-brained. Socioeconomic stratification is potentially real and a problem, because it contributes to the centralization of power. But I don't think that my moving to Detroit to bless its sad residents with my credentialed presence is a solution. There need to be more substantial incentives for these shifts, not just alarm about demographic hypotheticals. It's quite possible such incentives will come about organically, from rising costs-of-living in bubble cities, for example. But a condescending sense of social justice is not a useful motive.

As for the centralization involved in some of the reforms you want, look for example at Phoebe's comment on my Stuyvesant post, suggesting that the entrance exam be made universally mandatory. If you want to perfect the meritocratic selection system, you have to ensure that everyone is in the system in the first place. On its own, Yale cannot expand its pool of applicants that much. But for fairness, it must choose not from those self-selected zombies who bother to apply, but from all high school seniors, and especially those least inclined to apply b/c they lack the zombie-esque ambition to scale every greasy pole. It also needs a basis for admitting poor non-zombies who have nothing but decent grades at bad schools to show for themselves, since there are indistinguishable thousands of such candidates. Thus, national exam. I can't think of a way that an imperative to attain fairness-as-inclusion could be achieved without centralization. Ensuring inclusion always means organizing people and standardizing their credentials.

Miss Self-Important said...

About regimes, Aristotle first: In the Politics, the purpose of any regime, from the perspective of its rulers at least, does seem to be only to preserve itself against revolution. Often this requires compensating those without a share in rule with other benefits, so that all regimes are stabilized by moderating their rulers' self-aggrandizing impulses. Only the best regimes (the aristocracy of Bk IV and the best regime of VII-VIII) seem to have an end beyond self-perpetuation and a view of the whole, since they pursue virtue. But this requires the majority of residents to be slaves, at least in Bk VII. Of the regimes that don't require slavery, the "so-called polity" is the best, but it too is self-preserving, though it values virtue more than the unmixed democracy and the unmixed democracy, which value only wealth or equality. I guess one question then is what kind of rulers the so-called polity requires, or what its rulers should be after? It's not quite right to say they pursue the common good, b/c the so-called polity is still a partial or partisan regime, and the rulers can't see the common good. There is the good of the "middle class" though, which is more clearly visible in this regime and which is not exactly the good of the rulers (although everyone in this regime tends to believes he is part of this middle class, a not unfamiliar trope to us...). Insofar as other ideals are present, they include all the possible ideals: virtue and wealth and equality, and the so-called polity doesn't clearly rank them.

Plato's typology is a different case though, since it's presented as a ranking of relative virtue. There I think you're right; the timocracy is the closest parallel. But although timocrats don't rule for self-aggrandizement or self-preservation of their own class, they cultivate exclusively military virtue for the common good understood as self-defense of the whole. When the polis stops being threatened from the outside though, timocratic hardness and self-denial quickly loses its relevance. The timocratic man in a peaceful and prosperous city is a bumbler and an easy mark for money-lovers. How then can we aspire to timocracy, or expect its virtues from our rulers when we are so war-averse?

Miss Self-Important said...

Andrew Stevens: Sure it's possible, just like it's possible for people at terrible schools to give themselves good educations in spite of it. I've taught a number of very good econ majors and also known educated i-bankers. But, the pressures of the post-grad finance job market push in the other direction. My point there is only to show the difficulty of making too strong a causal connection between good education and high income.

Andrew Stevens said...

MSI: No serious disagreement; I probably mostly objected to your wording there, i.e. "the opposite of getting an education." I rarely see people who are very narrowly educated in some humanities field, such as history or literature described as "uneducated" in the way I occasionally see said of people narrowly educated in mathematical or technical fields. I have also frequently seen people who are barely numerate (certainly not saying you're one of those, by the way!) who are quite proud of how educated they are, whereas I would say that is a very significant deficit.

I do agree though with your main point as expressed above - there is a correlation between good educations and high incomes, but I am entirely unsure which causes which or whether both are caused by some other factor.

Miss Self-Important said...

I'm pretty innumerate, and also narrowly educated on account of grad school. But, before I became narrow, I did take calculus and neuroscience and a pathetic watered-down version of geology in college. We can at least say my education tried, and I failed.

There is nothing inherently more narrow about econ than any other social science, and like the others, it can be taught with an eye to history and literature and other humanistic disciplines, which it sometimes is (there is a course at Harvard about the theological underpinnings of modern economics, for example). But the econ-to-ibanking pipeline is laid across particularly dangerous stretch of undergraduate terrain, where vulgar fraternities, cheating, and anti-intellectual careerism have made a comfortable home. These temptations siphon off many people.

Andrew Stevens said...

Well, as I said, I definitely wasn't talking about you since I've never known you to be particularly proud, certainly not without justice anyway, of how educated you are. (I'm certain you are far better about that than I am, to name just one.)

I'm sure you are also correct about how fraught the econ-to-ibanking pipeline is. I have frequently heard contempt expressed for it, but the only motivation I have ever been able to discern hitherto seemed to be a sniffy contempt for people who sully their hands with commerce.

abrahamandsarah said...

Interesting anti-meritocracy news: http://althouse.blogspot.com/2014/07/the-university-of-wisconsin-madisons.html