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 Edward Teller's Memoirs.

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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.  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.


I don't have a lot of time to jot down all my thoughts on it, but I like this post on meritocracy.  In particular, I like three points:

First, that our concept of meritocracy motivates people to work frantically but not always thoughtfully, constantly striving for tokens of success.  The most creative advances are often risky, but insecure meritocracy affords less risk tolerance than aristocracy.

Second, she notes that if we completely demolish the idea of meritocracy we motivate even more short-term behavior (in the absence of aristocracy):
What Helen calls "the meritocratic delusion most in need of smashing" - the belief that hard work pays off - is actually a basic corrective for democracy's worst tendencies. Without it, we get not aristocracy, but only a more radical democracy - more short-sighted, impulsive, petty, demanding of immediate gratification (from the state). When the long-term fruits of hard work and achievement are shown to be "delusions," why not just grab what you can while you can, from whoever has it? So, we get got populism. This was not an improvement.

Third, I've noted before that the problem with meritocracy is not that the Ivy League uses SAT scores or whatever, but that we risk moving toward elite monoculture by having only a few ways to get a seat at the table of power.  As the blogger says:
We would never even need to worry about whether meritocrats "represent the country" if it weren't for centralization. Meritocracy was never a principle of representation in the first place. It was a way of determining who is qualified for what task. There is no connection between, say, the work of engineering or medicine, and the task of representing America. It's a recent lefty idea that every institution, profession, and small social gathering ought to be a microcosm of the intersectional identity distribution of the entire country in order to be legitimate. But it's a crazy goal, mathematically impossible to attain, and foolish to pursue. It's only possible to pursue it when there are so few routes to status and affluence that a handful of institutional gatekeepers can collude to very precisely regulate the in-flows, by imposing whatever standards of "merit" they choose. But that is the result of a centralization that co-opted meritocracy, not meritocracy.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

What does it mean to be "Establishment"?

I haven't been blogging much lately because I haven't been reading much of relevance to this blog lately.  But I came across a great post by Timothy Burke that reminded me of one of my old posts on what it means to be an insider or outsider. In noting how many liberal professionals identify with the masses and think of themselves as outside agitators rather than realizing how institutionalized they are, Burke writes:
One of our great weaknesses at times has been how some of us have adopted an insistence that virtue can only derive from marginality, a view that speaking from power is always a fallen and regrettable position. Because we didn’t see our ties to the establishment as virtue and we didn’t understand that our forms of power were important for defending what we had already achieved, because we had a reflexive and attachment to the idea that we were in no way powerful, that our share of the status quo could only be found in some future progress, never even partially achieved, we were unready to wake up in the year 2016 and discover that we were not only a part of an ancien regime threatened by a mob, but that we actually wanted to defend that regime rather than rush to join the mob at the barricades. It would have been better if we’d defended it that way long before this moment. But it will help even now if we recognize that this is part of what we’re doing: defending a structure of manners, of virtues, of practices, of expectations, of constraints and outcomes, against people who either don’t recognize that this structure is important for them or from people who genuinely do not benefit from that structure. That we should not be ashamed to defend our loosely shared habitus, because it really is better for the general welfare than the brutalist, arbitrary, impoverishing alternative that the populist right is pushing forward in many nations.
I myself feel ambivalent about my institutional nature, partly because of my roots in Franciscan grade school, partly because I am a contrarian, and partly because the most institutionally respectable thing in higher ed is to position oneself as a Change Agent.  I'm unabashedly traditionalist, which feels like a very anti-institutional stance when everyone is looking for Great! Amazing! Transformation!  I'd feel more comfortably institutional in a musty old library (for my traditionalist side) with slightly uncomfortable furniture and climate control (for my guilty Catholic roots).

This may be the most controversial part of Burke's post:
Some thought that you were only the Establishment if you were wealthy, or white, or male, or held a certain set of specific political ideologies and affiliations. But you can trace the existence and continuation of a great many jobs–and life situations–to a political economy that depended on the civic, governmental and business institutions built up in the United States and around the world after 1945. The manager of a local dance company in a Midwestern city who only makes $40,000 a year and is an African-American vegan lesbian with a BA from Reed is still linked to the Establishment. That dance company doesn’t exist without the infrastructure where small trickles of revenue flow from cities, states, and nations into such organizations, without the educated professionals who donate because they believe in the arts, without the dancers themselves who chase a life of meaning through art but who also want to get paid. It’s not that there wasn’t art–or patronage of art–in the 19th Century or the early 20th Century–but there was less of it, and it was less systemically supported, and less tied to a broad consensus at the civic and social center about the value of art and education everywhere. Some of us are very powerful in the Establishment, some of us grossly misuse and abuse the power of the Establishment, some of us are the wealthy beneficiaries of its operations and others poorer and less powerful at its edges. But even out at the edges, still linked, still reliant on the system, and still in some sense believers in much of what the Establishment entails.
I'm from the middle class, which is above the lower-middle class but at the bottom of the Establishment.  We have comfort derived from norms and continuity but little room for excess.  We fool ourselves into thinking that we're commoners, but we have a level of safety that the lower-middle class doesn't (while they in turn have just enough employability to not be among the truly poor). Nonetheless, we and our compatriots above and below all insist that we're equally middle-class. This American trait of everyone insisting that they're middle class (no matter how high or low they actually are) is of old lineage, as noted by de Tocqueville.

However, when those of us from the middle class move up the ladder, and find ourselves among the children of the upper-middle class, we can see both what we had and what we didn't have, so we are massively turned off when the children of the upper-middle class (and above) put on airs of commoner status:
So you've been to school for a year or two
And you know you've seen it all,
In Daddy's car thinking you'll go far,
Back east your type don't crawl.
Play ethnicky jazz to parade your snazz,
On your five grand stereo.
Bragging that you know
How the ******* feel cold
And the slum's got so much soul!
It's time to taste
What you most fear!
Right guard will not help you here.
Brace yourself my dear,
It's a holiday in Cambodia,
It's tough kid, but it's life.
It's a holiday in Cambodia,
Don't forget to pack a wife.
There are days when those lyrics run through my head repeatedly.

However, what should be more controversial is this part:
We need to identify the necessary heart of our established systems and practices, whether it’s in a small non-profit, a government office, a university, or a corporate department, and be ready to mercilessly abandon the unnecessary procedures, processes and rules that have encrusted all of our lives like so many barnacles. Those of us who are in some sense part of the larger networks of the Establishment world, even at its edges, can endure the irrelevance of pointless training sessions, can patiently work through needless processes of measurement and assessment, can parse boring or generic forms of managerial prose to find the real message inside. We’ve let this kind of baroque apparatus grow up around the genuinely meaningful institutional systems and structures that we value because it seems like too much effort in most cases to object against it, and because much of this excess is a kind of stealthy job creation program that also magnifies the patronage opportunities for some individuals. But this spreading crud extends into the lives of people who are not primed to endure it, and who often end up victimized by it, and even for those of us who know our way around the system, there are serious costs to the core missions of our institutions, to clarity and transparency, and to goodwill. It’s time to make this simpler, more streamlined, more focused, without using austerity regimes or “disruption” as the primary way we accomplish that streamlining. We don’t need to get rid of people, we just need to get rid of the myriad ways we acquiese to the collection of more and more tolls on the roads we traverse in our lives and work.
I whole-heartedly support it, but many people in my professional class would scream bloody murder.