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  • The Tyranny of Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America by Lani Guinier
  • Nolan L. Cabrera
The Tyranny of Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America. Lani Guinier. 2015. Boston, MA: Beacon Press. 160 pp. Cloth ISBN: 9780807006276 ($24.95).

What is merit? How do we define and (mis)apply the concept? Are there are alternatives to narrowly-defined conceptions of merit, such as the SAT? These are questions central to Lani Guinier’s book The Tyranny of Meritocracy. The text is divided into two sections: The first is a searing critique of limited views of merit that dominate contemporary college admissions; in the second, Guinier offers possible solutions to the current system which she labels testocracy. The text reinvigorates the debate about the nature of merit, challenges readers to unpack superficially “objective” measures of merit, while reframing higher education as a public, collective, democratic good. Reader beware, however, while the critiques of the current system are well founded, the proposed solutions fall short in realizing the potential of the text.

Guinier opens by tracing the history and misapplication of the term “meritocracy.” Initially offered as a satire of how social elites justify their elevated social position, meritocracy, now represents a legitimized way of sorting people based on perceived ability (p. xi). That is, there are arbitrary characteristics and measures that are used to justify elite social status. In particular, she is highly critical of testocracy or, “an aristocracy determined by testing that wants to maintain its position” (p. 18). She details how frequently the SAT is more accurately measuring race and SES instead of actual merit (pp. 20–21). While she is not the first to lodge this criticism, it is a welcome reminder. Guinier then proposes that democratic merit should be the foundational value of higher education. She elaborates:

… the form of merit that views higher education, at least partially, as a public good. As such, admissions criteria should continuously be reassessed for the degree to which they help the institution and its constituents to make present and future contributions to society, that is, our democracy.

(p. 29)

Theoretically, this proposition represents a dramatic, even radical, ideological shift from contemporary neoliberalism where a college education is an individual asset instead of a public good (Gildersleeve et al., 2010). It calls for diversification of higher education along race and SES lines, while also considering what students to do post-graduation. It centers the question, how much are they using their education to “give back” to society? Thus, democratic merit represents a challenge to the individualism of neoliberalism, while offering a new educational vision based on democratic values. [End Page 601]

Guinier then dedicates the second half of the book to detailing promising educational reforms that promote democratic merit. Unfortunately, this section is also the weaker part of the text. For example, she profiles the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) schools, and with the anti-democratic foundations of KIPP it is unclear why Guinier used them as exemplars. KIPP is part of the “no excuses” educational movement for low-income, minority students (Lack, 2009). KIPP schools are corporately funded, the school day is extended, and the central focus is on discipline, order, manners, and hard work (Ravitch, 2010). The pedagogical method is constant drilling for memorization and a borderline militaristic schooling (Lack, 2009). This “banking model” of education, Freire (2001) argues, is profoundly anti-democratic. He elaborates, “The teacher of geography who truncates the curiosity of the student in the name of efficiency of mechanical memorization hampers both the freedom and capacity of the adventure of the student” (Freire, 2001, p. 57). In a similar vien, Sondel (2015) argues that KIPP schools primarily train low-income, minority students to become neoliberal cogs instead of democratic citizens.

Guinier further argues that valuing non-cognitive attributes such as growth mind set (p. 97) and grit (p. 104) instead of test scores could democratize higher education. While an interesting premise, it is problematic for three reasons. First, we do not know what fosters grit.1 Second, the focus on individual attributes ignores the structural conditions that create marginalization in the first place, and students only need to be gritty to the extent that...


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