Meritocracy and its Discontents   /   Summer 2016   /    Meritocracy And Its Discontents

The New Ruling Class

Helen Andrews

The Circumlocution Office, BBC production of Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit; photograph by John Rogers.

Our authors fail as critics of meritocracy because they cannot get their heads outside of it.

Last fall, Toby Young did something ironic. Toby is the son of Michael Young, the British sociologist and Labour life peer whose 1958 satire The Rise of the Meritocracy has been credited with coining the term. Toby has become an education reformer in his own right, as founder of the West London Free School, after a celebrated career as a journalist and memoirist (How to Lose Friends and Alienate People). In September, he published an 8,000-word reconsideration of his father’s signature concept in an Australian monthly. The old man was right that meritocracy would gradually create a stratified and immobile society, he wrote, but wrong that abolishing selective education was the cure. “Unlike my father, I’m not an egalitarian,” Young wrote. If meritocracy creates a new caste system, “the answer is more meritocracy.” To restore equality of opportunity, he suggested subsidies for intelligence-maximizing embryo selection for poor parents “with below-average IQs.”11xToby Young, “The Fall of the Meritocracy,” Quadrant, September 2015, https://quadrant.org.au/magazine/2015/09/fall-meritocracy/. The irony lay in the implication that Young, because of who his father was, has special insight into the ideology that holds that it shouldn’t matter who your father is.

His outlandish resort to eugenics suggests that Toby Young found himself at a loss for solutions, as all modern critics of meritocracy seem to do. The problems they describe are fundamental, but none of their remedies are more than tweaks to make the system more efficient or less prejudicial to the poor. For instance, in Excellent Sheep, William Deresiewicz accuses the Ivy League of imposing a malignant ruling class on the country, then meekly suggests that elite universities might solve the problem by giving greater weight in admissions to socioeconomic disadvantage and less to “résumé-stuffing.”22xWilliam Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (New York, NY: Free Press, 2014), 235. In The Tyranny of the Meritocracy, Lani Guinier belies the harsh terms of her title by advising that we simply learn to reward “democratic rather than testocratic merit.”33xLani Guinier, The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2015), 1. Christopher Hayes subtitled his debut book Twilight of the Elites “America after Meritocracy,” but the remedies he prescribes are all meant to preserve meritocracy by making it more effective.44xChristopher Hayes, Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy (New York, NY: Crown, 2012). In his latest book, Our Kids, Robert Putnam proves that American social mobility is in crisis, then reposes his hopes in such predictable nostrums as housing vouchers and universal pre-kindergarten.55xRobert Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2015).

To read the full article online, please login to your account or subscribe to our digital edition ($25 yearly). Prefer print? Order back issues or subscribe to our print edition ($30 yearly).