Category Archive 'Meritocracy'
03 Aug 2018

It Takes More than Test-Scores to Build a Meritocracy

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Some building at Harvard.

Wesley Yang, in Tablet (Funny, he doesn’t look Jewish.), has an intelligent, fair-minded essay on the paradoxes of Ivy League admission.

Private colleges in America were all founded to pursue a certain vision of the world. Even if many have fallen away from their original religious sectarian missions, they retain a certain coherence of purpose through their ability to mold their classes as they see fit. On its face, there is nothing wrong with maintaining admissions policies that favor certain kinds of people over others—provided of course that the preference doesn’t violate the law by discriminating against applicants on the basis of their race, gender or national origin. Some schools want to teach Catholics. Some want to teach Jews. Some want to train scientists. Others want to train investment bankers and politicians. Each of these schools will design admission policies accordingly.

There is also something intuitively true about the proposition that grades and test scores are imperfect proxies for genuine merit in whatever area or field. The Ivy Leagues have always refused to be the colleges of the “best students” and have instead sought to identify the “leaders of tomorrow.” It doesn’t take too much thinking to realize how little overlap there might be between these categories of person. In an amicus brief submitted on behalf of Harvard University in 1974, the Harvard law professor and former solicitor general of the United States, Archibald Cox, noted that Harvard College selected less than 15 percent of its entering class purely “on the basis of extraordinary intellectual potential,” going on to express the fear that “if promise of high scholarship were the sole or even predominant criterion, Harvard College would lose a great deal of its vitality and the quality of the educational experience offered to all students would suffer.”

Any system focused on the likely leaders of tomorrow must include the sons and daughters of privilege along with the brightest and most driven students, giving the former the access to the latter and vice versa. Such a class will by definition have a better understanding of the ways of the world and how to master it, which is in part why Harvard intervened in the first case to go before the Supreme Court challenging affirmative action. As Jerome Karabel, author of The Chosen: A History of Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, makes plain, Harvard’s interest in the case “went well beyond the issues of blacks and other minorities.”

As Karabel writes, the case “raised the specter of an encroachment on the institutional discretion that Harvard believed indispensable to the protection of vital institutional interests. In the worst case, a ruling for DeFunis [the student who was denied admission] might lead to the court imposing the model of pure academic meritocracy that [Dean W.J.] Bender and his successor at Harvard had so definitively rejected.”

Karabel’s book is an exhaustively detailed survey of the ways in which the Ivy Leagues battled through the decades to hold the threat of pure meritocracy at bay. At the start of the 20th century, the meritocratic danger was Jewish. In 1908, Harvard began to select its students on the basis of a set of admissions examinations. By the 1920s, as Karabel writes, “it had become clear that a system of selection focused solely on scholastic performance would lead to the admission of an increasing number of Jewish students, most of them of eastern European background.” The institutions sought, as Karabel put it, “the latitude to admit the dull sons of major donors and to exclude the brilliant but unpolished children of immigrants,” and therefore created a system relying on “discretion and opacity—discretion so that the gatekeepers would be free to do what they wished and opacity so that how they used their discretion would not be subject to public scrutiny.”

The system of holistic admissions that place a heavy stress of highly subjective qualities such as character, personality, and leadership that we all take for granted was invented during an era of radical immigration exclusion to supply the discretion and opacity that the institutions demanded in order to maintain the kind of student bodies that they thought suitable—namely white, Christian, and Anglo native-born. But while holistic admissions were born in racist exclusion, the affirmative action debate presented a golden opportunity for the institution to recast this discretion as something at once legally and morally unassailable—by cloaking the institutional interest in independence and discretion in terms of protecting and advancing the interests of racial minorities. This ingenious move, reconciling the claims of justice and self-interest in the manner habitual to a certain kind of liberal, secured the cartel power of the Ivy Leagues to mint a ruling elite for a generation.

No one should fault the keepers of the Ivy Leagues for seeking to hold in balance inherited privilege with meritocratic excellence. It was the smart play. No one can gainsay the results obtained by what history will regard as some of the greatest brand managers the world has ever seen. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 ended a string of 27 consecutive years in which the president of the United States held a degree from either Harvard or Yale University. Every member of the Supreme Court is a graduate of one of two law schools, Harvard or Yale. Harvard University has an endowment of $37 billion, which is a sum at least four times larger than that controlled by hedge-fund king George Soros.

Neither should we begrudge those invested in this system of mutual advantage their exasperation at Asian immigrants for unwittingly acting as spoilers. For that is what Asians have done: By arriving here in such large numbers, and importing their distinctive orientation toward education—by doing so well on grades and tests and being so assiduous in their pursuit of extracurricular activities—they’ve made it impossible for the brand managers of the Ivy Leagues to preserve the balance between merit and social justice and inherited privilege in a way that is remotely tenable. Something had to give, and it appears that soon enough, something will, with large consequences for the country.

RTWT

29 May 2018

David Brooks on the Errors of the Meritocracy

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Today’s older meritocrats at college in the late 1960s.

David Brooks is dead wrong on the character of the ancien regime, falling like a sap for the fantasy stereotypes of the left-wing imagination. There were always plenty of ordinary middle class guys not rich at all, and even some poor, working-their-way-through-college fellows at Yale from humble backgrounds, long before the pedophile from Horace Mann took over Yale admissions, probably really back to the Class of 1705. But he is otherwise basically right this time. And the older Ivy League graduate would conspicuously differ from today’s “meritocrat” in, despite some higher education, recognizing that he, too, just like the working class chap living on the other side of town, still puts his trousers on one leg at a time, and in remaining aware that his automobile mechanic and his hunting guide are just as human as himself and may even be, in some departments, better men.

The older establishment won World War II and built the American Century. We, on the other hand, led to Donald Trump. The chief accomplishment of the current educated elite is that it has produced a bipartisan revolt against itself. …

The real problem with the modern meritocracy can be found in the ideology of meritocracy itself. Meritocracy is a system built on the maximization of individual talent, and that system unwittingly encourages several ruinous beliefs:

Exaggerated faith in intelligence. Today’s educated establishment is still basically selected on the basis of I.Q. High I.Q. correlates with career success but is not the crucial quality required for civic leadership. Many of the great failures of the last 50 years, from Vietnam to Watergate to the financial crisis, were caused by extremely intelligent people who didn’t care about the civic consequences of their actions.

Misplaced faith in autonomy. The meritocracy is based on the metaphor that life is a journey. On graduation days, members for the educated class give their young Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” which shows a main character, “you,” who goes on a solitary, unencumbered journey through life toward success. If you build a society upon this metaphor you will wind up with a society high in narcissism and low in social connection. Life is not really an individual journey. Life is more like settling a sequence of villages. You help build a community at home, at work, in your town and then you go off and settle more villages.

Misplaced notion of the self. Instead of seeing the self as the seat of the soul, the meritocracy sees the self as a vessel of human capital, a series of talents to be cultivated and accomplishments to be celebrated. If you base a society on a conception of self that is about achievement, not character, you will wind up with a society that is demoralized; that puts little emphasis on the sorts of moral systems that create harmony within people, harmony between people and harmony between people and their ultimate purpose.

Inability to think institutionally. Previous elites poured themselves into institutions and were pretty good at maintaining existing institutions, like the U.S. Congress, and building new ones, like the postwar global order. The current generation sees institutions as things they pass through on the way to individual success. Some institutions, like Congress and the political parties, have decayed to the point of uselessness, while others, like corporations, lose their generational consciousness and become obsessed with the short term.

Misplaced idolization of diversity. The great achievement of the meritocracy is that it has widened opportunities to those who were formerly oppressed. But diversity is a midpoint, not an endpoint. Just as a mind has to be opened so that it can close on something, an organization has to be diverse so that different perspectives can serve some end. Diversity for its own sake, without a common telos, is infinitely centrifugal, and leads to social fragmentation.

The essential point is this: Those dimwitted, stuck up blue bloods in the old establishment had something we meritocrats lack — a civic consciousness, a sense that we live life embedded in community and nation, that we owe a debt to community and nation and that the essence of the admirable life is community before self.

RTWT

If Brooks read his university alumni notes from earlier 20th Century classes over the years, he would have noticed how commonly “those dimwitted, stuck up blue bloods” enormously excelled in personal accomplishment, lifetime adventure, and public service just about all the grand meritocrats of our later generations.

22 May 2018

Guilty Meritocrats

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The big think piece of the week is this exercise in class navel-gazing in the Atlantic. Its author, Matthew Stewart, is an obviously Very Smart Guy, who went to Princeton and Oxford and who’s written books on the American Revolution’s foundation in Philosophy and on why Management Consulting is typically a scam.

I’ve joined a new aristocracy now, even if we still call ourselves meritocratic winners. If you are a typical reader of The Atlantic, you may well be a member too. (And if you’re not a member, my hope is that you will find the story of this new class even more interesting—if also more alarming.) To be sure, there is a lot to admire about my new group, which I’ll call—for reasons you’ll soon see—the 9.9 percent. We’ve dropped the old dress codes, put our faith in facts, and are (somewhat) more varied in skin tone and ethnicity. People like me, who have waning memories of life in an earlier ruling caste, are the exception, not the rule.

By any sociological or financial measure, it’s good to be us. It’s even better to be our kids. In our health, family life, friendship networks, and level of education, not to mention money, we are crushing the competition below. But we do have a blind spot, and it is located right in the center of the mirror: We seem to be the last to notice just how rapidly we’ve morphed, or what we’ve morphed into.

The meritocratic class has mastered the old trick of consolidating wealth and passing privilege along at the expense of other people’s children. We are not innocent bystanders to the growing concentration of wealth in our time. We are the principal accomplices in a process that is slowly strangling the economy, destabilizing American politics, and eroding democracy. Our delusions of merit now prevent us from recognizing the nature of the problem that our emergence as a class represents. We tend to think that the victims of our success are just the people excluded from the club. But history shows quite clearly that, in the kind of game we’re playing, everybody loses badly in the end. …

The fact of the matter is that we have silently and collectively opted for inequality, and this is what inequality does. It turns marriage into a luxury good, and a stable family life into a privilege that the moneyed elite can pass along to their children. How do we think that’s going to work out?

This divergence of families by class is just one part of a process that is creating two distinct forms of life in our society. Stop in at your local yoga studio or SoulCycle class, and you’ll notice that the same process is now inscribing itself in our own bodies. In 19th-century England, the rich really were different. They didn’t just have more money; they were taller—a lot taller. According to a study colorfully titled “On English Pygmies and Giants,” 16-year-old boys from the upper classes towered a remarkable 8.6 inches, on average, over their undernourished, lower-class countrymen. We are reproducing the same kind of division via a different set of dimensions.

Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, and liver disease are all two to three times more common in individuals who have a family income of less than $35,000 than in those who have a family income greater than $100,000. Among low-educated, middle-aged whites, the death rate in the United States—alone in the developed world—increased in the first decade and a half of the 21st century. Driving the trend is the rapid growth in what the Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton call “deaths of despair”—suicides and alcohol- and drug-related deaths.

The sociological data are not remotely ambiguous on any aspect of this growing divide. We 9.9 percenters live in safer neighborhoods, go to better schools, have shorter commutes, receive higher-quality health care, and, when circumstances require, serve time in better prisons. We also have more friends—the kind of friends who will introduce us to new clients or line up great internships for our kids.

These special forms of wealth offer the further advantages that they are both harder to emulate and safer to brag about than high income alone. Our class walks around in the jeans and T‑shirts inherited from our supposedly humble beginnings. We prefer to signal our status by talking about our organically nourished bodies, the awe-inspiring feats of our offspring, and the ecological correctness of our neighborhoods. We have figured out how to launder our money through higher virtues.

Most important of all, we have learned how to pass all of these advantages down to our children. In America today, the single best predictor of whether an individual will get married, stay married, pursue advanced education, live in a good neighborhood, have an extensive social network, and experience good health is the performance of his or her parents on those same metrics.

We’re leaving the 90 percent and their offspring far behind in a cloud of debts and bad life choices that they somehow can’t stop themselves from making. We tend to overlook the fact that parenting is more expensive and motherhood more hazardous in the United States than in any other developed country, that campaigns against family planning and reproductive rights are an assault on the families of the bottom 90 percent, and that law-and-order politics serves to keep even more of them down. We prefer to interpret their relative poverty as vice: Why can’t they get their act together?

RTWT

Stewart’s mea culpa article is intelligent and well-written, but gravely flawed by many of the characteristic intellectual errors of the meritocratic community of fashion elite.

It’s true that life in America has changed. Economic, regional, and cultural changes enormously increased social and physical mobility over much of the last century, killed local industries, and drained, year after year, ever larger percentages of people with brains and talent and initiative out American small towns and rural counties, sending them off to the big cities and their posh suburbs.

The automobile and the shopping mall killed Main Street, and the big multiplex theaters killed the hometown movie palace. Now Amazon is killing off the malls, and digital streaming off the Internet is killing off the multiplexes.

It is characteristic of members of the intelligentsia like Matthew Stewart to place limitless confidence in the calculative powers of human reason and the wisdom of credentialed experts and to imagine that the iron laws of economics and the choices of the gods of History can simply be set aside by the application of a bit of collectivist statism. That perspective is obviously dead wrong.

Unless you are prepared to go to the same lengths as Pol Pot and march people at gunpoint out of the city and into the countryside again, you are not going to change all this. A hundred years ago, many people were sad that the gods of Economics had decreed that the small family farm had to die and everyone had to move into town and take work at the factory or the mill, but it happened, and that is how economies progress and standards of living rise. But change always comes with some pain as its cost.

The establishmentarian feels guilty and suffers from an obsession with Equality. People like Matthew Stewart naturally believe that they are the cat’s pajamas, the winners in Life’s Olympic Race, and they assume that everybody is crying himself to sleep every night for not being one of them.

They are profoundly wrong in a couple of ways. First of all, it is possible to be a good man and a person of accomplishment and skill in all sorts of ways not measured by the SATs and entirely unconnected to graduation from elite schools or the publication of important books. There are circumstances in life in which you’d be better off having the assistance of a skilled automobile mechanic or a grizzled old hunting guide than that of an Oxford graduate or best-selling historian.

Then, it is also an important fact of life that it is simply impossible for everybody in the world to graduate from a top Ivy League school and grow up to be a doctor, lawyer, investment banker, or management consultant. The world really does have to have more Indians than chiefs. And not everybody thinks the same way. I have some things in common with Mr. Stewart: I went to Yale and I sometimes read The Atlantic. But they’d have to pay me by the hour to live in Brookline or any similar place. And I’m surrounded out here in rural Pennsylvania by people who feel the same way.

My Trump-voting neighbors here in the Central Pennsylvania boondocks are, it’s true, ill-educated, and unfashionable. They are also a lot less affluent than people like Mr. Stewart. They do have some problems, but most of them, at least most of the older ones, are not unhappy. I think younger people out here in the sticks are more decidedly the left-behinds, and are more demoralized by the decay of Religion and the local economy, and the weakening of all the institutions. And it is there, not in the areas Mr. Stewart talks about, that we meritocrats are to blame.

If you go to Princeton or Yale, you can reject bourgeois society, organized Religion, and Kipling’s gods of the copybook headings and (mostly) get away with it. You’re a clever person and probably a strong-willed person, so you can do drugs and get up and go to work anyway. You believe in free love, but somehow in the end, you wind up married anyway. But where we catch a cold, the ordinary people back home get the Plague. Without the old-time Religion and conventional bourgeois morality keeping them on the straight and narrow, for them, everything goes to shit. You get single mothers, jailbird fathers dead at 35 from booze or meth or crashed cars, neglected, badly-raised kids, and ruined lives all over the place.

Our guilt does not lie in erecting barriers to entry at Ivy League schools. Our class’s guilt lies in our snobbery, our boundless self-entitlement, and our abandonment of hometowns, home regions, and obligations of leadership and fellowship, in our home communities, and in the deplorable example we set with our wholesale rejection of tradition and conventional wisdom.

25 Oct 2017

The West’s Senile Elite

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Costin Alamariu thinks most Third World dictators have more real “merit” than today’s elite representatives of the alleged meritocracy.

The dim, grey technocrats who have taken hold of America and much of the West for the last few decades are feeling cornered and exposed. Their PR men are coming up with new and weird excuses. David Brooks in The New York Times argued recently that for all its faults, America has a “meritocratic elite.” According to Brooks, this group is opposed mainly because of white working class cultural resentment. He believes that America’s ruling class today is at least superior to the postwar WASPs who ran the country in the 1950s and 1960s.

But America’s Protestant establishment ran the country before World War II, as well. They won that war. They built the Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Empire State building in less than two years at the height of the Depression. After the war, they took the country to the moon. It’s hard to see how websites like Google—or other “innovations” like collateralized loan obligations—can compare, glorious though these may be in their own way. Our current ruling class, with all its computing power, human resources “synergies,” and vibrant diversity, took seven years to build an on-ramp to that same Golden Gate Bridge. …

The purpose of meritocracy was to prevent occasional and unfortunate discrimination against men like Richard Feynman. Instead, we get Sonya Sotomayor and Neil deGrasse Tyson. In politics, we get sorority creatures Marie Harf and Barack Obama, a man apparently assisted by affirmative action at every stage of his life.

RTWT

Schools like Yale have been blowing smoke for generations about how this year’s freshman class is the brightest, most competitive, most marvelous ever to come down the pike. And Ivy-League-ers of the present uncritically accept all the compliments and think themselves to represent the absolute apex of human evolution.

The current generation of Yale undergraduates fondly imagines that entering classes of my day were overwhelmingly comprised of Cadwalladers, Wickershams, and Tafts who all had millionaire fathers, who all graduated from St. Grottlesex, and who spent their time at Yale sipping Mint Juleps at the Fence Club between polo matches.

In reality, the majority of my entering class was made up of graduates of public high schools. A large percentage of us were on scholarship and were the first representatives of our families to attend college. And, in fact, we had it soft.

In still older times, Yale was really unequal. Student rooms varied in quality depending on your means, guys working their way through college worked full-time jobs, roomed in slums, and lived on beans. The Catholic, Jewish, or merely impecunious Yale student never even got into Mory’s.

But it was precisely those kind of guys who built giant corporations, erected the wonders of the 20th Century, and won America’s wars back in the days when we made a policy of actually winning wars.

When I read of one of those aggrieved snowflake demonstrations at Yale demanding some outrageous and offensive concession to the amour propre of today’s spoiled, ignorant, and immature poseurs, I often wish that I could wave my hand and bring back one of the all-male classes of the first few decades of the last century to demonstrate their opinion of the conduct of the classes of today. How about the Class of 1930, whose football team was unbeaten, untied, and unscored upon? What do you suppose they’d say if they were told they could not wear certain Halloween costumes because certain people might be offended?

15 Jul 2016

The Alleged Meritocracy

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YaleDemonstrators
This is the Meritocracy?

Helen Andrews casts a jaundiced look at The New Ruling Class in Hedgehog Review.

Meritocracy began by destroying an aristocracy; it has ended in creating a new one. …

Not since the Society of the Cincinnati has a ruling elite so vehemently disclaimed any resemblance to an aristocracy. The structure of the economy abets the elite in its delusion, since even the very rich are now more likely to earn their money from employment than from capital, and thus find it easier to think of themselves basically as working stiffs. As cultural consumers they are careful to look down their noses at nothing except country music. All manner of low-class fare—rap, telenovelas, Waffle House—is embraced by what Shamus Rahman Khan calls the “omnivorous pluralism” of our elite. “It is as if the new elite are saying, ‘Look! We are not some exclusive club. If anything, we are the most democratized of all groups.’”

Khan’s Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School is a fascinating document, because he seems to have been genuinely surprised by what he found when he returned to his old boarding school to teach for a year. Khan, the grandson of Irish and Pakistani peasants, worked his way to a Columbia University professorship in sociology via St. Paul’s and Haverford College. So he thought he knew meritocrats—but today’s breed gave him a bit of a fright. For one thing, they proved to be excellent haters. Consider how they talk about a legacy student whose background can be inferred from the pseudonym Khan gives him, “Chase Abbott”:

    After seeing me chatting with Chase, a boy I was close with, Peter, expressed what many others would time and again: “that guy would never be here if it weren’t for his family.… I don’t get why the school still does that. He doesn’t bring anything to this place.” Peter seemed annoyed with me for even talking with Chase. Knowing that I was at St. Paul’s to make sense of the school, Peter made sure to point out to me that Chase didn’t really belong there.… Faculty, too, openly lamented the presence of students like Chase.

“Openly lamented”! Poor Chase. This hatred is out of all proportion to the power still held by the Chases of the school, which is almost nil. Khan discovers that the few legacy WASPs live together in a sequestered dorm, just like the “minority dorm” of his own schooldays, and even the alumni “point to students like Chase as examples of what is wrong about St. Paul’s.” No, the hatred of students like Chase feels more like the resentment born of having noticed an unwelcome resemblance. It is somehow unsurprising to learn that Peter’s parents met at Harvard.

Of course, Peter is not at St. Paul’s because his parents went to Harvard; as he makes clear to Khan, he is there because of his hard work and academic achievement. Here we have the meritocratic delusion most in need of smashing: the notion that the people who make up our elite are especially smart. They are not—and I do not mean that in the feel-good democratic sense that we are all smart in our own ways, the homely-wise farmer no less than the scholar. I mean that the majority of meritocrats are, on their own chosen scale of intelligence, pretty dumb. Grade inflation first hit the Ivies in the late 1960s for a reason. Yale professor David Gelernter has noticed it in his students: “My students today are…so ignorant that it’s hard to accept how ignorant they are.… [I]t’s very hard to grasp that the person you’re talking to, who is bright, articulate, advisable, interested, and doesn’t know who Beethoven is. Had no view looking back at the history of the twentieth century—just sees a fog. A blank.” Camille Paglia once assigned the spiritual “Go Down, Moses” to an English seminar, only to discover to her horror that “of a class of twenty-five students, only two seemed to recognize the name ‘Moses’.… They did not know who he was.”

Hat tip to The Barrister.

02 Jul 2013

Meritocracy in India

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Alex Mayyasi tells us all about the IIT Entrance Exam.

The admissions test for the Indian Institutes of Technology, known as the Joint Entrance Examination or JEE, may be the most competitive test in the world. In 2012, half a million Indian high school students sat for the JEE. Over six grueling hours of chemistry, physics, and math questions, the students competed for one of ten thousand spots at India’s most prestigious engineering universities.

When the students finish the exam, it is the end of a two plus year process. Nearly every student has spent four hours a day studying advanced science topics not taught at school, often waking up earlier than four in the morning to attend coaching classes before school starts.

The prize is a spot at a university that students describe without hyperbole as a “ticket to another life.” The Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) are a system of technical universities in India comparable in prestige and rigor to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or the California Institute of Technology. Alumni include Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla, co-founder of software giant Infosys Narayana Murthy, and former Vodafone CEO Arun Sarin. Popular paths after graduation include pursuing MBAs or graduate degrees at India’s and the West’s best universities or entertaining offers from McKinsey’s and Morgan Stanley’s on-campus recruiters.

Government subsidies make it possible for any admitted student to attend IIT. The Joint Entrance Exam is also the sole admissions criteria – extracurriculars, personal essays, your family name, and, until recently, even high school grades are all irrelevant. The top scorers receive admission, while the rest do not.

This means that the test can vault students from the lowest socioeconomic background into the global elite in a single afternoon. Entire families wait outside the test center, as involved in the studying and test process as the children they pin their hopes on. In extreme cases, parents have sold their land to pay tutors to coach their children for the JEE.

Only two percent of students will be rewarded for their hard work. In 2012, Harvard accepted 5.9% of applicants. Top engineering schools MIT and Stanford had acceptance rates of 8.9% and 6.63%. The acceptance rate at the IITs, as represented by the pass rate in the JEE, was 2%. Every year, when the results are announced and the media swarms the accepted students, 490,000 students receive disappointing news.

You sit in a room with hundreds of test takers and look around and smile because, personally, you enjoy these kinds of tests, and besides, you have a private contest going with yourself. You mean to try to be finished with the test before anybody else, so that you can stand up, hand in the answer sheet, and theatrically leave, with dozens of eyes looking on at you with hatred.

Hat tip to the Dish.

17 Feb 2013

Elite Universities and Money

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The Berkeley College Dining Hall at Yale

The Yale Daily News recently did a feature exploring what life is like for meritocratic recruits from financially disadvantaged backgrounds at Yale.

MacBooks. Dooney & Bourke bags. MoMA and the Met. These were the things that [she didn’t have, that Shanaz Chowdhery ’13] says, set her apart.

It didn’t take long for [her] to notice that people were different at Yale. “There was all this cultural capital that people seemed to have,” she says.

Where she was from, no one read The New Yorker on Sundays.

The differences weren’t just cultural, either: Chowdhery recalls her shock at seeing girls walking around campus with $100 handbags.

After she noticed that so many students here used Macs, she says, she looked up the price and couldn’t believe her eyes. Her classmates were lounging on Old Campus with $2,000 laptops.

Chowdhery’s father put her generic Windows laptop on a credit card. She believes he was paying it off her entire freshman year.

Even after being admitted, many students from lower-income backgrounds feel socially aloof from their wealthier classmates.

For Leonard Thomas ’14, feelings of difference and isolation were the largest obstacles to overcome as he transitioned from life in Detroit to being a student at Yale. “I felt poor here,” he says. “I didn’t necessarily feel poor in Detroit because I wasn’t the extreme case.

“I’m an extreme case of poverty here.”

David Truong ’14 still remembers what it was like to move into his freshman dorm. As he watched a suitemate buy a TV stand, a TV and an Xbox without hesitation, he cringed while paying for clothes hangers and plastic storage bins for his room. That first weekend when everyone was getting to know each other, Truong struggled with suite discussions about splitting the cost of a couch. The expectation that everyone would be contributing to the cost of furnishing the suite, while he thought it fair, was an adjustment.

That expectation of spending does not disappear after move-in weekend. Jennifer Friedmann ’13 says that Yale has a “culture around money.” “You were expected to be able to go out to dinner,” she said. “If I had a coffee date with someone, it was expected that everyone was buying coffee and that it wasn’t a financial burden for anyone.” But Friedmann did not want the fact that she was on financial aid to interfere with her ability to socialize with anyone on campus, regardless of socio-economic background. By shopping at thrift stores, she says she found it more feasible to “be a social person on this campus without making people feel weird about me being on financial aid.”

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I can remember friends of mine doing the thrift shop thing, and sometimes finding some really excellent Harris Tweed sport coats at derisory prices, back during the Cretaceous Period, when I was at Yale.

I grew up in an economically-depressed mining town in Northeastern Pennsylvania and got a full scholarship to Yale, so I’m personally quite well acquainted with the kind of experiences described in the Yalie Dailey’s feature.

I was well-insulated from social insecurity by personal arrogance and family pride, but financially I was a total idiot. I had never previously had a checkbook, and the Yale Coop presented you on arrival as a freshman with a credit card (and access to a store full of books and records).

My approach to poverty at Yale was to join in happily with the revels of my more-affluent classmates and perhaps even to cut a bit more of a dash than some of those. Like Mr. Micawber, I assumed all that financial stuff would work itself out somehow or other. However, the dour Puritan prep school regime extended onward into college life in those days, and fiscally-irresponsible black sheep like myself faced unlimited possible forms of vengeance at the hands of their residential college deans.

Inevitably, I found myself, before long, out of Yale, back in Pennsylvania in disgrace, and now classified 1-A by Richard Nixon’s draft board.

When I returned to Yale, several years later, I accidentally became involved in operating a successful film society, which happily provided me with the kind of income I needed to survive.

The Yale Daily News, I think, is basically correct in noting that naive and immature adolescents from extremely provincial backgrounds, however talented, are going to run into some real adaptation issues if they decide to accept the gold-engraved invitation to jump into the great big pond of elite university education, and not everyone will adapt.

I was one of six meritocratic Yale admissions accepted into a special Early Concentration in Philosophy program. Of our six oh-so-gifted young men, four got kicked out of Yale. Two of the four were eventually re-admitted. The other two never came back, and have never been heard from by the rest of us again. There has always been a pretty high casualty rate in the meritocracy.

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And, speaking of finances and Ivy League schools, Brown, it seems, is now charging $57,232 plus a bunch of add-on fees. Whew!

But, hey! Sex change operations and nudity workshops come with that.

Hat tip to the Barrister.

25 Jan 2013

The Democrat Elite and the Post-Industrial American Future

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Walter Russell Mead describes the democrat elite’s vision of the future: a massive system of redistributionism devoted to trickling down condescending alms to a nation of losers from a tiny meritocratic New Class elite which rules over all.

A conventional, widely shared view informs the way that blue America looks at that future. This view holds that the death of industrial society means the death of the mass middle class. When millions of people can’t make a living “making stuff” in factories anymore, wages for the unskilled will fall. America will be increasingly polarized between a small group of high skilled creative professionals and a larger group scavenging a living by serving them: mowing their lawns, catering their parties and so on.

Those who think that the blue model needs to be preserved and extended into the future (including, I think, our current president and most of his top allies and advisors), tend to think that under those conditions we will both need and be able to afford an ever-more active redistributive state. The tycoons and the very successful minority will be so rich, thanks to their continuing gains from globalization and technological change, that they can pay progressively higher taxes to fund basic services and middle class jobs for enough of the rest of the country that something like a middle class society can be preserved. From this perspective, a government-funded health care system is more than a method of delivering health care: it is a way of providing protected, blue-model type jobs when the factories have mostly disappeared.

Read the whole thing.

14 Jul 2012

Why Today’s Meritocratic Elite Behaves So Badly

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David Brooks is just one of several writers recently identifying the character of our contemporary elite as a grave problem, and he has a theory about the source of members of the modern meritocratic elite’s extreme sense of self-entitlement and personal exemption from any and all rules and standards.

The corruption that has now crept into the world of finance and the other professions is not endemic to meritocracy but to the specific culture of our meritocracy. The problem is that today’s meritocratic elites cannot admit to themselves that they are elites.

Everybody thinks they are countercultural rebels, insurgents against the true establishment, which is always somewhere else. This attitude prevails in the Ivy League, in the corporate boardrooms and even at television studios where hosts from Harvard, Stanford and Brown rail against the establishment.

As a result, today’s elite lacks the self-conscious leadership ethos that the racist, sexist and anti-Semitic old boys’ network did possess. If you went to Groton a century ago, you knew you were privileged. You were taught how morally precarious privilege was and how much responsibility it entailed. You were housed in a spartan 6-foot-by-9-foot cubicle to prepare you for the rigors of leadership.

The best of the WASP elites had a stewardship mentality, that they were temporary caretakers of institutions that would span generations. They cruelly ostracized people who did not live up to their codes of gentlemanly conduct and scrupulosity. They were insular and struggled with intimacy, but they did believe in restraint, reticence and service.

Today’s elite is more talented and open but lacks a self-conscious leadership code. The language of meritocracy (how to succeed) has eclipsed the language of morality (how to be virtuous). Wall Street firms, for example, now hire on the basis of youth and brains, not experience and character. Most of their problems can be traced to this.

If you read the e-mails from the Libor scandal you get the same sensation you get from reading the e-mails in so many recent scandals: these people are brats; they have no sense that they are guardians for an institution the world depends on; they have no consciousness of their larger social role.

07 Nov 2011

The Meritocratic Officer Corps

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Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke (1800-1891)

Ross Douthat, I think, rather laboriously reaches the same conclusion Count von Moltke reached long ago, but Douthat miscategorizes the offenders.

In hereditary aristocracies, debacles tend to flow from stupidity and pigheadedness: think of the Charge of the Light Brigade or the Battle of the Somme. In one-party states, they tend to flow from ideological mania: think of China’s Great Leap Forward, or Stalin’s experiment with “Lysenkoist” agriculture.

In meritocracies, though, it’s the very intelligence of our leaders that creates the worst disasters. Convinced that their own skills are equal to any task or challenge, meritocrats take risks than lower-wattage elites would never even contemplate, embark on more hubristic projects, and become infatuated with statistical models that hold out the promise of a perfectly rational and frictionless world. (Or as Calvin Trillin put it in these pages, quoting a tweedy WASP waxing nostalgic for the days when Wall Street was dominated by his fellow bluebloods: “Do you think our guys could have invented, say, credit default swaps? Give me a break! They couldn’t have done the math.”)

Field Marshall von Moltke conceptually divided his officers into a four part matrix:

• Smart & Lazy: I make them my Commanders because they make the right thing happen but find the easiest way to accomplish the mission.
• Smart & Energetic: I make them my General Staff Officers because they make intelligent plans that make the right things happen.
• Dumb & Lazy: There are menial tasks that require an officer to perform that they can accomplish and they follow orders without causing much harm
• Dumb & Energetic: These are dangerous and must be eliminated. They cause thing to happen but the wrong things so cause trouble.

In which category, do Ross Douthat’s meritocrats really belong? It seems obvious to me.

Douthat has the precise same problem our contemporary “meritocracy” has: mistaking credentials and narrowly focused technical expertise for intelligence. In reality, the meritocratic system of education rewards energy and proficiency in areas requiring certain kinds of intellectual ability almost entirely divorced from wisdom, integrity, and good judgment. What our system of education characteristically produces are skilled sophists and opportunists, most conspicuously ingenious in conformity. It is a system designed to promote the energetic but stupid.

19 Sep 2011

Ivy League Meritocracy and Niceness

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There has been a fair amount of comment in certain alumni circles about the latest Ivy League kerfuffle: Harvard University’s effort, at the beginning of this year’s Fall Term, to “encourage” freshmen to sign a kindness pledge.

Harvard’s new initiative provoked some serious criticism noting that students were likely to feel pressured to sign (as a copy of the pledge with each student’s name and a space for a signature was placed hanging in each entryway), but Harvard then apologized and retreated (being so nice, after all).

Not surprisingly, the incident produced a good deal of coverage, and some mockery.

Ross Douthat
(who attended the little school in Cambridge) responded to Virginia Postrel’s reaction in Bloomberg by explaining that there is a bit more to elite Ivy League nicey-goodiness than may be recognized by outsiders not fully acquainted with the culture and patterns of expression of this particular tribe.

[There is an] element of ruthlessness that runs through the culture of elite colleges, and… the prevailing spirit of deference and niceness is a defense mechanism and a facade — a kind of ritualized politesse, like the elaborate bowing and flowery compliments of a 17th century European court, that conceals the vaulting ambitions and furious rivalries that actually predominate on campus. (The essential ruthlessness of the meritocracy was one of the themes of my own subsequent attempt to distill the culture of elite education.) Which is why I appreciated how Postrel’s column finishes up.

    Harvard is the strongest brand in American higher education, and its identity is clear. As its students recognize, Harvard represents success. But, it seems, Harvard feels guilty about that identity and wishes it could instead (or also) represent “compassion.” These two qualities have a lot in common. They both depend on other people, either to validate success or serve as objects of compassion. And neither is intellectual.

Rochefoucauld observed that hypocrisy was the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

I suppose it would be fair to say that constant poses of kindness and compassion are the tribute, these days, that the excessively ambitious and success-obsessed pay to failure.

“My board scores and grades were infinitely better than yours. I’m going to Harvard and on to a prominent bank or law firm and seven figures annually. But I will support plenty of welfare entitlement programs for you losers down in the bad neighborhood.”

Hat tip to Frank A. Dobbs.

13 May 2011

Growing Uneasy at Versailles

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Walter Russell Mead, writing in the American Interest, though a classic representative of the liberal elite, is increasingly uneasy about his own class’s characterstic contempt for their fellow citizens, attitudes of self-entitlement, anti-patriotism, and aversion of self-doubt.

To listen to many bien pensant American intellectuals and above-the-salt journalists, America faces a shocking problem today: the cluelessness, greed, arrogance and bigotry of the American public. American elites are genuinely and sincerely convinced that the American masses don’t understand the world, don’t realize that American exceptionalism is a mental disease, want infinite government benefits while paying zero tax, and cling to their Bibles and their guns despite all the peer reviewed social science literature that demonstrates the danger and the worthlessness of both. …

But by historical standards, the average American is actually ahead of his or her ancestors. Today’s average Americans are smarter, more sophisticated, better educated, less racist and more tolerant than ever before. Immigrants face less prejudice in the United States than ever before in our history. Religious, ethnic and sexual minorities are more free to live their own lives more openly with less fear than ever before. There is more respect for science and learning, more openness to the arts and more interest in the viewpoints of other countries and cultures among Americans at large than in any past generation.

The American people aren’t perfect yet and never will be — but by the standards that matter to the Establishment, this is the best prepared, most open minded and most socially liberal generation in history. …

By contrast, we have never had an Establishment that was so ill-equipped to lead. It is the Establishment, not the people, that is falling down on the job.

Here in the early years of the twenty-first century, the American elite is a walking disaster and is in every way less capable than its predecessors. It is less in touch with American history and culture, less personally honest, less productive, less forward looking, less effective at and less committed to child rearing, less freedom loving, less sacrificially patriotic and less entrepreneurial than predecessor generations. Its sense of entitlement and snobbery is greater than at any time since the American Revolution; its addiction to privilege is greater than during the Gilded Age and its ability to raise its young to be productive and courageous leaders of society has largely collapsed. …

Many problems troubling America today are rooted in the poor performance of our elite educational institutions, the moral and social collapse of our ‘best’ families and the culture of narcissism and entitlement that has transformed the American elite into a flabby minded, strategically inept and morally confused parody of itself. Probably the best depiction of our elite in popular culture is the petulantly narcissistic Prince Charming in Shrek 2; our educational institutions are like the Fairy Godmother, weaving shoddy, cheap, feel-good illusions into a gossamer tissue of flattering lies. …

Some of the problem is intellectual. For almost a century now, American intellectual culture has been dominated by the values and legacy of the progressive movement. Science and technology would guide impartial experts and civil servants to create a better and better society. For most of the American elite today, progress means ‘progressive’; the way to make the world better is through more nanny state government programs administered by more, and more highly qualified, lifetime civil servants. Anybody who doubts this is a reactionary and an ignoramus. This isn’t just a rational conviction with much of our elite; it is a bone deep instinct. Unfortunately, the progressive tradition no longer has the answers we need, but our leadership class by and large cannot think in any other terms.

The old ideas don’t work anymore, but the elite hates the thought of change.

Past generations of the American elite were always a little bit nervous about their situation; it is morally difficult for an elite based on birth, ethnicity or wealth to justify itself in a country with the universalist, democratic values of the United States. The tendency of American life is always to erode the power and prestige of elites; populism is the direction in which America likes to travel. Past generations of elites were conflicted about their status and struggled against a sense that it was somehow un-American to set yourself up as better than other people.

The increasingly meritocratic elite of today has no such qualms. The average Harvard Business School and Yale Law School graduate today feels that privilege has been earned. Didn’t he or she score higher on the LSATs than anyone else? Didn’t he or she previously pass the rigorous scrutiny of the undergraduate admissions process in a free and fair process to get into a top college? Haven’t they been certified as the best of the best by impartial experts?

A guilty elite may be healthier for society than a self-righteous one.

Read the whole thing.

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