Category Archive 'Meritocracy'
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.

29 Mar 2011

Comparing Yale to Southern Conn

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Richard Kahlenberg, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, reviews a book by Toronto sociologist Ann L. Mullen, looking at the differences in student demographics, life style, academic major, and expectations between Yale and Southern Connecticut State University, a nearby former Normal School (i.e., a teacher’s training school) upgraded in recent years to university status.

Mullen examines two four-year colleges located within two miles of one another: Yale University and Southern Connecticut State University. In racial terms, the two institutions are not all that different. Yale is 69 percent white, while Southern is 70 percent white. But as Mullen finds in interviews with 50 Yale students and 50 Southern students, the class divide is significant, and that difference has enormous implications for the attitudes, experiences, and expectations of students.

Mullen’s insightful new book, Degrees of Inequality, notes that Southern students tend to be the sons and daughters of “shopkeepers, secretaries, teachers, and construction workers,” about half of whom never completed college. By contrast, about 80 percent of Yale students sampled had parents with BA’s, two-thirds had some form of graduate education, and more than half came from the top 15 percent by income nationally. These students often “arrived on the back of tremendous childhood advantages.”

Among the advantages, she writes, were high parental expectations. In interviews, she writes, it was clear that most Yale students “never actually decided to go to college; it was simply the next step in their lives, one not requiring a rationale.” Although less than one percent of four- year college students attend Ivy League institutions, for some Yale students interviewed, “it was a question of which one.” She writes, “It is not simply that they aspired to attend the most elite institutions; rather, they planned on it.

Southern students, by contrast, made a conscious decision to pursue higher education and then mostly chose Southern based on “cost and convenience.” Neither factor was mentioned by a single Yale student. Over 90 percent of Yale students were from out of state, while over 90 percent of Southern students came from in-state. The Southern students never thought of applying to Yale, and the Yale students have never even heard of Southern.

The differences in opportunities and outlooks of Yale and Southern are then amplified once they reach college, Mullen finds. Yale, founded 300 years ago, has a $15-billion endowment “about two thousand times greater” than the endowment of Southern, which became a four-year institution in 1937 and became part of the Connecticut State University system in 1983.

The economic chasm between the schools and their students also drives profound differences in the experiences at each institution. To save money, only about one-third of Southern students live on campus and only 24 percent participate in extracurriculars, as many have to work 20-30 hours a week. By contrast, almost all students at Yale live on campus, and 67 percent participate in extracurriculars, from playing tennis to singing a capella.

Asked what they value most about college, Yale students tended to mention learning from friends and peers and participating in extracurricular activities. Southern students were only half as likely as Yale students to mention peers and friends.

Academic pursuits also differ greatly. Deciding on a college major is usually portrayed as a matter of individual choice, Mullen notes, but economic constraints are strongly felt. “For the Southern students,” she says, “majors represented not bodies of knowledge or academic disciplines, but rather occupational fields.” By contrast, Yale students were “quite cognizant” that their Ivy League degrees made the field of study chosen less important. One student told Mullen, “I’m getting a diploma with four letters Y-A-L-E on it. I should be able to have the sky be my limit.”

Surprise, surprise! Professor Mullen discovers the third-oldest and one of the most competitive colleges in the country attracts a more affluent and more cosmopolitan student body with larger ambitions and wider career options than those of students attending the local neighborhood’s uncompetitive teacher’s college.

Certainly a lot of Yale students come from more affluent and better educated family backgrounds, but comparing Yale and Southern most meaningfully would have to be done on the basis of academic talent. Southern’s students have average SAT scores in the 480-490 range on the three parts of the current test. Yale quotes different 25%/75% figures, which indicate that only 25% of Yale students got under 700 on any of the three parts of the SAT, and another 25% got 780 to 800. Yale admits around 7.5% of applicants these days. Southern admits 71% of applicants.

Yale students have different majors and different career options from students at Southern Conn, not because Yalies have inherited clout, but because they are, on the average, a great deal more academically competent and competitive.

In my day, Southern and Yale did interact a bit socially, most commonly via contact within the Connecticut Intercollegiate Student Legislature (CISL). Yalies dated girls from Southern, and I knew some people who married them.

Hat tip to David H. Nix.

31 Jan 2011

Beware the Tiger Kitten

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Tom Smith is worried that all that overachieving may lead to a sense of entitlement encompassing rather more than a lot of Americans might like.

[I]f some parents want to push their children, even to an extent that seems crazy to me, so that they will end up wonderful musicians or inventive scientists, this is much to my advantage. Who knows, little tiger girl may end up playing Mahler in a new way, and add some new meaning to my life. I may download that mp3, listen to it on my iPod or whatever we have 25 years from now, and the world will be a little better place. Or some Tiger dad will make his kitten memorize the periodical table at age three and when he grows up he will invent donuts that make one lose weight. You never know. It could happen. These would be good things for the world, maybe not so much for the kid, or maybe it would. I am happy leaving that one for the psychologists.

But here’s the thing. And here the point has been made easier to make by the curious fact that Tiger Mom is a Yale Law School professor and as Professor Bainbridge has pointed out, it seems almost an epidemic among faculty parents in New Haven. My fear is that little tiger kittens are not being groomed to make things that you and I can buy if we feel like it. I’m afraid, call me paranoid if you like, that those little achievers will want to grow up to, well, rule. Not in the imperial Chinese way, though I take it that is the ultimate inspiration for this model of child rearing. If my high school understanding of Chinese history is correct, that Empire used to be ruled by a giant bureaucracy into which one got by passing extraordinarily difficult exams, competing against other fanatically hopeful parents who saw it as one of the few ways to get the young persons out of a life of horrible drudgery. But rather in something more like the imperial Chinese way than my ideal, which is more like Thomas Jefferson’s, without the antique and misguided dislike of commerce. So, if I’m sitting in the middle of my Jeffersonian space, able to order whatever I want, within my budget of course, from Amazon, working at something I like, not taxed to death or harassed by officious officials; if I can provide for my family and hope to provide a similarly independent life for my offspring, then what’s it to me if some mom somewhere wants to drive her children so that someday they will produce a recording or a pill I might want to buy? Only good. But if we are sliding toward a world like the one that is, to exaggerate only a little, like that I was taught we should be sliding toward when I restlessly roamed the hallowed halls the The Yale Law School many years ago, then I am not so sanguine. Then I worry that all this fierce intelligence, all this ambition, all this work are going toward the building of world in which my children will be mere, well, what do you call the people who support those who so intelligently manage things from on top. Not to mention the unbelievably well educated 35 year old who will tell me someday I didn’t score well enough in some algorithm I can’t even understand to get my arteries bypassed or my prostate cancer treated. I want to live in a world, and I want my children to as well, where we are free individuals, and geniuses can sell us stuff if we want to buy it. When I suspect the little elites of tomorrow are just being made more formidable still, it excites not my admiration as much as my anxiety.

Hat tip to Glenn Reynolds.

16 May 2010

Meritocracy and Socialism

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Peggy Noonan reflects on the ironies of American meritocracy laboring mightily… and delivering an establishment full of socialists. And exactly how committed to socialism is the successful gamesman who has finally clambered all the way to the top by hard work, talent, and no small quantity of discretion and craft?

Personally, I tend to suspect that Socialism functions in much the same way for these people that Religion used to for earlier establishmentarians. One regularly attends services and is officially a member of the church, but it has not got a lot to do with one’s actual business life.

What is interesting about the nomination is that all the criticisms serious people have lobbed about so far are true. Yes, she is an ace Ivy League networker. Yes, career seems to have been all, which speaks of certain limits, at least of experience. She has been embraced by the media elite and all others who know they will be berated within 30 seconds by an irate passenger if they talk on a cellphone in the quiet car of the Washington-bound Acela. (If our media elite do not always seem upstanding, it is in part because every few weeks they can be seen bent over and whispering furtively into a train seat.) Ms. Kagan and her counterparts all started out 30 years ago trying to undo the establishment, and now they are the establishment. If you need any proof of this it is that in their essays and monographs they no longer mention “the establishment.”

Ms. Kagan’s nomination has also highlighted America’s ambivalence about what we have always said we wanted, a meritocracy. Work hard, be smart, rise. The result is an aristocracy of wired brainiacs, of highly focused, well-credentialed careerists. There’s something limited, even creepy, in all this ferocious drive, this well-applied brilliance. There’s a sense that everything is abstract to those who succeed in this world, that what they know of life is not grounded in hard experience but absorbed through screens—computer screens, movie screens, TV screens. Our focus on mere brains is creepy, too. Brains aren’t everything, heart and soul are something too. We do away with all the deadwood, but even dead trees have a place in the forest.

The ones on top now and in the future will be those who start off with the advantage not of great wealth but of the great class marker of the age: two parents who are together and who drive their children toward academic excellence. It isn’t “Mom and Dad had millions” anymore as much as “Mom and Dad made me do my homework, gave me emotional guidance, made sure I got to trombone lessons, and drove me to soccer.”

We know little of the inner workings of Ms. Kagan’s mind, her views and opinions, beliefs and stands. The blank-slate problem is the post-Robert Bork problem. The Senate Judiciary Committee in 1987 took everything Judge Bork had ever said or written, ripped it from context, wove it into a rope, and flung it across his shoulders like a hangman’s noose. Ambitious young lawyers watched and rethought their old assumption that it would help them in their rise to be interesting and quotable. In fact, they’d have to be bland and indecipherable. Court nominees are mysteries now.

Which raises a question: After 30 years of grimly enforced discretion, are you a mystery to yourself? If you spend a lifetime being a leftist or rightist thinker but censoring yourself and acting out, day by day, a bland and judicious pondering of all sides, will you, when you get your heart’s desire and reach the high court, rip off your suit like Superman in the phone booth and fully reveal who you are? Or, having played the part of the bland, vague centrist for so long, will you find that you have actually become a bland, vague centrist? One always wonders this with nominees now.

23 Feb 2010

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

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Ten rules (sometimes fewer) for writing fiction from Elmore Leonard, Dianna Athill, Margaret Atwood, Roddy Doyle, Helen Dunmore, Geoff Dyer, Anne Enright, Richard Ford, Jonathan Franzen, Esther Freud, Neil Gaiman, David Hare, P.D. James, AL Kennedy, Hilary Mantel, Michael Moorcock, Michael Morpurgo, Andrew Motion, Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Proulx, Philip Pullman, Ian Rankin, Will Self, Helen Simpson, Zadie Smith, Colm Tóibín, Rose Tremain, Sarah Waters, Jeanette Winterson.


Col. George Washington, Foxhunter (Ralph Boyer, aquatint, Fathers of American Sport, Derrydale Press, 1931)

One day belated notice of the birthday of our neighbor and compatriot in the hunting fields of Clarke County, George Washington.

When he was 14 or 15 years old, George Washington copied out by hand 110 “Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation.”

Washington’s maxims came from a translation of a treatise Bienseance de la Conversation entre les Hommes produced by the pensonnaires of the Jesuit Collège Royal Henry-Le-Grand at La Flèche in 1595. René Descartes studied at the same college just a few years later, 1607 to 1615.

The case of George Washington, I would suggest, can be taken to demonstrate that residence at Harvard, Yale, or even La Flèche is not an absolute requirement for leadership success or good manners.


WSJ comments on the Obama plan to ram the health care bill through, damn the rules of the Senate and the wishes of the public.

The larger political message of this new proposal is that Mr. Obama and Democrats have no intention of compromising on an incremental reform, or of listening to Republican, or any other, ideas on health care. They want what they want, and they’re going to play by Chicago Rules and try to dragoon it into law on a narrow partisan vote via Congressional rules that have never been used for such a major change in national policy. If you want to know why Democratic Washington is “ungovernable,” this is it.


David Brooks discovered that something has gone wrong with the meritocratic revolution, and wonders if this might have something to do with the new elite not being quite so meritorious as had been supposed.

[H]ere’s the funny thing. As we’ve made our institutions more meritocratic, their public standing has plummeted. We’ve increased the diversity and talent level of people at the top of society, yet trust in elites has never been lower.

It’s not even clear that society is better led. Fifty years ago, the financial world was dominated by well-connected blue bloods who drank at lunch and played golf in the afternoons. Now financial firms recruit from the cream of the Ivy League. In 2007, 47 percent of Harvard grads went into finance or consulting. Yet would we say that banks are performing more ably than they were a half-century ago?

Government used to be staffed by party hacks. Today, it is staffed by people from public policy schools. But does government work better than it did before?

Journalism used to be the preserve of working-class stiffs who filed stories and hit the bars. Now it is the preserve of cultured analysts who file stories and hit the water bottles. Is the media overall more reputable now than it was then?

The promise of the meritocracy has not been fulfilled. The talent level is higher, but the reputation is lower.

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