Last fall, along with about 1.5 million U.S. high school juniors, the Yashar teen took the PSAT, which determines whether a student qualifies as a prestigious National Merit scholar. When it came time to submit his college applications this fall, he didn’t have a National Merit honor to report—but it wasn’t because he hadn’t earned the award. The National Merit Scholarship Corporation, a nonprofit based in Evanston, Illinois, had recognized him as a Commended Student in the top 3 percent nationwide—one of about 50,000 students earning that distinction. Principals usually celebrate National Merit scholars with special breakfasts, award ceremonies, YouTube videos, press releases, and social media announcements.
But not at TJ (Thomas Jefferson.) School officials had decided to withhold announcement of the award. Indeed, it turns out that the principal, Ann Bonitatibus, and the director of student services, Brandon Kosatka, have been withholding this information from families and the public for years, affecting the lives of at least 1,200 students over the principal’s tenure of five years. Recognition by National Merit opens the door to millions of dollars in college scholarships and 800 Special Scholarships from corporate sponsors.
It’s been seven years since I ran this series, which include the pieces The Country Where Merit is Run Down, The Country Where Merit is Run Down, Part II: The STEM Curriculum Dilemma and The Country Where Merit is Run Down, Part III: The Asians Strike Back. This incident, however, made it convenient to add another installment to the series. The justification for this information suppression was thus:
“We want to recognize students for who they are as individuals, not focus on their achievements,” he told her, claiming that he and the principal didn’t want to “hurt” the feelings of students who didn’t get the award.
It’s interesting to note that many of the students in this school–which has an admissions process, at one time mirabile dictu for public schools–are Asians, the same group featured in the last installment of the series and whose case against Harvard is now before SCOTUS. One of these days we’re going to revise our racial paradigm, but that will probably come with external force.
In the meanwhile, there are those who would consider our system a “meritocracy” as racist. For me, it’s just a lie, certainly now, to a lesser extent in the past. We need to wake up on this, otherwise we, as Herodotus ended the Histories, will find ourselves left “…to cultivate rich plains and be subject to others.”
Full disclosure: back in the day I was a National Merit Scholar. I tended to downplay the award–much to the consternation of my parents–because a) we didn’t need the money, that especially as b) I had opted to turn away from the American gateways to “meritocracy.”