Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Attacking the defenses of meritocracy made against meritocracy's attackers

As I've tried to suggest repeatedly here, no anti-meritocracy screed that I've thus far read has actually rejected the principle of meritocracy and proposed that college seats be distributed by anything other than qualification. All these laments about the exclusion of the poor, or minorities, or the interesting and authentic nonetheless presume that it's the most academically proficient among the poor, minority, or authentic who ought to get new or more thorough consideration. Even "nationalizing the Ivy League" and making it free - an apparently shocking and radical proposition - would only be for the sake of enlarging the pool of academically proficient applicants. In fact, I'll take your nationalization and raise you a universal application requirement - every high school graduate must apply so that no talent is overlooked as a result of such circumstances as insufficient familiarity with the schools, missed deadlines, or even simply lack of interest. And what would be the inevitable result of prestigious, free, state-run universities with mandatory applications? An even more competitive meritocracy, one with acceptance rates even lower than 1 percent. So much for "taking a meaningful stand against" elite education.

So, while some of these "exposes" of the secret soul-crushing depredations of the Ivy League have been entertaining because elite schools really are comical and absurd in many ways, none have landed a death blow. It's hardly news by now that this theme has become almost its own genre (as I wrote five years ago, which is almost an infinity of years in internet time). We can complain that, as far as genres go, it's not exactly at the level of epic poetry, or even political satire. But it seems almost worse than lamenting the Ivy League to lament the laments as constituting a form of class warfare. Are they "Edith Wharton characters with austere taste and Dutch last names sniffing with disgust at the vulgarity of new money"?

If they are, this is class warfare of the most inconsequential variety:
Since elite populism ultimately amounts to an intense discussion of the elite experience, it ultimately turns into a parlor discussion at the Harvard Club — albeit one that absolves participants from the shame of being the kind of person who hangs out at the Harvard Club, talking about Harvard with other Harvard people. If that sounds bleak, imagine Harvard guy discussing Deresiewicz’s article with the human object lessons he meets at his service-industry job. Even worse, right?
Yes. Urgent public health warning: Ivy League laments "ultimately" cause Harvard guy to use people he knows from Harvard as object lessons about the life he's lived as a result of Harvard during conversations with people who, by virtue of where he meets them, are connected to him only by mutual attendance at Harvard. Please try to contain your fear and outrage. And, really, what greater sin is there than not feeling the appropriate shame at hanging out at the Harvard Club? Besides, if Maureen O'Connor wants us to stop caring about what goes on at Harvard, then why is she so concerned with the bleakness of the conversations that go on at the Harvard Club? Perhaps it is she who is obsessed with those whom she accuses of obsession. Of course, this is always the problem of infinite regress that comes with sniffing at the sniffers, a problem whose depths have been amply plumbed by the Privilege Wars. If denouncing privilege is privilege, then isn't it also privilege to denounce the denouncers, and to denounce the denouncers who denounce the denouncers? If "the obsession with improving Ivy League conditions only further exalts those institutions," then doesn't obsession with this obsession exponentially exalt them? Here finally is a quandary even more tiresome than the Ivy League lament.

And what, in effect, is defended by attacking the psyches and motivations rather than the arguments of our Deresiewiczes? O'Connor positions herself as the nemesis of the modern academic equivalent of Dutch-surnamed austere taste, which in this case is those who extol "impracticality" in education and downplay the role of college as anything but an "opportunity for upward mobility." So whose friend is she? Who is it that really thinks of college as nothing more than means to upward mobility? People announce without shame or irony that, "Networking is all that's important to me. It's not what you know, but who you know." I guess if O'Connor believes that this noble creed and its exponents are really in need of defense from the "privileged" partisans of otium like Deresiewicz, that's good news. It suggests that we've really made a lot of progress in healing the long-standing rifts in journalist-investment banker relations.

As for me, I happen to be in New York this week. This article inspired me to look into stopping by the Harvard Club in order to exercise my privilege-denouncing privilege. But it turns out that it costs over $100, a Harvard degree, and a several-month application period to "stop by" there, so now I have to read these Ivy League laments in solitude while awaiting a real anti-meritocracy argument, without even a kindred spirit to whom I can convey my own anecdata. What happens to a privilege deferred?

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