Scott McLemee
Beyond Meritocracy
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Newsday, 18 November 2005

THE CHOSEN: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale and Princeton, by Jerome Karabel. Houghton Mifflin, 711 pp.
It seems strange to think that the word "meritocracy" was coined fairly recently and that it was not originally a term of praise. But Michael Young's book, The Rise of Meritocracy, published in 1958, projected an imaginary future in which the elite consisted purely of those who had excelled in school and were inarguably competent. The result was not a utopia, however. The meritocratic social order was not a brutal dictatorship, but it was depressing even so.

The author was a member of the British Labour Party. At one level, he was pleased that postwar reforms had improved the educational prospects of smart working-class kids. But when he extrapolated the trend, he worried. There had always been smart people in the lower orders -- and ample mediocrity among those born into the elite. While this arrangement was wasteful and unfortunate, it had some redeeming effects. For one thing, it was good for plebian self-respect to know that the overlords were a bit stupid.

But what would happen if the ruling class were drawn solely from the ranks of people who were smart, talented and well-educated? The morale of those beneath them would suffer; justified resentment would give way to justified despair. It would also be bad for the meritocratic elite, filling them with even more arrogance than usual for a dominant group. (As the historian narrating Young's book recounted, the end result was another revolution.)

In a way, The Chosen, by Jerome Karabel, is an account of how the United States avoided that kind of meritocracy -- thanks to periodic fine-tuning of the admissions standards for Harvard, Yale and Princeton. In the early years of the 20th century, each school tended to admit students more or less according to their academic qualifications. The dim sons of the gentry still enjoyed some advantage in getting in. After all, their parents could always send them to prep schools. But the emphasis on academic criteria for admission was creating a problem on Ivy League campuses. And just to give that problem a name, let's call him Irving.

His parents were Eastern European immigrants belonging to what the admissions officers called "the Hebrew race." He was smart and perhaps somewhat aggressive about academic performance. (By contrast, a WASP gentleman disdained too obvious a show of effort or ambition.) And Irving was not especially interested in polo.

"By 1918," writes Karabel, "when the Association of New England Deans first discussed this issue, Harvard's freshman class was 19 percent Jewish."

The figures were lower at Yale and Princeton. Even so, the percentage of Jewish enrollment had increased at all three schools. The deans were terrified. It wasn't that they themselves were anti-Semitic, mind you. But young Chester Throckmorton II might not be so broad-minded. He could decide to go to school elsewhere. Then there wouldn't be any donations from Throckmorton Senior. It was a bad situation. Something had to be done.

Something was. Each university created its own intricate process of sifting applications -- not just to keep the number of Jewish students within certain limits, but to ensure that non-academic standards of "merit" were given due weight.

The latter sounds like a fine and worthy goal. But in fact, it was not nearly so generous a move as it might sound. The criteria of "character" and "manliness" left plenty of room for discretion on the part of the applications officer. Obvious mediocrity need be no obstacle, provided the student had plenty of ... well, we could use the word "qualifications." But "dollars" is perhaps more to the point.

"Which would you admit," one administrator asked, "the millionaire's son who is rather supercilious now and is only mediocre academically but will one day fall heir to the means of doing great good for society, or the grade-hound?"

Karabel is a sociologist, though he brings to his research an appetite for fine-grained historical narrative -- much of it drawn from archival sources that few other scholars have explored. There is something a bit voyeuristic about reading The Chosen. The memoranda in which the college administrators work out how and why they will adjust their admissions policies were not intended for public consumption.

Very often they were keeping an eye on what their peers at the other Big Three schools were doing. The debates over admitting women into Yale and Princeton during the late 1960s didn't reflect social changes, or any real sense of justice, so much as the worry that Harvard was drawing worthwhile male applicants (sons of millionaires, for example) precisely because it was coed.

My sketch of Karabel's argument has stressed the element of economic self-interest on the part of university administrators. But his analysis is more nuanced than that. In the 1920s, the grounds for making it more difficult for Irving Immigrantsky to get into the Big Three were not primarily economic. The leaders of the most prominent universities wanted to retain their favored relationship with other elite institutions in American society.

So they had to recalibrate their sense of "merit" to reduce the emphasis on purely academic criteria. They created standards that reflected the prevailing values of those who already possessed high social status.

"The very definition of 'merit,'" writes Karabel, "always bears the imprint of the distribution of power in the larger society. Those who are able to define 'merit' will almost invariably possess more of it, and those with greater resources -- cultural, economic, and social -- will generally be able to ensure that the educational system will deem their children more meritorious."

So the nightmare meritocracy that Young wrote about almost 50 years ago is impossible. As Karabel writes, "The ideal of a meritocracy -- a system in which power plays no role in defining 'merit' and in which rich and poor alike enjoy genuinely equal opportunities to succeed -- is inherently unattainable."
In other words, there will always be smart people who don't rise, as well as stupid people who reach the pinnacle of power. This is comforting, just not very.