Meritocracy and Its Discontents

The lessons of an unequal opportunity system

What do Justin Trudeau, Donald Trump, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elon Musk have in common, other than being powerful white men? They have all defended their hiring choices on grounds of meritocracy. In 2017, Trump claimed he had selected his overwhelmingly white, male cabinet entirely based on talent. Trudeau recently defended the appointment of six federal judges in New Brunswick with close ties to the Liberal Party as “merit-based.” Musk has repeatedly cast his workforce, where women account for just 28 percent of employees and only 11 percent of executives, as a meritocracy. And Zuckerberg, whose company is at the centre of an ongoing debate about diversity in Silicon Valley, has referred to Facebook’s “hacker way” as “extremely open and meritocratic.”

Trudeau might count himself unlucky to be included in such company, as his decision to have a fifty-fifty gender split in his cabinet was welcomed by many progressives as a step toward redressing centuries of gender discrimination in Canadian politics. Yet the ideal of context-blind meritocracy has appeal across the political spectrum. To those on the left, it guards against the inequities of inherited wealth and unearned privilege; to those on the right, it allows for the freedom of the individual to express his talents and achieve her proper level in society. For many, meritocracy has come to seem like the natural way to organize things. It’s a no-brainer.

What we seem to have forgotten is that the term “meritocracy” was coined to demonstrate the ills that might stem from the too zealous pursuit of intellectual merit. In spite of its seemingly classical etymology, meritocracy is not an ancient political concept, like aristocracy and democracy, but was introduced by Michael Young, a British sociologist and author of the Labour Party’s transformative 1945 election manifesto, which laid the foundations of the post-war welfare state. His 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy, is framed as a history dissertation written in 2033. It charts the emergence, over the second half of the twentieth century, of a pure meritocracy. In his blandly scientific tones, Young’s future historian describes the tyranny of the genetically fortunate over the rest of society.

In a dystopian Britain, children undergo intelligence tests at the age of three, members of Parliament are selected by IQ score, and citizens must carry their “National Intelligence Card” with them at all times. In place of the class system that was forged in the fires of the Industrial Revolution, pure meritocracy apportions wealth and status via the scientific measurement of intelligence and effort: IQ + E = M. The result is a highly stratified society that, due to its grounding in empirical social science, is immune to political critique. The ruling class of scientists and politicians are unassailable in their intellectual excellence. The lower class of manual workers and servants are locked out of the high-tech economy by virtue of their proven intellectual deficiencies. As Young’s historian blithely puts it, “Equality of opportunity meant equality of opportunity to be unequal.”

If you strip away the science fiction trappings, much of what Young says is prophetic of our world today. Of course, we do not live in a pure meritocracy, as Trump’s cabinet picks, Liberal court appointments, and the workplace demographics of Silicon Valley make amply clear. Access to positional goods such as excellent schools, tutoring services, free time, and cultural capital skews along class and racial lines; the gateways to elite institutions are often narrowed by unconscious biases. Yet even if the playing field is not perfectly even, we all at some level adopt the ethos of competitive individualism that meritocracy entails, and many of us fall prey to the sense of entitlement that merit-based success can encourage. Sitting in my university office, have I not thought to myself, in the fleeting moments between student conferences and department meetings, “I worked hard to get here. I’m good at my job. I deserve what I have”? And does this not imply, as its unspoken corollary, that the people who serve me lunch in the food court or fix the elevator in my building deserve the considerably less that they have? This was the nub of Young’s critique of meritocracy: that it undermines social solidarity.

But it is not just leftist academics like Michael Young who distrust meritocracy. As it turns out, some of the most prominent beneficiaries of contemporary American meritocracy distrust the effects of the system when it applies to their own children. This past March, the FBI disclosed the results of its Operation Varsity Blues investigation, which focused on William Rick Singer, a fraudulent admissions consultant. In exchange for between $25,000 and $550,000, Singer would procure fake test scores, medical certificates, and sports records in order to help wealthy but undeserving children gain access to prestigious colleges and universities. He drew on a network of corrupt officials: psychologists who wrote fraudulent medical notes granting students extra time on standardized tests; academic high flyers who took those tests on behalf of no-hoper candidates in “friendly” test centres; admissions officers who turned a blind eye to fake documents; coaches who reserved spaces on varsity teams for clearly incapable students. Thus far, fifty people have been indicted on charges of mail fraud, honest services mail fraud, and money laundering. Singer could face up to sixty-five years in prison.

The scandal abounds with juicy details and comic touches. The TV rights to an upcoming book on the affair have already been sold, and one can only hope that the mini-series will be given the full Bonfire of the Vanities–style satirical treatment. Most obviously, there’s the celebrity angle. Two of the parents charged in the conspiracy are Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, prominent Hollywood liberals. Loughlin and her partner, the fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, paid $500,000 to get their daughter, Olivia Jade, admitted to the University of Southern California as a member of the rowing team. They succeeded in spite of the fact that Olivia Jade spent most of her high school years maintaining a popular Instagram account and marketing hair care products, rather than bulking up on protein shakes and improving her oarsmanship. But even without the celebrity angle, the gap between the protagonists’ slick self-confidence and their evident alienation from norms of fairness and honesty is rife with comic potential. John B. Wilson, CEO of a private equity and real estate company, paid for his son’s entry to USC as an elite water polo player via his company expense account as a “consultancy” fee. Almost all of the payments were registered as charitable donations, and hence were tax deductible. That’s elite-level fraud: fraud squared.

Most of the parents named in the recent indictments come from what you might call the American petit-millionaire class: the ranks of real estate developers, media executives, investment managers, and corporate lawyers who are not quite rich enough to afford the $10-million donations required for legacy admissions at elite schools but can still afford to pay as much as ten times the national average annual income to cheat their way in. It is all too easy to imagine these parents applying the same moral flexibility to their professional lives. The FBI investigation began when Morrie Tobin, a suspect in an unrelated securities fraud case, sought to curry favour by divulging information about his acquaintance with a corrupt admissions counsellor. In this case, the worlds of financial fraud and admissions fraud overlapped. But there is also a wider affinity between the two crimes. Both stem from the moral flexibility that can arise when the meritocratic ideal of individual success is pursued with excessive vigour. Operation Varsity Blues was the American higher education system’s Enron moment, Lance Armstrong moment, and Russiagate moment rolled into one.

Surely the same thing couldn’t happen here in Canada? Well, yes and no. The impetus to fraud stems from the highly stratified nature of the American higher education system, where a small number of elite colleges act as gateways to the upper reaches of the job market. These schools — mainly Ivy League and wealthy private institutions —­ ­maintain their status not only through expensive tuition and abundant resources but also through the artificial conditions of scarcity they create. For the 2016–17 academic year, the acceptance rate at Yale was 6.3 percent, and the average annual fees at private U.S. schools were $35,000 ($49,480 at Yale). At the University of Toronto, the acceptance rate was 69 percent, and the average annual fees at Canadian public universities were $6,838. There is also less distance to travel, in terms of prestige and public perception, between institutions in the Canadian system. The distance between, say, the University of Toronto and the University of New Brunswick is significantly less than that between Yale and Arizona State University. One of the many comic moments in the FBI’s Operation Varsity Blues report comes when Giannulli drops the A-bomb in an email to Singer: “I want to fully understand the game plan . . . as it relates to . . . ­getting [Olivia Jade] into a school other than ASU.” This is a world in which parents are prepared to risk jail time and pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to avoid sending their children to a mid-ranking state school.

While the Canadian system is flatter and broader than the American one, it is hardly a level playing field and by no means immune to ­cheating. Huffman, Loughlin, and the rest of the Varsity Blues crew have been described as the ultimate “snowplow parents,” who will go to any lengths to clear obstacles from their children’s paths. Canadian parents might not bribe their kids’ way into university, but many do pay for private schools, tutoring services, and enrichment activities to bolster their precious darlings’ CVs and ensure their competitive advantage in life. I suspect that a number of students in my own department have at least some of their assignments written by their parents or hired help. Indeed, Canadian academia is rife with essay writing services, exam cheating scams, and plagiarism. Reliable statistics are hard to come by, but a 2012–14 study found that 53 percent of 15,000 Canadian students surveyed admitted to cheating. In interviews, many expressed a blasé cynicism about academic fraud: this is how the system works; everyone else is doing it; you’ve got to get ahead at all costs. The amoral spirit of competitive individualism knows no borders.

Given these conditions, it makes sense to advocate for greater equality of opportunity and to work toward a more robustly meritocratic system, one that is immune to class privilege, racial inequality, and the pervasive culture of academic fraud. A true meritocracy would surely be a lot better than the imperfect one we currently have. But it also pays to remember Young’s original aim in writing The Rise of the Meritocracy : his desire to highlight the older system of values that we sacrifice in adopting meritocratic competition as the primary criterion for social status. Today, these seem like antiquated concepts, but I’ll name them anyway: solidarity, kinship, care, disinterest. In place of equality of opportunity — or “equality of opportunity to be unequal,” as he put it — Young wanted to hold onto the ethical ideal of the equality of all human beings in the eyes of God. After all, where do our talents come from if not from God, fate, or genetic luck? Today’s popular understanding of meritocracy encourages us to believe that we are our talents, and that we are thus entitled to the rewards that accrue from their exercise. Young insisted on the contrary principle: that everyone deserves equal status and respect, regardless of their high school GPA.

Meritocracy has the potential to alter the composition of social classes, but it retains the hierarchical structure of the class system itself. And with this hierarchical system comes an uneven distribution not only of financial wealth but also of less easily quantifiable social goods such as self-respect, dignity, and recognition. In the 1970s, the sociologists Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb referred to this complex of ill feeling as the “hidden injuries of class.” All too often, this psychic damage is unseen or poorly understood by those at the top. The injuries of class remain obscure because those who suffer most are the least likely to be heard in the public square. Young extrapolates an extreme version of this situation in his future meritocracy, when his narrator notes:

We cannot yet be sure just how much resentment the declassé person does feel. The very fact that he is stupid means that he is inarticulate, and the fact that he is inarticulate means that he cannot explain too clearly how he does feel.

From the meritocrat’s vantage at the top of the system, wrapped in the blanket of his own preconceptions about how to speak and think well, he is unable fully to identify the underclass’s resentment, let alone sympathize with it.

This is the seedbed of social conflict, both in Young’s future meritocracy and in our own age of populist anti-elitism. You can hear echoes of Young’s glib historian in Barack Obama’s 2008 comments about rural white working-class voters clinging to their guns and their Bibles, and in Hillary Clinton’s 2016 characterization of many Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables.” The disconnect between classes is felt at the level of language and thought, as well as in economic and geographic terms. Indeed, many liberals struggle to grasp that it is precisely because Obama and Clinton speak in well-formed sentences, which obviously bear the imprint of their expensive educations, that they are so loathed by a certain segment of the electorate. And it is into the linguistic and cognitive gaps between the elite and the underclass that mendacious opportunists like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage insert themselves.

In the final sections of Young’s book, we begin to see the meritocratic system crumbling under the weight of its own contradictions. By 2033, the surge of mobility that was unleashed with the introduction of meritocracy has given way to a new form of social immobility based on the inflexible code of the genome. Wealthy families have taken to kidnapping or buying gifted babies from poor families as replacements for their own unpromising young (a corollary, perhaps, of today’s cheating and bribery scandals). The book closes with a wry editorial footnote that informs the reader of the author’s death during a riot at a mass demonstration at Peterloo Fields, in Manchester. Peterloo is a resonant name in British political history, the site of a parliamentary reform rally in 1819 that was violently suppressed by the military and memorialized in Shelley’s poem “The Masque of Anarchy.” The unfinished business of radical democracy is being taken up once more.

Young sets out an alternative to the winner-takes-all meritocracy through the Technicians Party, a coalition of disaffected wives of government scientists and manual labourers, servants, and a handful of religious and intellectual eccentrics. Together, they issue the Chelsea Manifesto, which envisages a classless society based on “the plurality of human values.”

Meritocracies tend to privilege only a narrow range of the vast spectrum of human capabilities. Our academic system is good at testing abstract reasoning, scientific-technical knowledge, and rarefied forms of symbol manipulation, but it has no measures for bravery, compassion, or intuition. According to the Chelsea Manifesto, in the just ­society, “every human being would have equal opportunity, not to rise up in the world in the light of any mathematical measure, but to develop his own special capacities for leading a rich life.” This would include recognition for skills in child ­rearing, rose growing, and pottery, on par with skills in management, computer science, and radio telescopy. Instead of grinding all differences into a single measure of academic merit (today’s alphabet soup of IQ, SAT, GPA, and so on), the manifesto envisages a comprehensive system, available from cradle to grave, in which learning is decoupled from the job market, and all are free to follow their interests and cultivate their talents. Freed from the exigencies of competition and status, everyone can pursue their vocation without reducing their chances of living a secure and esteemed life.

In the form of a radical manifesto in speculative fiction, this vision of the good society might seem impossibly utopian. But Young was no theoretical dreamer. In addition to drafting the 1945 Labour Party manifesto, he was the driving force behind the influential Consumers’ Association and Which?, its widely circulated magazine that used product reviews and technical research to empower consumers in the post-war market economy. Young was also a founder of the Open University, Britain’s largest higher-education institution, which to this day provides distance learning to predominantly mature students, often from underprivileged or non-traditional backgrounds.

Young was himself a product of social experimentation. He was educated not at an elite boarding school but at Dartington Hall, an experimental community founded on the agrarian socialist principles of the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. His was a model of social entrepreneurship, preoccupied with the practical task of institution building but always oriented toward creating a “commonwealth of opportunity” — available to everyone rather than just a fortunate elite.

Young was part of the great wave of innovation that was unleashed in the decades after the Second World War, much of which drew upon the largesse of the welfare state and sought to promote broadly progressive and humanistic social values. In Britain and elsewhere, this took the form of child-centred and creative pedagogy in schools, expanded community and technical colleges, rising enrolments in higher education, and the creation of lifelong learning institutions such as the Open University and the University of the Third Age. In 1954, no less a figure than Winston Churchill expressed his support for a state-funded, non-utilitarian, lifelong educational system for all: “The appetite of adults to be shown the foundations and processes of thought will never be denied by a British administration cherishing the continuity of our Island life.”

Rereading The Rise of Meritocracy today prompts us to ask, Where did that generous vision go? Today’s educational debate is a narrow, crabbed thing in comparison, concerned more with boosting GDP and equipping workers with skills for a rapidly changing job market than with reflections on the “foundations and processes of thought.” Insofar as we do hear radical voices in mainstream educational debate, they tend to emanate from Silicon Valley and the California educational technology industry, which is keen to convince schools and universities to replace face-to-face teaching with the many faces of online learning. Such “edu-tech” is often accompanied by a vague rhetoric of widening access and encouraging diversity.

In the age of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, and flipped classrooms, so the story goes, elite-level education will be available to everyone on the planet and no talent will go to waste. The gifted will rise, whether they are born in Palo Alto or Dar es Salaam. But the purveyors of online solutions are not really in the business of redressing the structural causes of inequality, nor of cultivating a “plurality of human values.” Their aim is to perfect meritocracy, not correct its blind spots.

We may be closest to the spirit of the Chelsea Manifesto — and to the kind of inclusive social innovation that Young practised — when we’re at the earliest stages of our current education system. In kindergarten, for example, learners are encouraged to explore the full range of their sensory, intellectual, and emotional faculties. Art, exploration, and imagination are at the fore. Caring, collaboration, and open-ended enquiry are not yet stifled by utilitarian concerns. Examinations and careers are distant prospects. Early childhood education is often the focus of our most generous visions of humanity and our most ambitious pedagogy. In recent years, this sense of idealism has driven a surge of interest in the Montessori method, the Finnish model, and the forest school movement. Since 2016, the Ontario Ministry of Education has officially grounded full-day kindergarten programming in “play-based learning.” We have the neurophysiological studies to prove that taxpayers’ dollars are well spent on more time in the sandbox.

Why must we reserve our best ideals only for the earliest stages of the curriculum? Perhaps, instead of urging more meritocratic access to the upper reaches of our highly competitive and increasingly stratified society, we should in fact turn things on their head and extend access to the fruits of early childhood education to those much later in life — indeed, to every member of society. Kindergarten for all!

In the current climate, of course, it’s hard to imagine governments funding education for anything other than hard-nosed economic reasons. But this way of thinking can blind us to the social costs of elitism and the less easily quantified benefits of lifelong learning. When we focus too much on the bottom line, we ignore the relationship between greater participation in lifelong learning and economic externalities such as social cohesion, mental health, reduction of hours lost to illness, citizenship, and crime reduction, let alone intrinsic human goods such as happiness and ­intellectual growth.

In a 2017 paper in the Journal of the British Academy, John Bynner presented the results of a longitudinal study of the effects of lifelong learning on British cohorts born in 1946, 1958, 1970, 1992, and 2000. Using statistical data on over 16,000 people from each cohort, Bynner demonstrated that those individuals who enrolled in any sort of formal education in adulthood — whether they took classes in accountancy or flower arranging, hairdressing or life drawing — displayed a decreased likelihood that they would drink or smoke, became less susceptible to depression, had increased rates of racial tolerance and political engagement, and had decreased tendencies toward political cynicism and authoritarianism. Lifelong learning, it would seem, is good for the economy, good for the individual, and, crucially, good for society as a whole. You might even say that, in contrast to more meritocracy in the school and university systems, it is one of the best tools we have for strengthening the collective in our uniquely atomized age. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all go back to school this September?