- Judging Higher Education on the Merits
Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is a great equalizer of the conditions of men—the balance wheel of the social machinery.—mann, h. (1848). twelfth annual report to the secretary of the massachusetts state board of education.
The above words, now reduced to cliché, were written in 1848 by the famed educational reformer Horace Mann. Since that time, equality has become a rallying cry of many seeking to reform, expand, or improve education in the United States. Yet while education's potential to effect equality is indeed great, its propensity to increase inequality and reaffirm social hierarchy can be equally powerful. Today our systems of education, particularly of higher education, seem to be facing a crisis of identity and purpose: more students than ever are graduating with postsecondary degrees and [End Page 341] campuses are more diverse than at any time in US history, yet the nation is experiencing levels of socioeconomic inequality not seen since the 1920s.1 While discourses of education as equalizer still abound, the preeminence of narratives of meritocracy in tandem with neoliberal influences on education seriously undermine higher education's capacity to incite positive social change. The three books discussed here all speak to this point. Specifically, the authors each address the relationship between education and some form of elite privilege in American society, and how the former, in its current incarnation, might serve to strengthen and legitimate the latter.
All three authors problematize the prevailing meritocratic ideal as producing a class of elites characterized by pedigree, rather than by goodness, thoughtfulness, or a commitment to social improvement or democratic values. In The Tyranny of the Meritocracy, legal scholar Lani Guinier borrows Amartya Sen's description of merit as "an incentive system that rewards the actions a society values" (xi). Today, she argues, the behaviors and achievements rewarded by educational institutions are competitive and individualistic, notoriously reflected in a focus on standardized testing that turns out to be an indicator not of academic ability, but of wealth. Definitions of merit are determined by the current class of elites, and the assignment of merit bestows an entitlement to entitlement. Admission to an elite university, the ultimate indicator that an individual is among the "best and brightest," has come to represent deserved membership in the elite class. In Excellent Sheep, English professor William Deresciewicz explains that this sense of entitlement—indeed, of personal virtue—serves to absolve individuals of responsibility to contribute to the greater good, and to justify an educational and professional focus on the accrual and maximization of personal wealth. He shows that this trend has occurred alongside a marketization of higher education in the United States, and argues that together these changes stifle creativity and encourage risk aversion among college graduates. In Pedigree, sociologist Lauren Rivera explains how elite professional service (EPS) firms, which offer new graduates the highest salaried positions, bolster the social status quo by hiring almost exclusively from elite universities and over-valuing resume items that are emblematic of the upper class. Rivera defines merit as an "ever-evolving moving target that shapes and is shaped by power relations in a given society" (9); today, she argues, EPS firms apply and propagate a merit metric that promotes individualism, competitiveness, and pedigree, rather than teamwork, collaboration, and a commitment to others.
In Tyranny of the Meritocracy, Guinier addresses the troublesome role of meritocracy in the reproduction of social hierarchies through a discussion [End Page 342] of merit's conceptualization in the college admission process. She begins with a criticism of what she terms "testocratic merit," an assumption that the best gage of an applicant's worth is reflected in their standardized test scores. Guinier shows that contrary to administrators' claims, none of the major standardized tests are accurate indicators of future academic success, while "the SAT's most reliable value is its proxy for wealth" (21). In short, overreliance on...