Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society by Mario Vargas Llosa.

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Thursday, February 2, 2017

Another critique of meritocracy

In my previous post I linked an essay on meritocracy that is actually a critique of another essay.  Here's the original essay by Helen Andrews in The Hedgehog Review. I lack the time to dissect it in detail, so I'll just quote my favorite parts:

First, a candid acknowledgment of how hard it is to have procedural, neutral meritocracy without de facto aristocracy:
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.”37 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.
If you set up a game, people will play it.

Second, a candid call for the elite to abandon pretenses:
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.
I'm not sure that I buy the prescription, but I certainly agree that affirmative action cannot be achieved neutrally, so if you want to integrate the elites then you should do so unashamedly rather than trying to cook up a procedure that will magically but neutrally deliver the desired result.

A good declension narrative and a critique of separating "critical thinking" skills from knowledge of facts:
“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.”
Every snowflake thinks that their lack of knowledge is compensated for by their superior ability.

It closes with a good call to action:
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.
But how can we do that if we won't admit that we're elites? That's the same problem identified in the Timothy Burke piece that I blogged yesterday.

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