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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.


20 Replies to “The Country Where Merit is Run Down”

  1. Hey, I’m just a Scotch-Irish kid who went to Princeton and serves as an alumni interviewer, so what do I know? But as political as college admissions have become, the corruption is within pretty high limits. Yes, schools look at students’ time outside the classroom, but that means extracurricular activities, sports, volunteer work, etc–not student’s private lives. The way this worked in practice fifteen years ago when I was applying was that the salutatorian at the good suburban public school with 6 or so AP credits, a 1500 on the SAT, editor of the school newspaper, extensive volunteer commitments, a varsity athletic letter, summer jobs, and a few regional awards in something like debate or a science fair would get in over the grind valedictorian with a 1520 and minimal extracurriculars, service, sports, etc. The “well rounded” salutatorian is still very strong academically, more likely to contribute to university life, and quite likely to prosper in the less rule driven environment that is life outside the classroom.

    From a place like Princeton’s perspective what happens is this: pre-2006 they had 1200 or so spots in each class. Because the yield rate is around say, 60% (40% of admitted kids go to Stanford or Harvard or wherever else instead), they admit roughly 2000 kids. There are about 36k high schools in America. Something like 12-8k valedictorians alone apply. Some are from bad high schools; some have bad test scores, but almost all are good enough to do the work. About 500 or so are obviously brilliant. These are kids who hammered calculus in 8th grade, won international competitions in science, speak three to ten languages, and are fought over by every college. About 300 apply and are admitted. That leaves 1700 spots. To be fought over by 12-8k valedictorians and another 14k or so other applicants most of whom are very strong candidates. These are young people with short track records that are pretty much indistinguishable. So if you have ten students with 4.0 or 3.9 GPA’s and test scores in the 99th or 98th percentile, what do you do? You start to look for other factors that “make one stand out”…

    Some of those factors are things like race, which weigh less obviously on academic merit. Other factors are things like editing the school newspaper that might be closely related to academic life and directly related to campus life. Others are in between, e.g. the kid from a ghetto who demonstrates fortitude, independence, and a different intellectual perspective .

    Without analyzing all of those factors and the tradeoffs between them, let me just say this–despite all the politics, academic standards are still extremely competitive. Family wealth does pay off, but not in the way you might think. As late as the 80’s, you could send your son to Groton and if he were a decent student, he could slip over to Harvard, Yale, or Princeton pretty easily because of Groton’s relations with those schools. Now, that doesn’t work. What does work is hiring tutors, paying for expensive programs, etc. It’s like sports. I have a friend who got in Penn in part because he spent his high school summers at expensive camps learning German just like I know a guy who played semi-pro tennis because he spent his high-school summers at fancy training academies in Florida. Both used money to help get really good at something. Is that fair? Yes and no.

    If I had my druthers, I would move American high schools closer to the French system where higher educational demands and standards distinguish more clearly among the mass of high schoolers, making preferences for athletes, legacies, and protected minorities harder to sustain. I would also return public financial support for public universities to levels last seen in the 80’s to keep tuition down and faculty quality up. And then finally, I would try to move to a more German athletic system wherein community, off campus club teams provide widespread sporting opportunities that don’t corrupt academics or fed debauchery.


    1. “But as political as college admissions have become, the corruption is within pretty high limits.”

      That’s a “beauty (or ugliness) is in the eye of the beholder” type of perspective.

      “Yes, schools look at students’ time outside the classroom, but that means extracurricular activities, sports, volunteer work, etc–not student’s private lives.”

      My guess is that, if a student has enough of these activities to garner attention from an Ivy League school, there’s not much of a private life left to look at.

      “If I had my druthers, I would move American high schools closer to the French system where higher educational demands and standards distinguish more clearly among the mass of high schoolers, making preferences for athletes, legacies, and protected minorities harder to sustain.”

      I agree wholeheartedly, that would solve the situation with the Asians on a more equitable basis.

      “I would also return public financial support for public universities to levels last seen in the 80’s to keep tuition down and faculty quality up.”

      Since I teach at a state school, can’t argue with that either.

      “And then finally, I would try to move to a more German athletic system wherein community, off campus club teams provide widespread sporting opportunities that don’t corrupt academics or fed debauchery.”

      We have a great deal of off-campus athletics; however, in the great American style, we’ve made them time consuming to a very high degree.

      One thing that I didn’t really touch on in the original post is this: in this country the merit came outside of the educational system. It was easier to do well in this society in spite of your education background (or lack thereof.) Now we have an obsessively credential-based system where any inequities in the elite school admission system are suddenly a much bigger deal than they used to be. That was part of the point I tried to make in my piece on Steve Jobs; I’m not sure we will, certainly not on the scale we have seen in the past.


  2. <My guess is that, if a student has enough of these activities to garner attention from an Ivy League school, there’s not much of a private life left to look at.

    There are probably fewer kids now who have time to read a lot. Fewer Harper Lee types. There's also a lot less time watching TV, working minimum wage jobs, or goofing off. For better or worse. But pre-social media, I still had a good amount of time for friends, romance, sports, and church. But I didn't grow up in Manhattan, Boston, or another super-wealthy, hyper-pressure cooker environment.

    I live in TN. Anyone in particular I should write to argue for more money for the UT system? Other than my reps and the governor?

    Agree that credentialism has gone too far. I suspect that's because the upper-middle class has the clout to protect itself from globalization and technology. If it's any consolation, Ivy League grad school admissions are unbelievably meritocratic. At least in, non-professional degrees like Ph.D's and to the extent that a non-trivial amount of "merit" in humanities research is in investigating p.c. topics like gender theory. That means it's extremely foreign, like 50%+ especially in STEM and social science fields where one doesn't have to be a native English speaker. The world is big enough, rich enough, and with enough desperate people that truly meritocratic environments are so competitive that no one has a private life in them, and Americans lose preeminence.


    1. “There are probably fewer kids now who have time to read a lot.”

      That a source of a lot of the lack of introspection we have in our ruling classes these days, it’s going to bite us soon enough. (Already is, really…)

      You should petition your state rep and senator along with Governor Bill to keep the state from pulling the funding down further.

      “The world is big enough, rich enough, and with enough desperate people that truly meritocratic environments are so competitive that no one has a private life in them, and Americans lose preeminence.”

      Our national epitaph?


  3. Epitaph? Maybe. But I think that depends on how the Pacific nations including China and the US manage the return of East Asia. There’s a version where we become quasi-German in accepting circuits of endless feedback and reciprocity. We would lose the relative power to set the terms of global finance and security in places like the IMF and Taiwan Strait but gain absolute wealth. So much American preeminence in the twentieth century rested on misery in Eurasia at the hands of the Nazis and Communists, general mismanagement in India and Latin America, and colonialism that I’d be ok with that state of affairs.

    Also, I’m not convinced that American preeminence or hegemony benefitted us all that much directly. By that I mean, we enjoyed the tremendous boon of not facing invasions, which is a great freedom but a negative one. Unlike the Romans or the Spanish, we never set up any sort of tribune system or wholesale foreign recourse extraction. People fret about losing the dollar’s reserve status, but the resulting capital inflows have exceeded investment demand (minus major public spending on infrastructure) and hurt exports badly by pushing the dollar up. But that’s just one example. So let me ask you… as someone who did business overseas during (and after?) the cold war, do you see much advantage by virtue of being American? Other than the fact that you were able to grow your business at home in a stable, wealthy, Anglophone market, unlike say the Poles? I.e. once you bring your wares to market did it help, hurt, or do nothing to be American?

    On the reverse side, as an engineer what do you think of the state of American infrastructure and infrastructure investment? Could we really spend a trillion dollars on infrastructure and profit by it or would the money be a giant boondoggle?


    1. You’ve asked a good number of interesting questions.

      The existence of a large, domestic market with a uniform (well, uniform enough) legal and tax system has always been the first advantage of American corporations. In our case, our American customers took our product overseas, which gave us additional credibility with foreign buyers. The downside of this is that we never had to put as much effort into developing our exports as our European and Asian counterparts did, which means that we never developed the global network they did. And I think that’s true for many American businesses, especially small ones. (FWIW, I could care less what they do with the Ex-Im Bank, it never did much for us.)

      Dollar hegemony is important primarily for one reason: our debt level. As long as it’s out there, we owe ourselves because it’s our currency. As that fades, our debt will become more expensive and we will find servicing it a bear.

      Since World War II it’s always been our game to lose, not another’s to win. That’s true now. The problem I see is that we are raising a new generation of “leaders” which are overconfident and overmoralistic, unable to see things any other way but theirs (well, not ever given an opportunity to do so). When they are not able to solve a problem through the overwhelming strength of the country, they’ll hit the wall. The growing strength of the rest of the world is something that is certainly good from an economic standpoint, but it creates a situation that our elites are unprepared to handle. In many ways, that’s what happened to the Romans; they were always able to rely on their superior military and economic strength, and when both failed them at the time of Alaric, Rome got sacked and in many ways they never knew what hit them.

      As far as infrastructure is concerned, we need serious investment badly. But we are in a perfect storm of paralysis to solve our problems. Our legal and bureaucratic systems make infrastructure improvements dreadfully expensive relative to the rest of the world, the right doesn’t want to do it because the government is the main player and they hate the government, and the left doesn’t want to do it for environmental reasons and because they want to use it to promote New Urbanism.


  4. Very interesting responses.

    I hear you on the fragility of debt denominated in non-dollars. But it has to be balanced against the drag of exporting t-bills rather than job creating goods, a drag that we’ve dealt with by… running deficits. I haven’t run the numbers for myself on that balance, but even if the current Bretton Woods system is still to our benefit, I’m not sure that it’s politically sustainable as the Fed cools down and the BRICS keep building alternate banking systems. But don’t worry, I’m sure our leaders will proactively engage on this matter rather than being shut out by the Chinese and left behind by all our allies, including the British. Sigh.

    Speaking of leadership, I’ve had to think about your diagnosis of limited, overconfident, over-moralistic leaders as the problem. There’s definitely something to what you say, which pains my cold, structuralist heart to admit. Maybe I’m just a Scots-Irish rube whippersnapper, but I was recently surprised to learn that before 1978, there was this thing called “the Establishment” that was actually a unified ruling class. Sure I’d read Salinger and had inklings, but in my _Game of Thrones_ time, the whole thing felt foreign. To have elites who shared a life and perspective outside the office and didn’t spending billions annually siccing lobbyists and lawyers on each other and the common good? Weird. Maybe the disintegration of that unity is partly why you dislike the “meritocracy”? To make a self-serving distinction, maybe the problem is less with meritocracy’s unrealized ideals than with what they call on Capital Hill “the blob” the revolving door of industry, lobbyists, and policy makers. How the meritocracy and blob interact, support, and oppose each other I can’t say, but for what it’s worth, I can think of too many classmates who do nasty things as lawyers in DC, but no defense contractors crossing lines causing Eisenhower to spin in his grave.

    New Urbanism. I was optimistically obsessed with that years ago but now fear that it actually leads to hyper-fragmentation after the way the HOPE VI grants distributed the housing projects all over Memphis. What do you think of it?


    1. Growing up with the “beautiful people” permanently soured me on any American elite. But in those times the elites, on the whole, had a stronger sense of civic duty than they do now, which translated into greater comity. The elite was to some extent shattered in the 1960’s, but now it has reconstituted itself.

      That reconstitution has been justified in no small measure by the attendance of these people in elite institutions. I’ve seen an article or two which says that the qualities which make for success are in a person long before they stroll the halls of ivy (or kudzu in these parts). What that means is that the biggest benefit of an elite institutions are getting to know the people you sat in class with. If that’s the case, it would be a lot easier just to throw all of these people into the same tavern for four years and be done with it.

      As long as government is large and the source of prosperity (or survival) to well-moneyed groups of people, the lobbyists will never lack work. That’s one reason why it’s hard to shrink government; we’re in a vicious cycle where, the larger government gets, the more people depend upon it, which leads to its further expansion…

      New Urbanism will never result in stronger communities, it never has in any place it has been implemented. It will just pack people into smaller physical spaces, which is the main objective in any case.


  5. Don’t worry, unless you have a thing for Supreme Court justices, the gap between the beautiful people and educational elite is pretty big;)


    1. Maybe not.

      In one of the newsletters I got from my prep school, I realised that I went to school with Paul Bremer’s cousin. When I stopped and considered the ilk I went to prep school with, it’s little wonder we ended up in the mess we did in Iraq.

      A great deal of our problem is that our system discourages people who really understand what’s going on in a foreign country from getting into an influential policy position. We end up with people who simply see everything through the lens of domestic politics and morality (Obama’s dalliances with the Iranians are a good example of that) and we simply go from one disaster to another.


  6. Paul Bremer wasn’t really who I had in mind by “beautiful people.” I was thinking more in terms of the entertainment industry where the Ivy League people are more “behind camera.”

    Agreed that L. Paul made some awful calls. But was that because like his cousin he was presumably a degenerate prep school kid? And an Obama-like politician driven by political correctness and liberalism? Or because his expertise was elsewhere (he had an MBA, a degree from SciencePo, and a deep state department history in Afghanistan, the Netherlands, and counter-terrorism)? Or because US never had anything near the will, legitimacy, money, or expertise to do much nation building compared to say West Germany with East Germany?

    But I do agree that the State Department is handicapped by its elected political masters. However, that’s an argument for more elitism, not less.


  7. P.S. And to connect all this to education, Iraq is a great example why we should push a diverse, much more ambitious foreign language program across all levels of US education. If voters had a wider sense of the world, maybe the government as a whole would have been more circumspect in Iraq. I worry that we simply don’t have all that many people who really understand what goes on in foreign countries. If we’d had 50k Iraqi Arabic speakers, the occupation would have doubtlessly have gone smoother. If we’d had 100m foreign language speakers, maybe it never would have happened in the first place.


    1. What we really need is leadership (on both sides of the political spectrum) that understands that things work differently in places such as Iraq than it does in the U.S. That was the source for the ridiculous “democracy in the Middle East” quest that George W. Bush went on. Barack Obama is making the same mistake with Iran (and, to a lesser extent, with Cuba); he’s looking at things purely through a domestic political lens. The whole purpose of an elite is to obtain this level of sophistication, but it seems to me that the one we’ve got is not much less provincial than its electorate.

      I suppose that you can be a great American, you can be a foreign policy expert, but you can’t be both. And you frequently can be neither.

      OTOH, as an aside, I’ve spoken with military people at both the top and the bottom of the system who were involved in Iraq. Their idea is that we should have let the Marines throw the hand grenade down Saddam Hussein’s foxhole, installed a strong leader who would keep the country together, and left. As it was we ended up with the worst of both worlds.


  8. All respect to the troops and your interesting report on their thoughts, but unfortunately, Saddam was “a strong leader who would keep the country together.” Given the sectarian tensions and bad history, I suspect that he had to be a strongman in the worst sense to keep Iraq together, so I’m skeptical of halfway measures like invading without occupying Iraq. That said, the troops were probably right that once Saddam was gone, getting out of Dodge would have been better.

    That’s another way of stating the Powell Doctrine. He clearly was a leader whose expertise and merit was tragically betrayed by Washington and himself. Who are the others? State was silenced. And the CIA rank and file. But so far as I can tell pretty much 90% of America blew all of the above (myself included at the time) except for _The New York Review of Books_, John Meirshimer, some Christians, and the anti-war left.

    Totally agree we need more cosmopolitan leaders. Having political appointees as major ambassadors isn’t a total disaster but is a major wasted opportunity.

    A Nobel literature judge gave an interview several years ago in which he claimed that American lit is too insular. I think he’s right about translation but am unsure about the rest:


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