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, 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).

When an author caps two hundred pages of rhetorical fire with fifteen pages of platitudes or utopian fantasy, that is called “the last chapter problem.” When every author who takes up a question finds himself equally at a loss, that is something else. In this case, our authors fail as critics of meritocracy because they cannot get their heads outside of it. They are incapable of imagining what it would be like not to believe in it. They assume the validity of the very thing they should be questioning.

But what would it be like not to take meritocracy for granted? The basic idea—that we should rank candidates for power according to some desirable quality, then pick the best of them—seems too obvious to have needed inventing, but invented it was, and (at least in the West) not so long ago. If we go back to the occasion of its first appearance in the English-speaking world, we will find a group of men who opposed it, not just because they did not think it would work in practice, but because they disagreed with it in principle. Meritocracy had a beginning and a middle and may yet have an end, and the beginning is exactly where the man who coined the term said it was on the very first page of his book: the Northcote-Trevelyan Report of 1854.66xMichael Young, The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870–2033: An Essay on Education and Equality (London, England: Thames & Hudson, 1958), 1. The Northcote-Trevelyan Report was published in 1854, but its recommendations were not fully implemented until 1870; hence the first date in the book’s title.

A Tale of Two Reformers

King George III is said to have remarked that any man was fit to occupy any government post he could manage to get. That is about as far as someone of his generation was likely to go in justifying patronage. Mostly it was accepted as a fact of politics. A party democracy required political workers, and without civil service jobs to distribute to the faithful, how could parties persuade anyone to work for them? Patronage was seen then as cash donations are now: seedy, no doubt, and definitely vulnerable to corruption, but not illegitimate. Benjamin Disraeli, in this as in so much else, formed a bridge between Georgian laxity and Victorian moral justification, writing in 1858, “Patronage is the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, and that is Power.”77xQuoted in Robert Blake, Disraeli (London, England: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1966), 388.

This sacramental reasoning meant nothing to the Protestant reformers then coming of age, and certainly not to Sir Charles Trevelyan. Thomas Babington Macaulay is today considered the archetype of liberal Clapham Sect self-satisfaction, and even he thought his brother-in-law was a prig. “His mind is full of schemes of moral and political improvement,” Macaulay wrote of Trevelyan when they were in India together. “His topics even in courtship are steam navigation, the education of the natives, the equalization of sugar duties.”88xGeorge Otto Trevelyan, The Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay (New York, NY: Harper, 1876), 1: 341. This did not prevent Macaulay from using his influence to have Trevelyan appointed senior permanent secretary to the Treasury in 1840, although he never told him of this intervention. History might have turned out differently if he had. As it was, Trevelyan thought his promotion was a case of virtue rewarded, and he returned to England more convinced than ever of the merit principle.99xLaura Trevelyan, A Very British Family: The Trevelyans and Their World (London, England: I.B. Tauris, 2006), 36.

So when William Gladstone needed a second chairman for his inquiry into civil-service reform, in addition to Sir Stafford Northcote, his own former private secretary, he knew that Charles Trevelyan was someone he could rely on to return the answer he wanted. A consensus had arisen that something ought to be done about the civil service, which had become disorganized, unaccountable, and inefficient—Tite Barnacle of the Circumlocution Office made his appearance in Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit around this time. Gladstone’s particular concern, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, was the expense of maintaining hacks and protégés in their sinecures, and his innate moral prissiness inclined him toward competitive examination as a way of removing all discretion, and thus temptation, from ministers at a single stroke.

It took less than eight months for Northcote and Trevelyan to complete their report, which is only twenty-three pages long. Fortunately for them, it appeared just as the Crimean War debacles were arousing public clamor for administrative reform. (No one seems to have noted that the military commissary system, as part of the Treasury, was under Trevelyan’s supervision.) The report recommended that all new recruits to the government service be subject to some form of examination by a central civil-service commission. At minimum, a qualifying examination in basic spelling and arithmetic would keep out obvious incompetents. Better would be a competitive examination of university-level difficulty, to be conducted on a set date each year, in a handful of locations, in a range of available subjects from Greek to chemistry. Anyone could take the test, no sponsorship required. However many vacancies there were in the civil service that year, exactly that many names would be accepted from the top of the list of scores.1010xThe full report is available in Papers on the Re-organisation of the Civil Service, Presented to Both Houses of Parliament by Command of Her Majesty (London, England: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1855). The best summary of the report and its background is in W.H. Greenleaf, The British Political Tradition. Volume 3, A Much Governed Nation: Part 1 (New York, NY: Routledge, 1983), chap. 3, “In Dark Wonder.”

Public reaction was divided. Like most reform-minded liberals, John Stuart Mill was exultant: “Competitive examination appears to me to be one of those great public improvements the adoption of which would form an era in history.”1111xPapers on the Re-organisation of the Civil Service, 92. The headmaster of Harrow admitted that beneficiaries of the status quo might make reform difficult to enact, but, he said, “I can scarcely understand the existence of two opinions as to its abstract desirableness.”1212xIbid., 87. But for the bulk of Englishmen who were not yet accustomed to test taking as a feature of life outside the schoolroom, it seemed (in the words of a later historian) “like the intrusion into the world of politics of a scheme of cause and effect derived from another universe—as if one should propose to the Stock Exchange that the day’s prices should be fixed by prayer and the casting of lots.”1313xGraham Wallas, Human Nature in Politics (London, England: Archibald Constable, 1908), 252.

Trevelyan canvassed opinions of the finished report from headmasters, professors, and mandarins, and it is remarkable how unanimously the educators favored the plan and how unanimously the mandarins opposed it. The report’s finely phrased ideas would collapse in practice, the latter warned. For instance, replacing promotion by seniority with more subjective “promotion according to merit” would give free rein to favoritism. In departments that had experimented with qualifying exams, supervisors found that the tests put money in the pockets of “crammers” but did little for productivity. To its opponents, the whole thing smelled like a schoolmasters’ scheme. In Anthony Trollope’s The Three Clerks—the first and as far as I know the only satirical novel written against the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms—the character modeled on Oxford don and reform booster Benjamin Jowett fantasizes about the day when “every man in England should…be made to pass through some ‘go.’ The green-grocer’s boy should not carry out cabbage unless his fitness for cabbage-carrying had been ascertained.”1414xAnthony Trollope, The Three Clerks, a Novel (London, England: Richard Bentley, 1858), 1: 233. As a civil servant himself, Trollope suspected that this proliferation of examinations would benefit no one but the examiners.

There was also worry about what throwing competition open to all comers would do to the service’s social tone. “The more the civil service is recruited from the lower classes, the less it will be sought after by the higher,” warned the MP Edward Romilly.1515xPapers on the Re-organisation of the Civil Service, 289. This was not mere snobbery. If the government wanted civil servants who could stand up to MPs, financiers, and foreign statesmen, it had to recruit men of comparable social standing. Robert Lowe, who as Gladstone’s chancellor did more than anyone to put the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms into practice, nevertheless thought the service ought to remain at least partly aristocratic, because although class was no guarantee of merit, it constituted “a sort of freemasonry among men which is not very easy to describe but which everybody feels.”1616xQuoted in David William Sylvester, Robert Lowe and Education (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1974), 202. Perhaps Lowe was thinking of his schooldays at Winchester and the famous “fags’ rebellion” of 1829, which was sparked when the school decided to appoint the top scholars in the senior class as prefects, instead of the “haughty heroes of the playing field” who had always been appointed before.1717x“Haughty heroes” is from John Chandos’s summary of the rebellion in Boys Together: English Public Schools 1800–1864 (London, England: Hutchison, 1984), 101. Underclassmen revolted, and Lowe (one of the unathletic prefects deposed) had an early lesson that people will decide for themselves what kinds of authority they will recognize.

Other objections approached closer to the principle. There were, first of all, questions of democratic accountability. Civil servants who felt they owed their jobs to no one and nothing but their own merit would be independent, which was also to say impervious to checks and balances. They would not derive their power from the people even by so remote a means as a parliamentary patron. Ralph Lingen of the Education Office begged Trevelyan to remember that the voters of England were used to treating office as among “the legitimate prizes of war” after elections, “not merely for its emoluments, but also for the sake of influencing administration.”1818xPapers on the Re-organisation of the Civil Service, 104. It was almost a kind of direct democracy.

Transforming the Spirit of Government

A greater concern was that meritocracy would produce an overweening centralized state. The Prussian precedent left Walter Bagehot wary of “establishing, virtually for the first time in England, an organized Bureaucracy.”1919xWalter Bagehot, “Tests for the Public Service,” National Review 24 (January 1861), 143. On the floor of the House of Commons, MPs brandished warnings from Tocqueville and Montalembert against following imperial France’s example, which would inevitably lead to administrative tyranny, the creation of a political clerisy, and “a venal and servile humor” to supplant the English spirit of liberty.2020xGeorge Cornewall Lewis, speech to the House of Commons, April 24, 1856, Hansard Parliamentary Debates, vol. 141, cc. 1418–20. The man Lewis describes as “another French statesman whose name, if I were to disclose it, would command the instant respect of the House of Commons,” is identified as Tocqueville in John Roach, Public Examinations in England 1850–1900 (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1971), 193. Gladstone replied that such worries were “idle, pusillanimous, and womanish,” since Parliament could be trusted to keep the civil service in its place. “In certain continental states the experiment may be perilous, but in England you may make the Civil Service as strong as you please.”2121xWilliam E. Gladstone, speech to the House of Commons, April 24, 1856, Hansard Parliamentary Debates, vol. 141, cc. 1423.

Hearing this, Robert Cecil (later Lord Salisbury) rose to say that “he did not regard that fear as so groundless and unfounded as the right honorable Gentleman appeared to do.”2222xLord Robert Cecil, speech to the House of Commons, April 24, 1856, Hansard Parliamentary Debates, vol. 141, cc. 1437. Salisbury’s comprehensive case against Northcote-Trevelyan was dismissed by Gladstone biographer John Morley as “the lazy doctrine that men are much of a muchness,” and no doubt this was Salisbury’s starting point.2323xJohn Morley, The Life of William Ewart Gladstone, vol. 1, 1809–1859 (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 511. First published 1903. Beyond ensuring that candidates could spell and add, he thought that selecting the most intelligent men you could find was unnecessary—even positively harmful. Such men would be arrogant and argumentative, and would “look upon their duties as beneath their abilities.” This was not mere speculation, but the attested experience of their supervisors in departments where examination had been implemented. One bitter customs officer cited by Salisbury complained of “a self-sufficiency and presumption, from an imagined superiority in having undergone such examination, and a desire for literature in business, which I have been obliged to check.” This arrogance was bad enough around the office, Salisbury believed, but to the extent that it encompassed the public, it was a threat to their liberties.2424xLord Salisbury, “Competitive Examination,” Quarterly Review 108 (October 1860), 595–96.

More generally, Salisbury predicted that competitive examination would dangerously transform the spirit of government. As he saw it, reformers were seeking to automate the art of politics in a way “manifestly repugnant to the commonest and not the worst feelings of our nature.” Rattling off instances of patronage exercised nobly by Sir Walter Scott, Samuel Johnson, and Robert Peel, Salisbury asked whether it was worth abjuring such acts merely to keep out a handful of slow-witted copyists: “Why should favour and friendship, kindness and gratitude, which are not banished by men from private life, be absolutely excluded from public affairs?” And in the effort to eliminate all unmathematical considerations from the exercise of power, what other human qualities might not be driven out? Mercy? Flexibility? Loyalty to country? It was a dangerous and metastatic idea, this notion that statesmen could govern by formula.2525xIbid., 569–72.

Then again, Salisbury was a reactionary who never had a good word for progress of any kind. The same could not be said of open competition’s other vocal opponent, Sir James Stephen, whose credibility as a liberal was matched only by his reputation as an administrator of genius. His long experience in Whitehall had led him to believe, like Salisbury, that “the man whose name stood half way down the examinations list of merit would probably make a better clerk than he whose name stood first”—not as good a clerk, but better.2626xPapers on the Re-organisation of the Civil Service, 76. Working for the government did not offer enough scope for the talents and ambitions of the men at the top of the list. Nor should it, a small-government man like Salisbury would have added.

But like a good Victorian liberal, Stephen objected mainly on humanitarian grounds. According to the findings of the Northcote-Trevelyan Report, the civil service deserved its reputation as a stashing place for crippled, blind, deaf, and sickly clerks (some of whom, it neglected to add, were highly competent). Stephen admitted the charge with pride. “Patronage exercised in the spirit of nepotism is made the shelter of the weak and otherwise helpless,” he wrote to Trevelyan. “Those whom nature or training have made strong can usually help themselves.” Worse, if the meritocratic principle were widely adopted, Stephen suspected that a surprising number of men would discover to their dismay that they stood in relation to the talented minority as cripples and deaf-mutes stood in relation to themselves. “A detur digniori world [one in which merit decides] would, I imagine, be a world made up of despots and slaves.”2727xIbid., 78.

Out with the Old Grandees, in with the New Men

So who turned out to be right, merit’s boosters, or its naysayers? The boosters made surprisingly few specific predictions, apart from asserting that, in general, men chosen on a more rational basis would be superior. It is thus hard to tell whether appointment by merit fulfilled their expectations for it. “The adoption of open competition in 1870 seemed to obviate any necessity for further consideration not only of the method by which officials were appointed but also of the system under which they did their work,” reflected a Fabian progressive in 1908. Competitive examination, “like the wedding in a middle-Victorian novel, was to be the end of the story.”2828xWallas, Human Nature in Politics, 261.

There is no question that the size of government did explode. The staff of the civil service tripled in fifty years and then doubled in ten, hitting 281,000 on the eve of World War I. Obviously, this was mainly because the government had taken on so many more tasks—but one reason for that was that the public had come to trust that the government was full of people who knew what they were doing. Interference that would have never been tolerated in the bad old days of jobbery was now justified by the national government’s (largely meretricious) mystique as a repository of intelligence. Usually a great fan of competition, Herbert Spencer complained that under competitive examination “men who might otherwise reprobate further growth of officialism are led to look on it with tolerance, if not favourably.”2929xHerbert Spencer, “The Coming Slavery” in Spencer: Political Writings, ed. John Offer (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 91. It was a self-perpetuating dynamic, too. A complicated budget like Lloyd George’s demanded more intelligence to implement than the straightforward arithmetic of the Victorian tax system—and once you’ve hired a cadre of clever men, why not get the most out of them?

Bagehot had warned that the smart young men ensnared by open competition would “only mope, wither, and blaspheme in the Public Departments.”3030xBagehot, “Tests for the Public Service,” 136. If only he had been right. Alas, Bagehot forgot that intelligent people who are bored by their jobs will make their jobs interesting as far as possible—which, when civil servants do it, is not necessarily to the public good. The domestic departments began hunting around for problems to solve, whether anyone wanted their solutions or not, and the Colonial Office started meddling even more in the decisions of local officials. Anytime a district officer cabled home about a dispute, headquarters would examine the question from every angle with lingering attention, rummaging for precedents and murmuring “Most intriguing!” Meanwhile, the man on the spot was desperate to make a decision, any decision, regardless of whether it was consistent with what had been done under Shippard in Bechuanaland in 1885.

The Colonial Office became especially notorious for its highhandedness, probably because the rough, active men it supervised had in many cases gone abroad in the first place from a lack of prospects at home. Permanent Undersecretary Robert Meade’s comment in 1892 that colonial governors were “very inferior persons” was typical.3131xQuoted in Martin J. Wiener, An Empire on Trial: Race, Murder, and Justice under British Rule, 1870–1935 (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 14. But this was emphatically not the old arrogance of the landed aristocracy. (Meade himself was a meritocrat of unimposing background.) The debate in the days of Northcote-Trevelyan had been over whether open competition would benefit the middle class or the upper class. Gladstone and Trevelyan both thought the latter, and they considered this a mark in its favor. In the event, neither side in that debate turned out to be correct. Meritocracy called into being an entirely new class, partly taken from the old gentry, partly from the new commercial class, and loyal to neither. Between 1870 and World War I, this new class took possession of all the former pillars of the old aristocracy’s power, not just the civil service but the army, the bar, local government, party associations, and the church.

This was the significance of Northcote-Trevelyan. The merit principle was like a virus in the code of the British polity; the class it created was perfectly designed to sweep all before it. In the same way that religious fanatics and nationalists can sometimes defeat ordinary soldiers from sheer fervor of belief, so the meritocrats prevailed by being more convinced of their own superiority than the old grandees had ever been, with none of that deo gratias nonsense to keep them humble, either. Another battlefield advantage of the meritocrats was mobility. A good way to measure their takeover of national politics is to look at the percentage of rural MPs who were born in their constituencies—the sharp decline in Cheshire, from 70 percent (1832–85) to 25 percent (1885–1918), was not unusual. The new men, as David Cannadine writes in The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy, were primarily “outsiders, professionals, and trade-union leaders, men with no local links or of limited standing in the community.”3232xDavid Cannadine, The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (London, England: Vintage, 1999), 149, 153. First published 1990.

Local government went the same way, as its responsibilities became too much for the amateur mayors and magistrates of the local gentry, and professionals had to be imported. As Cannadine explains, “The patrician element on the county councils had not been undermined by the lower-class democrats, as had been feared initially, so much as by the upstart bureaucrats.”3333xIbid., 166. Therein lies the essence of the story. The purpose of the old aristocracy, in its own mind, had been to act as a counterweight to the plutocracy on one hand and the impulsive common masses on the other. It turned out the aristocrats had more to fear from the bureaucratic class than from either of these. In their responsibility to prevent that class from dominating the state, the aristocrats failed utterly. This defeat was not just the replacement of one ruling class by another, but the end of the venerable system of social checks and balances that not even monarchs and Chartists had been able to upset. This made the meritocracy’s victory in England almost more impressive than its later, more comprehensive victory in the United States.

Aristocracy—Embrace It!

Meritocracy began by destroying an aristocracy; it has ended in creating a new one. Nearly every book in the American anti-meritocracy literature makes this charge, in what is usually its most empirically reinforced chapter. Statistics on the decline of social mobility are not lacking. In 1985, less than half of students at selective colleges came from families in the top income quartile; in 2010, 67 percent did.3434xDeresiewicz, Excellent Sheep, 205. For those authors brave enough to cite Charles Murray (as Robert Putnam, for one, was not), Coming Apart documents quantitatively the growing tendency of the members of America’s cognitive elite to marry each other, live near each other in “Super Zips,” and launch their children into the same schools, and thence onto the same path to worldly success.3535xCharles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960–2000 (New York, NY: Crown Forum, 2012). Deresiewicz puts this betrayal of the democratic impulse neatly: “Our new multiracial, gender-neutral meritocracy has figured out a way to make itself hereditary.”3636xDeresiewicz, Excellent Sheep, 210.

But the solutions on offer never rise to the scale of the problem. Authors attack the meritocratic machine with screwdrivers, not sledgehammers, and differ only in which valve they want to adjust. Some think the solution is to tip more disadvantaged kids over the lip of the intake funnel, which would probably make things worse. If more people start competing for a finite number of slots, slim advantages like those that come from having grown up with two meritocrats for parents will only loom larger. And has anyone asked working-class families if being sucked into a frantically achievement-obsessed rat race is a benefaction they are interested in?

Others favor the slightly more radical solution of redefining our idea of merit, usually in a way that downplays what Guinier calls “pseudoscientific measures of excellence.”3737xGuinier, The Tyranny of the Meritocracy, 22. She even has a replacement in mind, the Bial-Dale College Adaptability Index, the testing of which involves Legos. (Why are you laughing? It is backed by a study.) This is even less likely to work than fiddling with the equality-of-opportunity end. For one thing, the minority of families willing to do whatever it takes to get into Harvard will still do whatever it takes to get into Harvard. They have adapted to new admissions criteria before, and they will do so again. Furthermore, unless families are abolished, successful parents will always pass on advantages to their children, which will compound with each generation. It does not matter how merit is defined; the dynamic of meritocracy remains the same, its operations inexorable.

My solution is quite different. The meritocracy is hardening into an aristocracy—so let it. Every society in history has had an elite, and what is an aristocracy but an elite that has put some care into making itself presentable? Allow the social forces that created this aristocracy to continue their work, and embrace the label. By all means this caste should admit as many worthy newcomers as is compatible with their sense of continuity. New brains, like new money, have been necessary to every ruling class, meritocratic or not. If ethnic balance is important to meritocrats, they should engineer it into the system. If geographic diversity strikes them as important, they should ensure that it exists, ideally while keeping an eye on the danger of hoovering up all of the native talent from regional America. But they must give up any illusion that such tinkering will make them representative of the country over which they preside. They are separate, parochial in their values, unique in their responsibilities. That is what makes them aristocratic.

A tough sell, I realize. Not since the Society of the Cincinnati has a ruling elite so vehemently disclaimed any resemblance to an aristocracy. The structure of the economy abets the elite in its delusion, since even the very rich are now more likely to earn their money from employment than from capital, and thus find it easier to think of themselves basically as working stiffs.3838xThomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, “Income Inequality in the United States: 1913–1998,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 118 (2003), 1–39. Quoted in Shamus Rahman Khan, Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011), 17. As cultural consumers they are careful to look down their noses at nothing except country music. All manner of low-class fare—rap, telenovelas, Waffle House—is embraced by what Shamus Rahman Khan calls the “omnivorous pluralism” of our elite. “It is as if the new elite are saying, ‘Look! We are not some exclusive club. If anything, we are the most democratized of all groups.’”3939xKhan, Privilege, 135.

Khan’s Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School is a fascinating document, because he seems to have been genuinely surprised by what he found when he returned to his old boarding school to teach for a year. Khan, the grandson of Irish and Pakistani peasants, worked his way to a Columbia University professorship in sociology via St. Paul’s and Haverford College. So he thought he knew meritocrats—but today’s breed gave him a bit of a fright. For one thing, they proved to be excellent haters. Consider how they talk about a legacy student whose background can be inferred from the pseudonym Khan gives him, “Chase Abbott”:

After seeing me chatting with Chase, a boy I was close with, Peter, expressed what many others would time and again: “that guy would never be here if it weren’t for his family.… I don’t get why the school still does that. He doesn’t bring anything to this place.” Peter seemed annoyed with me for even talking with Chase. Knowing that I was at St. Paul’s to make sense of the school, Peter made sure to point out to me that Chase didn’t really belong there.… Faculty, too, openly lamented the presence of students like Chase.4040xIbid., 3–4.

“Openly lamented”! Poor Chase. This hatred is out of all proportion to the power still held by the Chases of the school, which is almost nil. Khan discovers that the few legacy WASPs live together in a sequestered dorm, just like the “minority dorm” of his own schooldays, and even the alumni “point to students like Chase as examples of what is wrong about St. Paul’s.”4141xIbid., 4. No, the hatred of students like Chase feels more like the resentment born of having noticed an unwelcome resemblance. It is somehow unsurprising to learn that Peter’s parents met at Harvard.

Of course, Peter is not at St. Paul’s because his parents went to Harvard; as he makes clear to Khan, he is there because of his hard work and academic achievement. Here we have the meritocratic delusion most in need of smashing: the notion that the people who make up our elite are especially smart. They are not—and I do not mean that in the feel-good democratic sense that we are all smart in our own ways, the homely-wise farmer no less than the scholar. I mean that the majority of meritocrats are, on their own chosen scale of intelligence, pretty dumb. Grade inflation first hit the Ivies in the late 1960s for a reason. Yale professor David Gelernter has noticed it in his students: “My students today are…so ignorant that it’s hard to accept how ignorant they are.… [I]t’s very hard to grasp that the person you’re talking to, who is bright, articulate, advisable, interested, and doesn’t know who Beethoven is. Had no view looking back at the history of the twentieth century—just sees a fog. A blank.”4242xDavid Gelernter, interviewed on Conversations with Bill Kristol, July 6, 2015, Camille Paglia once assigned the spiritual “Go Down, Moses” to an English seminar, only to discover to her horror that “of a class of twenty-five students, only two seemed to recognize the name ‘Moses’.… They did not know who he was.”4343xEmily Esfahani Smith, “My Camille Paglia Interview: The Outtakes,” Acculturated, December 17, 2012,

Once again, Khan uncovers the clue to this phenomenon by letting his St. Paul’s students speak for themselves:

“I don’t actually know much,” an alumnus told me after he finished his freshman year at Harvard. “I mean, well, I don’t know how to put it. When I’m in classes all these kids next to me know a lot more than I do. Like about what actually happened in the Civil War. Or what France did in World War II. I don’t know any of that stuff. But I know something they don’t. It’s not facts or anything. It’s how to think. That’s what I learned in humanities.”

“What do you mean, ‘how to think’?” I asked.

“I mean, I learned how to think bigger. Like, everyone else at Harvard knew about the Civil War. I didn’t. But I knew how to make sense of what they knew about the Civil War and apply it. So they knew a lot about particular things. I knew how to think about everything.”4444xKhan, Privilege, 141.

“How to think bigger” is indeed a fine quality for a governing class to have, but this young man was cheated if his teachers tried to cultivate it as a skill in isolation and not via the discipline of learning “particular things.” It was the meritocratic ideology that paved this road to ignorance. Being open to all comers, with intelligence the only criterion, meant that no particular body of knowledge could be made mandatory at an institution like St. Paul’s, lest it arbitrarily exclude students conversant only with their own traditions. This has predictably yielded a generation of students who have no body of knowledge at all—not even “like about what actually happened in the Civil War.”

Unlike meritocracies, aristocracies can put actual content into their curricula—not just academically, but morally. Every aristocracy has an ethos, and a good ethos will balance out the moral faults to which that aristocracy is prone. The upper-class WASPs who constituted “the Establishment” in twentieth-century America were very rich; so they instilled in their children a Puritan asceticism. The Whig grandees of eighteenth-century Britain, who were the opposite of ascetic, cultivated a spirit of usefulness to check their tendency toward idleness. The besetting sin of the current elite seems to be arrogance, both moral and intellectual, with humorlessness a close second. To address the first, their acculturating institutions might try putting greater emphasis on humility—and they may find that learning how to laugh at themselves is one way this virtue can be acquired.

There is a wonderfully sad anecdote about Kingman Brewster, the man who as president of Yale did more than any other individual to create the modern meritocracy. In his first portentous strike at the WASP elite that reared him, he turned down his Skull and Bones tap on anti-elitist grounds. He then hopped on his bicycle and rushed to boast of his principled stand to A. Whitney Griswold, his ultra-WASPy but reform-minded mentor, whom he would succeed as Yale president two decades later. Far from being impressed, Griswold was not even home to receive him—he was across town at his own secret society, Wolf’s Head, for its Tap Night ceremonies.4545xGeoffrey Kabaservice, The Guardians: Kingman Brewster, His Circle, and the Rise of the Liberal Establishment (New York, NY: Henry Holt, 2004), 155. The poignancy of this story lies in the realization that, for all his Mayflower pedigree, Brewster really did not understand at all the class he would destroy. In retrospect, it seems likely that Brewster could have achieved all he desired—a more diverse student body, a more rigorous academic curriculum, a more liberal general atmosphere—by building upon the existing virtues of Old Yale, its sense of public duty and fair play. Unfortunately, he was blind to these virtues. So he did the only thing contempt can do: He destroyed.

The task of reforming our present elite ought to be entrusted to someone with a feeling for what is good in it. For all its flaws, this elite does have many virtues. Its moral seriousness contrasts favorably with the frivolousness of certain earlier generations, and its sense of pragmatism, which can sometimes be reductive, can also be admirably brisk and hard-nosed. What is needed is someone who can summon a picture of the meritocratic elite’s best selves and call others to meet the example. But this process can begin only when this new ruling class finally owns up to the only name for what it already undeniably is.


Meritocracy Misunderstood

In a 2001 op-ed for The Guardian, Michael Young, the sociologist and former Labor Party politician who coined the term meritocracy, lamented its widespread misuse. Herewith an excerpt: 

I have been sadly disappointed by my 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy. The book was a satire meant to be a warning (which needless to say has not been heeded) against what might happen to Britain between 1958 and the imagined final revolt against the meritocracy in 2033.

Underpinning my argument was a non-controversial historical analysis of what had been happening to society for more than a century before 1958, and most emphatically since the 1870s, when schooling was made compulsory and competitive entry to the civil service became the rule. 

Until that time status was generally ascribed by birth. But irrespective of people’s birth, status has gradually become more achievable. 

It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others. 

Ability of a conventional kind, which used to be distributed between the classes more or less at random, has become much more highly concentrated by the engine of education. 

A social revolution has been accomplished by harnessing schools and universities to the task of sieving people according to education's narrow band of values. 

The new class has the means at hand, and largely under its control, by which it reproduces itself.