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Meritocracy without Merit

David Brooks has no regard for the old Establishment and admires the new meritocracy based on equality of opportunity. 

Yet here'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.

The elites of finance, government, and journalism, for example, have not produced better policy than before.  Brooks proposes some interesting possibilities for these lousy results:  there is too much transparency (and therefore less trust) in government, there is less mutual trust within each elite, merit has been ill-defined, and quick results count more than steady growth. 

But Brooks is describing what Progressives have wanted from their new vision of government.  See Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, a century ago.  The character of elites in fact reflects the perversity of meritocratic education.  (See Plato's Gorgias or recall the foul-mouthed Ivy League-educated traders at the beginning of Bonfire of the Vanities.)  Moreover, Brooks avoids discussing the effects of feminism and its peculiar place in the pathology of elites and meritocracy.  Racial preferences would seem to play little role, but the power of sex does.  One observation:  Consider women who started their careers as public school teachers and wound up in powerful Washington positions.  Were their former teaching positions occupied by people as talented?  The women who rose doubtless went to more satisfying positions but at a social cost.

Consider as well the abolition of the draft.  It is hard to imagine Professors Seth Benardete, Harvey Mansfield, or James V. Schall as army privates, but there they were.  The professionalization of the military made it more effective but again at a social cost. 

We observe one of the problems of a free society:  the individual good frequently clashes with the social good.  Statesmanship seeks to harmonize the two, but no one is rushing to fulfil this obligation.  

Categories > Education

Discussions - 12 Comments

This was Brooks' point in his work on the bourgeois bohemians, in spite of the fact that the comical evidence he produced suggested just the opposite. While they were good at making money and had developed trendy tastes, they knew little or nothing about the principles and institutions, much less the history and religion, of the western world. They were the very caricatures of "intellectuals" that Rousseau ridiculed in his First Discourse. They are not stupid, of course; they just know so many things, as Reagan said, that aren't so. Their "merit" was in parroting the words of their professors, the trendy media and hip music. The fact that racial preference and feminism tainted judgment and choices made no small difference either.

To extend Richard Reeb's point, we should think about what, exactly, our elite schools are teaching. Were the social science and humanities curriculum of our best schools the same today as it was in 1950, or perhaps even 1920, would they be better trained in both American principles and in how the world works?
That so few supposedly good schools have a core curriculum is a sign that they no longer have any beliefs about what is worth knowing. It shows.

Yes, Mr. Thomas and remember Socrates came from plebian stock.

I like to tease students that black students in the South a 100 years ago got better educations than they did in their suburban schools. What textbooks those black students had were hand-me-downs from the white schools, and those books and that curriculum rival what students get today. Check out high school curricula from 100 years ago.

The commonality of military service has varied a great deal from cohort to cohort in response to exterior circumstances. If you look at the men born from 1895 to 1927, I think you will find that about half were in uniform during the Second World War and about a third were on active duty. Some of the older set (1895-1900) had seen service in the First World War. The sort of intense and sustained national mobilization seen in 1940-45 is not a historical norm and the experience of those cohorts subject to it should not be taken as a historical norm.

If you look at the behavior of the financial sector, the United Auto Workers, the public sector unions, and the politicians who cater to them (against the background of the historic behavior of the AARP et al) you see an unwillingness to acknowledge costs, and unwillingness to accept less in pursuit of the public interest, and a willingness to loot the assets various unorganized third parties. If you look at the professoriate, the educational apparat, and sections of the bar, you see a mix of spin doctoring and a preening self-aggrandizement.

My grandparents contemporaries (or some portion thereof) were certainly capable of embezzlement, self-dealing, disingenuousness, and vanity. I suspect you would find, though, that various strands of thought and sentiment in everyday life contained this sort of behavior.. The triumph of the therapeutic had not yet happened; and neither had the triumph of the unbridled consumer. A sense of honor, a sense of prudence, a regard for appearances, and the understanding among men and women that one must aspire to a dignified bearing of the vicissitudes of life acted to spare us.

I am native to Rochester, N.Y., which was incorporated in 1833 and had, up to 1902, one public high school. If I am not mistaken, the city school district had at that latter date had about 150,000 residents. The school board of the suburban township in which I spent a portion of my youth handed out its first high school diploma in 1893. My great-grandparents attended private high schools for a time, because there was no public secondary education in the town they grew up in when they were of age to receive it (ca. 1896). In fairness to today's schools, secondary education was (a century ago) characteristic of a motivated minority. As late as the 1920s, most youngsters between the ages of 14 and 18 were not enrolled in either academic or vocational high schools; they were working.

If I remember correctly, "meritocracy" started life as a satire, rather like "utopia." Many of us sometimes prefer the idea of a Jeffersonian "natural aristocracy." But that too has its problems, as John Adams pointed out in his marvelous correspondence with Jefferson. Talents like virtues are many. As Schramm likes to point out, then there's politics, its own domain where both talent and even virtue can be mischievous. .

While not exactly a directly related topic, this is a good piece in the Wal Street Journal about the "meritocracy/PC" in the military.

Major Hasan: The Counterlife by Brett Stephens.

Poor Brooks. He is in a constant struggle with himself, trying to reconcile his faith in social engineering with the continuing, manifest failures of social engineering. He swallowed the Progressive kool-aid and has been choking and gasping ever since.

Here's a timely piece by Michael Knox Beran at NRO on the plague elitism.

AD, I appreciate your thoughts on this. Yes, elites have become less elite, while the demos retains much wisdom.

Here's an exhibit from the Virginia Historical Society, with photos of black public schools in the early 1900s:

"Meritocracy" is only as praiseworthy as the supposed "meritorious" class that has the power. And what is the character of that class? What exactly is their "merit"? How does this "merit" enable them to rule their fellow citizens particularly well, and how iron of a title to rule does impart? Brooks is uninterested in these questions, which are at the heart of aristocracy-friendly thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Tocqueville et al.
Today's meritocracy, though the beneficiaries of equal opportunity as applied to skin color and sex, are blandly uniform in bearing the stamp of the Ivy League. And what's the product of an Ivy League education these days? Actual knowledge, i.e., memorization and comprehension, of Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Tocqueville, Virgil, Livy, Sophocles, Publius, Lincoln, Greek and Latin, the last 500 years of Western history, etc.? Of course not. A Harvard or Yale grad can speak on those topics typically no better than she could her senior year of high school. Instead, a Harvard diploma to a graduate is merely a confirmation that she has the same high I.Q. and worldly ambition that she had when cutting a swath through extracurricular activities and AP-courses in high school. Now, though, she's entitled to move in prestigious, established circles of influence in society. And insofar as the "meritocrats" enter politics (instead of, say, writing for The Simpsons or The Office, where they bring much more pleasure than pain), they enter usually by appointment to an administrative office (not election to a lawmaking one), bringing with them the "knowledge" that they did actually imbibe at college - that their fellow citizens are to be organized or managed, i.e., that politics is to be run technocratically. That most of them could not dialectically defend technocracy (or anything else) -- that it's an attitude for getting ahead and being accepted in high places -- only shows that Brooks' "meritocracy" is not radical as its name implies, but, sadly, conventional.

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