The Country Where Merit is Run Down

It’s that time of the year again when we hear what used to be non-controversial but is now explosive: graduation speeches.  As I have said before, I don’t expect to get invited to give one of these, not unless the institution has more guts–and I more fame–than is presently evident.  So I stick to writing them out on this blog as an alternative to the fare now out there.

Graduation is (or is supposed to be) about achievement.  So let’s think: what would you say if I told you that there was a country out there which altered their system of upward ascent (career, not the aviation system) to ensure the perpetuation of the existing ruling group? The first country many Americans think of is the UK, although statistics show that they’re not doing any worse (and in some ways better) than we are in terms of upward mobility.  And, of course, we could think of many Third World places as well.

But what if I told you that I’m thinking about the United States?  Impossible now, you say?  But let’s look at this problem in a different way.

I spend a lot of time discussing Ivy League schools on this blog.  Too much, you say?  How about you quit voting for them and no other for POTUS?  (BTW, the only Republican seriously running that came from the Ivy League is none other than Ted Cruz). How about putting graduates of other institutions on SCOTUS? Since we both agree that they’re important, how do you get into one?  Well, it takes good academics, and having illustrious ancestors who went there helps too.  But in the application process you have to show, via an essay and other means, that you are a “well-rounded” person who isn’t just good at taking tests and aceing courses.

Today we’re obsessed with “socialisation” in American culture.  But this part of Ivy League (and other élite schools) admissions goes back far longer than the living memory of Boomers, many of whom miss the brain cells they killed with illicit mind-altering substances.  In fact, I think it fair to say that the de-emphasis of academic performance at all levels has been pushed along by its de-emphasis at the highest level.

So how did we get to this state of affairs?  The road was described a little which back by my fellow University of Tennessee academic, Glenn Harlan Reynolds:

Decades ago, the Ivy League colleges thought they had a problem: too many Jews…Problem was, the Ivy League didn’t really want them…The result was a change in admissions criteria to reward “leadership,” and “well-rounded” candidates — a thin disguise for “WASPs” — and, following closely on, actual quotas for Jewish students, so that no matter how many applied, their numbers on campus would stay just about the same. After several decades, this came to be seen as racist and unfair, and the quotas were dropped.

The quotas for Jews have come and gone, but the search for “well-rounded” applicants goes on.  One of the reasons why, when dinosaurs ruled the earth, I never applied for an Ivy League school is because I didn’t want to subject myself to the judgement of people on my life outside of the classroom.

Well, for all the blather about “tolerance” and “diversity” we haven’t gotten as far as we think.  We now have another group of overachievers–Asians–and they too are getting the shaft on both coasts:

College admission season ignites deep anxieties for Asian American families, who spend more than any other demographic on education. At élite universities across the U.S., Asian Americans form a larger share of the student body than they do of the population as a whole. And increasingly they have turned against affirmative action policies that could alter those ratios, and accuse admissions committees of discriminating against Asian American applicants.

Americans are inculcated with two narratives of what this country is about.  Which one has more weight depends largely on what side of the political spectrum you’re on, but they are as follows:

  1. The “Ellis Island” concept that people came over here to find a better life, “better” being cast these days in economic terms.
  2. The “meritocracy” concept, that those who have risen through our best schools and live in our best neighbourhoods have gotten there because of pure merit and that everyone else should bow down before them.

The first is simply not universally true.  Many people came here to live the way they wanted, whether that way was good, bad or indifferent.  The Scots-Irish come to mind, but there are others.  Consider the Jews: many came because they had their canful of pogroms.  (The way things are going, they may have to think about that again…)

The second…well, you figure it out: if a “meritocracy” got there because they passed through an élite school, and the élite school has been playing games with their admissions process as described earlier, what kind of meritocracy is that?  And, all the Hofstader-inspired blather about anti-intellectualism in American life, is it any wonder that our primary and secondary system is as weak as it is given the example at the top?

We can talk about “changing the system” all we want, but it’s not as easy as it looks.  So what are those of us who are receiving our sheepskins (pity the sheep) supposed to do?  We need to recognise that the road upwards isn’t a straight line of big talk and pursuing our dreams.  It’s a crooked path, marked by unexpected obstacles and undeserved setbacks.  So don’t go to pieces and keep plugging.

The one thing that made this country a truly Judeo-Christian place more than anything else is that, since we serve the God of a second chance, we have the country of a second chance.  The less Judeo-Christian this country is, the less it will be the place of a second chance.  Our country will change; our God will not.  He still has the second chance that really makes the difference.