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The GOP Platform and the Meritocracy

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In coordination with the Republican National Convention, the GOP has released its 2012 platform. While there are many points about college worthy of attention, I will focus on the following:

"We support efforts to help low-income individuals get a fair chance based on their potential and individual merit; but we reject preferences, quotas, and set-asides as the best or sole methods through which fairness can be achieved, whether in government, education, or corporate boardrooms. ... Merit, ability, aptitude, and results should be the factors that determine advancement in our society."

While not solely about college, this section is clearly used to stake out the conservative territory against affirmative action in a year when the Supreme Court will revisit the issue in Fisher v. Texas. But this text also has a much broader purpose related to who deserves to go to college and what the role of education should be in society.

The last sentence invoking merit, ability, and aptitude is a near-textbook definition of meritocracy. The very core of the American Dream is the meritocratic belief that if you work hard you will be rewarded and move up in society. In this simplistic sense, it isn't perceived as fair to have anything other than individual merit taken into account when considering who should go to college.

I can't read this invocation of meritocracy, however, without wondering how many of the writers of the platform have read the book that originally coined the term. My guess would be none, not only because The Rise of the Meritocracy is a somewhat obscure British sociological novel written in 1958, but also because the meritocracy did not turn out to be a utopia, but instead a dystopia. Author Michael Young has since reflected on the reception of his book with some dismay, noting that few who now invoke the idea of the meritocracy with passion seem to notice that the book that launched the term was a satire.

Set in 2034, the novel takes place after a social movement has succeeded in replacing the aristocracy with a system of advancement based solely on individual merit. Entrance to higher education in this new meritocracy, and to any position of status in society, is based on a simple formula: Merit = IQ + Effort. When an individual's merit is accurately assessed, there are no longer high-merit folks languishing in the lower social classes, nor are there any stupid, lazy people sneaking by in the upper classes just because they were privileged by birth. Technology advances in this futuristic society mean that IQ and Effort are tested more and more accurately, at younger and younger ages. This purports to be a much fairer system, though when taken to its logical conclusion the results include children being taken from their parents at birth for placement in merit-based social classes, and a social division of such proportions that class warfare is imminent.

Though fictional and humorous, Young's meritocracy raises issues that should be taken seriously. How does a society measure merit? In the U.S., we tend to consider ability and aptitude as the primary indicators of merit. These factors, however, are so wrapped up with one's socioeconomic status and family background, that in some ways those are the factors actually being measured. Family background, as used the aristocratic sense, is reframed as objective merit, when in fact it is largely still a measure of privilege. The difference is that this measure is seen as objective and fair, often by the privileged and underprivileged alike.

The report "Higher Education: Gaps in Access and Persistence Study," recently released by the National Center for Education Statistics, shows that across multiple indicators low-income, black, and Hispanic students experience poorer educational outcomes in the U.S. A strict meritocrat would seemingly have to argue that these individuals have less merit than high-income, white, or Asian individuals. For reasons I hope I don't have to state, this is absurd.

If, however, you admit that the educational system is not accurately matching rewards to merit, you go down a slippery slope of having to admit that a supposedly level playing field isn't level at all. If you admit this, then it becomes clear that a strictly merit-based system would not be fair or even feasible. You would even have to conclude that fairness might be improved by providing limited preferences for certain groups in college admissions. In his reflection on the book, Young references Rawls (A Theory of Justice author) as one "who recognizes the danger that a fair opportunity could lead to 'a callous meritocratic society.'" This abstract perspective starts to have more immediate relevance when we hear Paul Ryan making the claim that, "We promise equal opportunity, not equal outcomes."

As the protagonist in the book repeatedly and staunchly defends the meritocracy, sounding eerily similar to the 2012 GOP platform, Young recalls that the satirical subtext was meant to convey something quite different:

"If the rich and powerful were encouraged by the general culture to believe that they fully deserved all they had, how arrogant they could become, and, if they were convinced it was all for the common good, how ruthless in pursuing their own advantage."