A few months ago, I wrote an article for the Atlantic about the deficiencies of standardized aptitude tests such as the “College Boards.” I had been planning for some time to write a complementary article for this magazine about the importance of assessing actual competence rather than aptitude, when one of the letters the Atlantic received about my article caught my eye. It came from a man in Rockville Centre, New York, and its gist was this:

“I thought we were barely emerging from the murk of the egalitarian seventies, that we were beginning to recognize its’ consequences: college students who can’t read, cashiers who can’t add, telephone operators who can’t speak. So here is an article saying just the wrong things at the wrong time.” I quote the letter here because it perfectly sums up the attitude I want to rebut. This man is saying, in effect, that if you are concerned about the people who can’t read and add and speak, you have to bliridly cling to standards like the College Boards or the IQ tests—even though every bit of evidence shows they have at best a fuzzy connection to the skills you are looking for, and even though you know that, in so doing, you guarantee that the children of people who are down and out in this generation will be down and out too, for no better reason than the circumstances of their birth and rearing.

My purpose in this article will be to argue, as plainly as possible, the alternate case. Precisely because of the failures that man mentioned—and the ones he chose to omit, the public school teachers who watch the clock, the auto makers who scratch their heads in wonder as the domestic market is taken over by foreign cars—we cannot be content with a system that measures people’s ability according to the educational credentials they have collected over the years. If we want people who can read, add, and speak-and repair cars, perform surgery, lead men in combat-we must start measuring performance, rather than credentials, knowing as we do that in this, and only this way will we see anything like the reward-according-to-competence that has long been the center of our “meritocratic” creed.

The Right Stuff?

Today, the premise of our meritocracy is that the schools will select those with the greatest ability, hone their minds and equip them with further skills, and grant them degrees as proof of their superior performance. Those with the right stuff get ahead. Those without it end up on the bottom of the job pyramid. This may frustrate the “egalitarians,” but it is the price we pay for putting the right people in the right jobs.

The great virtue of two new books—The Credential Society, by Randall Collins (Academic Press), and The Regulation of Psychotherapists, by Daniel B. Hogan (Ballinger)—is that they look behind the smug certainty of this creed to examine the real relation between education, credentials, and performance on the job. Together they blow the man from Rockville Centre out of the water, for they show that a real concern for performance is more profoundly egalitarian than the sham performance standards we accept today.

The books’ approaches are quite different: Collins, a sociologist from the University of Virginia, has worked up an abstract theoretical view of the stratification of the American economy. Hogan, a lawyer and social psychologist at Harvard, has filled four volumes with an exhaustively detailed look at aspects of competence and regulation in just one profession. Yet the same questions seem to lie at the bottom of both books—whether success by the rules of the educational meritocracy guarantees the ability, to perform, and whether the corresponding “failures” arise from individual defect. The answer both authors suggest is no.

Collins works from the premise of bias in the meritocratic selection system—that is, that the janitor’s son, no matter what his theoretical “ability,” will have less chance to display it than the manager’s son. When the principle is stated this way, no sane man can deny it—but most would go on to argue that, like sin and sickness, it is an inevitable fact of life. Most people sense that even if such a system is cruel or “unfair,” it still turns out the people best qualified to do the job. It is this part of the equation that Collins and Hogan challenge; in addition to being unfair, they say, the system is not even efficient.

The meat of Collins’ evidence is a number of studies showing that the training required for professional positions is more important as a means of monopolizing income and protecting status than as a way of developing important occupational skills. He shows that, over the last half century, the degree requirements for almost every sort of job have dramatically increased. These days, managers must have master’s degrees, and clerks must have BAs. Almost none of this credential inflation, he says, is due to any increase in the sophistication of the jobs themselves; most practical job skills, he shows in a number of studies, are still learned on the job. Rather, the degree requirements are a rationing mechanism for the positions of economic and social influence. As long as firms require all managers to have advanced degrees, no one who enters the firm as a file clerk or secretary has much chance of moving up. “Secretaries,” he says, “are in a perfect situation for on-the-job learning of managerial skills. At present, … virtually no secretary is ever promoted to take her boss’s position. Nevertheless, this is not only technically feasible, but once was the standard promotion line, before the late 19th century, when secretaries were males operating as apprentices for later administrative responsibility.” In English and American novels of manners of the 18th and 19th centuries, some eager young striver is always hoping to make his way in the world by signing on as secretary to a Great Man. That line of promotion ran from David Copperfield to Billy Rose, who got his introduction to the world of finance and show business after starting as secretary to Bernard Baruch.

That line has ended now. These days, Baruch would take Billy Rose aside and tell him that he really ought to go back to school to get his MBA, and Horatio Alger’s heroes would have been discouraged from applying to a four-year college because of disappointing IQ scores in the early years. Their places would be taken by those with the proper complement of grades and degrees. These years of education may well give today’s boss fodder for more varied use of leisure time and a richer life of the mind, but—according to Randall Collins—they will not necessarily have made him better qualified to do the job. Collins cites some of the abundant academic evidence on this point—the report presented to the American Association of Medical Colleges in 1963 showing that those who do well in medical schools are not necessarily good doctors, Ivar Berg’s demonstration in 1970 that in most technical industries, engineers and research scientists with less education did better than their counterparts with more—but the most vivid illustrations are embedded in the detail of Daniel Hogan’s book.

High-Input Workers

Hogan’s ambition is to open up the profession of psychotherapy, at every level from psychoanalyst to encounter group leader to social worker, and see what makes it tick. The first half of his first volume (the other three volumes are mainly reference books) details exactly what traits and qualities distinguish an effective psychotherapist from an ineffective one. The standard for “effectiveness” is output—that is, changes in the patient’s condition—rather than input, such as how much effort the therapist applies, how much he charges, how much training he’s had. In the second part of the book, with the same painstaking thoroughness, Hogan goes through the qualities demanded of those who want to be psychotherapists-who gets into the professional schools, what traits are encouraged there, what skills are required to pass the licensing tests.

“Contrary to much professional opinion,” Hogan says, “the effectiveness of therapists is more determined by the presence or absence of certain personality characteristics and interpersonal skills than technical abilities and theoretical knowledge.” The skills of the psychotherapists, as Hogan describes them, are mainly common-sense human skills—traits like warmth, empathy, reliability, a lack of pretentiousness or defensiveness, a sensitivity to human subtlety, an ability to draw people out. “The necessary qualities are very similar to those one looks for in a good friend.” These are not traits that can be quantified and detected on a multiple-choice exam, but they are real, and can be measured in creative ways. When people possess them, Hogan says, they can generally be effective therapists—whether or not they’ve had much detailed “professional” training. Hogan concludes, from his survey of the research, that in half of all “effectiveness” studies, non-professional therapists did better than professionals in helping patients improve, “despite their lack of education and despite their lack of knowledge in the field of personality dynamics.”

Hogan’s book is filled with studies documenting this point. In one study conducted in 1965, five laymen—only one of them with a college degree—received less than 100 hours training in therapy skills. Then they were put in charge of therapy groups made up of people who had been hospitalized, on the average, for more than 13 years. Under their treatment, more than half of the patients improved. Ten years earlier, in a study of the ability to judge people, R. Taft “concluded that physical scientists, other non-psychologists [such as personnel workers], and beginning psychology graduate students were as good or better at judging people as experienced clinical psychologists.” In an article called “On Being Sane in Insane Places,” published in 1973, D. Rosenhan described eight perfectly healthy “pseudopatients,” who voluntarily sought admission to hospital mental wards. They were instructed to answer all questions truthfully, except for name and employment, and to invent one “presenting symptom.” Once admitted to the psychiatric ward, the pseudopatients stopped faking any symptoms and behaved as they would in normal life.

“What happened to these normal individuals was extraordinary,” Hogan says. “All of them were hospitalized with the diagnosis of schizophrenia, except for one person who was diagnosed as a manic-depressive psychotic. The total length of hospitalization varied from seven to 52 days, with an average of 19. During the pseudopatients’ entire hospital stay, none of the psychiatrists, nurses, or other professionals suspected that these people might be normal. Interestingly, the ward patients were quite suspicious, with 35 of a total of 118 patients voicing their doubts about the first three admittees alone.” Now, this case may be extreme. Presumably some psychiatrist, somewhere, can tell a normal person from a nut. But it at least plants the seed of wonder: are there some judgments that non-professionals (let alone hospitalized mental patients) can make quite as skillfully as those with full pedigree and certification?

The Hardest Question

As against the common-sense qualities that lead to therapeutic success, Hogan lists the traits the profession considers crucial for licensing and training. By and large, they are detailed, technical skills demanding many years of preparation. “For traditional psychotherapy,” Hogan says, “psychiatrists stress an understanding of human biology, neurology, and psychopharmacology; psychologists stress personality dynamics and interpersonal behavior; and social workers believe that a theoretical understanding of environmental influences on behavior is essential. … In addition, each school of therapy usually insists that its adherents possess a thorough grounding in the particular theory espoused by that school.”

Indeed, some of these skills may be crucial in some cases. Before turning a disturbed patient over to a warm, empathetic non-professional, one would want to be sure his complaints did not arise from chemical imbalance, from injury, or from a tumor. Specialists in neurology and psychopharmacology could make judgments in those areas that non-specialists could not. But once the possibility of those disorders has been eliminated, technical knowledge apparently counts for nothing in restoring most mental patients to health. If technical qualification is taken as a proxy for effectiveness as a therapist, and if only those who can stay in school for years and years can collect professional fees for their skills, have not the rules of the meritocracy gone awry? Are we not, as Hogan and Collins suggest, rewarding credentials rather than competence? Shouldn’t we be licensing people for specific demonstrated competence, rather than for entry into a broad professional class? Can we claim that the meritocracy is interested in either justice or merit, when its standards diverge so far from those of real performance?

For most of us, this is the hardest question about the meritocracy, for it upsets the emotional and intellectual premises on which the entire system is based. As long as we accept the rough justice of the standards of selection, we can abide the inevitable cruelty of the results, as rookies on a football team acknowledge the reality that some of them will be cut. Despite evidence like Hogan’s, people still believe on some unspoken level that there is reason in the results. They may concede, as a debating point, that there is a difference between doing well on the Law School Admissions Test and being a good lawyer, but they feel something else in their bones. They recognize, as a mature, adult reality, that whatever may be wrong with these standards, they still produce the people you are looking for. This faith was perhaps put best by a test designer at the Educational Testing Service. Yes, he said, the skills measured by the tests might be somewhat arbitrary; yes, they largely measured exposure to literate, upper-middle-class culture during the children’S formative years. And yes, again, they tended to follow lines of economic privilege, replicating in one generation’s educational achievements the advantages and comforts of the generation before. It certainly is a pity that so many children never really have a chance to perform on the tests because of the disadvantages of their upbringing. “But in general,” he said, “the kids who know these things know a lot else. A lot.” He reflected the general faith that, if the measures are imprecise, they are still effective, and that those who run the gauntlet deserve the prize.

Shaking The Faith

“That assumption is simply wrong,” says Paul Pottinger of the National Center for the Study of the Professions, a group that has concentrated on the connection between competence and credentials. “I’ve never seen any evidence anywhere that those who do well academically do well in life—except for getting the credential that enables them to hold a professional position. Some of the most effective human service workers, for example, are middle-aged black ladies who are paid practically nothing for their case work, while some supervisor with an advanced degree and a license earns twice as much and tells them what to do, even though she couldn’t come close to them in daily work.” This is only one piece of the evidence that Pottinger and others have collected to shake one’s faith that credentials separate those who can perform from those who can’t.

• David McClelland is a psychologist at Harvard, whose article, “Testing for Competence Rather than Intelligence,” published seven years ago, has become a work of gospel for many who challenge the credential system. McClelland’s own consulting firm, called McBer, has concentrated on developing ways to measure abilities that elude the grasp of most multiple-choice tests.

One of his projects concerned the foreign service, which has traditionally weeded out prospective diplomatic officers on the basis of the foreign service entry exam. This is an academic-proficiency test, designed by the Educational Testing Service and similar to such other ETS products as the Scholastic Aptitude Test and the Graduate Record Exam—but it is harder, and more laden with questions of factual historical knowledge. The test might well predict grade performance in graduate courses in history or international relations, but the State Department discovered that it did not reveal which of its candidates was likely to perform well in the foreign service.

At the State Department’s request, McClelland and his associates tried to find out exactly what qualities did make for success in the foreign service. They canvassed widely within the department to find out which diplomats were most generally admired and then analyzed what made those people different from the rest. “You don’t just ask them their opinion about what it takes to do a good job,” McClelland says, “they may not know, or may just have general ideas. Instead, you ask them to describe in minute detail actual episodes of how they function on the job.”

For the foreign service, the traits revealed this way included things like public speaking ability, negotiating skill, a sense of “power networks,” and what McClelland calls “leadership skills, things like personal presence. These things sound indefinable, but you know them when you see them. Then there are intellectual competencies, which you measure with tests that are entirely different from normal IQ tests. You don’t use the multiple-choice format, but tests of ‘thematic analysis,’ where you give them a set of materials and ask them to conceptualize it, which is exactly what a political officer is supposed to do. Then you canjudge the accuracy and. insight of their conceptualization.” Indeed, rejection of the multiple-choice format is the basic premise for all these tests, since any multiple-choice question measures how well a person can select among alternatives someone else has selected, rather than assessing the very different kinds of intelligence needed to choose a set of alternatives yourself, or to come up with the unconventional approach or answer that most people would overlook. McClelland’s tests include simulated interviews, essay questions, subjective measurements of how the candidate “handles” a situation-and in general, they strive to make the test conditions resemble their real life correlates as closely as possible. The irony is that, despite all McClelland’s hopes that these new “competence” measures could help the foreign service choose and train its members, the foreign service associations grew wary of the whole idea and eventually let it die.

• Ten years ago, in a book called Education and Jobs: The Great Training Robbery, Ivar Berg reported on a study conducted at the Federal Aviation Administration to measure competence among the 507 top-ranking air traffic controllers. The question was whether advanced educational requirements would produce more competent controllers, and the answer was no. “This complicated job,” Berg said, “might well require, not merely the details of engineering or management science or mathematics, but also all the supposed ‘correlates’ of education-a disciplined mind, for example-and the more personal qualities that education is supposed to produce-reliability, steadfastness, responsibility, ability to think quickly, motivation, etc.” Yet in total violation of these expectations, the heart of the meritocratic creed, half of these toprank controllers had no formal education beyond high school, having received instead rigorous technical training from the FAA. “Because it was ‘stuck with’ less educated men,” Berg says, “… the FAA became a little laboratory in which the relevance of education for attainment of, and achievement in, important managerial and technical positions could be examined. Education proves not to be a factor in the daily performance of one of the most demanding decision-making jobs in America.”

• When it comes to hiring teachers, there are two qualities that count. One is thorough knowledge of a subject area—English, biology—and the other is the desire and ability to stand before a class and teach. When teachers are hired for public schools, neither of them matters; what counts is a third quality, the possession of a degree from a teachers college and the subsequent state certification. Private schools, freed of the need to hire certified teachers, can look for candidates with the first two qualities, which helps explain why private schools tend to be better than most public schools. On most private school faculties, you will find a few veterans of the public school system, a few others who have taken education courses-but a majority of teachers who have studied a subject like French or history, never bothered with education training, and have proven in practice that they know how to teach. Most public schools are under the domination of the credentialing industry (the teachers colleges) and a union that resists to the death on-the-job evaluations of real teaching skill. In an excellent Texas Monthly article, “Why Teachers Can’t Teach,” Gene Lyons examined the effects of this creed: Teachers’ training is heavy on flannel-board use and theories of constructive playtime and light on content; it labels “unqualified” some who prove to be the most effective teachers, and produces tired, tenured civil servants who waste their and their students’ time.

• In the peacetime military, promotion generally depends on getting along with your superior and advancing the peacetime interests of your service—which, in turn, generally means promoting its mission and increasing its budget. Rare men—Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley—combine peacetime skills with wartime effectiveness. The Ulysses S. Grants are failures in the peacetime military, their talents revealed only by the merciless demands of war. James Webb, an Annapolis graduate and veteran of combat in Vietnam, recently pointed out in the Washingtonian magazine that the desire to make the military a laboratory for social uplift has widened the gap between promotion and performance. As the military has been judged more and more on its adherence to political goals-equal opportunities for women, civil liberties for enlisted menand less on its readiness for combat, it has shied from harsh, realistic judgments of leadership skills. Webb says that, in his years at Annapolis, judgments of a midshipman’s “leadership” were based on repeated observations, necessarily subjective, of how he dealt with his colleagues, how he adjusted to different environments, how he bore up under prolonged physical and mental stress. Now midshipmen, male and female, are evaluated as “leaders” according to their grades in a class on leadership skills.

• Professions like law and medicine embrace specialties demanding widely different skills. There is as much difference between the talents of the tax lawyer and the trial lawyer as between those of an internist and an orthopedist. Yet once a lawyer passes the bar, he is allowed to practice any kind of law he chooses, while someone with the manual talents for microsurgery cannot hope to enter that profession unless he has spent the years of college and medical school learning essentially the same things as the future psychiatrist.

The Revolutionary NFL

What these examples suggest, especially those involving law and medicine, is a system more attentive to the demands of preserving status than enlivened by the desire to measure competence in specific tasks. True, the medical societies (unlike the lawyers) have rules of their own to reduce the odds that the ophthalmologist will palpate your prostate—although their assumption is still that anyone with an MD can handle anything in a pinch. But there is nothing in the regulation of medicine comparable to the federal requirement that every airline pilot demonstrate his ability on every single type of aircraft he wants to fly. Nor is there anything resembling the National Football League’s practice of open tryouts, where the occasional offbeat character (who usually shows up in headlines with nicknames like “The Place-Kicking Bartender”) can demonstrate his ability to catch the pass or kick the ball and win a spot on the team, even though he has not come through the normal channels of big-college ball like everyone else.

In responsible quarters, the sporting comparison will no doubt be laughed off as frivolous. But it is truly a shame that we don’t have some kind of professionals’ pentathlon or rookie-week tryouts and cuts for lawyers, because sports, for all its do-or-die excesses, is the single area of American life in which performance matters more than anything else. The only fields that even come close are show business and politics-all of them asking, “What can you do today,” rather than “How did you look 20 years ago?” Sports is also the arena of success with the most dramatic evidence of “social mobility”; you cannot draw a chart connecting success in professional sports with advantages of upbringing, except, perhaps, in pro basketball, the “advantage” of growing up in a big city slum. This is not a coincidence. When you place the emphasis on performance, the other worries take care of themselves. Who has ever fretted about imposing an “affirmative action” recruiting program on the NFL?

Sports also teaches the lesson that abilities are separable. Except in the decathlon, people aren’t selected for “general athletic ability,” like the “general academic ability” that is measured in most standardized tests. They are chosen instead for their specific ability to run, throw, jump, hit, kick. If athletes were chosen for “general ability,” they would all have the physique of Bruce Jenner. But a team’s best pitcher may be, like Kent Tekulve, a walking stick.

Consider the difference in the professional meritocracy. Visit the typical prep school, and you will mainly see the brain-world’s equivalents of Bruce Jenner—corn-fed, nicely bulked out from early age—rather than the Kent Tekulves. As Jenner is in his field, they are judged for “general” promise, rather than narrower, more specific skills. Even those who make such judgments—the admissions officers, teachers, and test-makers—surely know from their experience that adult intelligence shows itself in a variety of different ways. There is the ability to plan; the ability to analyze rapidly a fixed set of alternatives; the ability to see the alternative that is not set before you; the ability to read others’ thoughts and motives; the ability to criticize; the ability to create; the ability to supervise—to name just a few of perhaps a thousand. Once people have entered a field of work, everyone within the field recognizes the differences these separate talents make. Yet we pretend that they’re unimportant—or that they are adequately approximated by a score on the Law School Admissions Test—when it comes time to certify people for entry into different professions.

Why Must We Predict?

Already I can hear the voice from Rockville Centre. All you’re asking for, he says, is better predictive tests. How about a trial-lawyer aptitude test for students in the seventh grade, and an ability-to-plan predictor to refine the tracking system in the elementary schools? Well, to an extent that’s so, but not in the way the current meritocrats assume. They think that prediction is essential to guard against the horror of admitting someone to law school who might not prove to be up to the work.

The real need for prediction is in those fields—of which completing law school is not one—where the costs of incompetence are irreversible and grave. Air traffic controllers, for example: you can’t wait to see by trial and error whether they’ve grasped the principle of keeping airplanes a safe distance apart. Or ambulance technicians, who must demonstrate before they go on the job that they know the difference between a tourniquet placed on the leg and one placed on the neck. According to “Pro-Forum,” a publication of the National Center for the Study of the Professions, a new program called the National Registry for Emergency Medical Technicians “has developed one of of the most detailed, thorough, and job-related skill examinations of all certifying agencies.” Prospective candidates need not prove they’ve spent years in college, but they must show they can handle simulated emergencies at eight different examination stations. “Examination conditions are made as realistic as possible,” Pro-Forum says. “At one station, for example, candidates are given two-and-a-half minutes to treat a 60-year-old male bar fight victim who has been stabbed in the abdomen. The ‘patient’ is instructed to appear combative and to have difficulty breathing. The make-up person simulates facial abrasions, a protruding knife, and chest wound.”

There are also cases where a sensible look at past performance helps predict those who will have the competence you are looking for. Success in moot court competitions generally indicates people with the trial lawyer’s on-the-feet speaking skill. The school paper, the science fair, the debate squad, the football team—all give people an opportunity to demonstrate their competence in realistic tests, outside the normal, narrow limits of academic measures.

But in most cases, what we need is hot more prediction, but more determination to measure performance at each step in life, and to give those who have demonstrated mastery of one step the opportunity to move to the next. This requires, for one thing, separating the academic functions of education from its role in preparing people for occupational skills (as Robert Kaus discusses at greater length on page 50). Let’s let the best scholars get the best academic training; but for as many other professions as possible, let’s overturn the idea of creating credentialed cadres at an early age, and base advancement on the principle of demonstrated competence.

For specifics, an example from medicine: in theory, there is no reason nurses should not be able to learn, from their experience on the job, triage-style diagnostic skills and forms of minor surgery that do not depend on the broad medical knowledge that now comes with an MD degree. Still speaking theoretically, the nurses should be able to prove, by passing rigorous, realistic observations, that they have mastered those skills—and then be free to perform them, collecting a commensurate financial reward. Some nurses who had moved this far might also feel the drive to fill in the missing parts in their general medical knowledge; they should be able to take a year or two off for academic training—even though they did not finish college or score well on the Medical College Admission Test the first time through—and thereby show, by performance testing, that they were ready to take another step toward the top. Not all of them would want to do it, nor would all be able. But some would, and as things are now arranged, they have no chance in the world of building their way up. Randall Collins’ prescription follows the same general lines: “All medical careers would begin with a position as orderly, which would be transformed into the first stage of a possible apprenticeship for physicians. After a given number of years, successful candidates could leave for a few years of medical school (two years seems sufficient background for most practitioners, and this could be done equally well at an undergraduate or postgraduate leveL .. ), and then return to the hospital for advanced apprenticeship training of the sort now given in internship and residency programs …. Advanced specialties would be taught as they now are-through further on-the-job training; only medical researchers would be involved in lengthy schooling.”

Scrap the Annapolises

Or consider the service academies, which in their current conception represent exactly the pattern we need to change. The goal of West Point and Annapolis is essentially like that of the medical schools: to pick out a group of people at the start of their careers and prepare them for the influential positions they will presumably hold. The cadets and midshipmen are taught discipline, courage, patriotism, the sense of being part of an elite—and then are sent out to lead an army, 99.9 per cent of whose members know that their chances to compete for positions of leadership ended when they did not go to the Point. The enlisted man may work himself all the way up to first sergeant or chief petty officer, but barring a miracle that’s as far as he’s going.

Why not base the whole progression, from private up to general, on demonstrated ability at each step? I would like to see West Point and Annapolis totally scrapped in their current incarnations, and re-conceived as places where military men and women would go when they needed and were ready for such academic training—whether that was en route to becoming sergeant or en route to general. This does not mean turning the brigades over to the privates. It does mean that everyone interested in a military career would start as an enlisted man and would move up step by step by proving competence at each stage. The first test would be competence as a squad leader—and those who did well at that could keep moving up. When each candidate was ready for a period of· broader education, which might be a different time in each candidate’s career, he could go to the academies for a year or two of academic training—and then back to the ranks for more steps up the sequence of demonstrated skill. At a time when the military’s greatest worry is the defection of its career enlisted men, might this not attract those who would welcome a chance to become commanders or colonels themselves, rather than having the Commander walk through the boiler room, slap them on the back, and say “We couldn’t do it without you, Chief’? Perhaps it might even instill in the entire military some of the “clan'” and “esprit” officers now find so sadly lacking among men who were not with them at the Point.

I turn again to the letter from Rockville Centre, its tone in harmony with the sentiments sounded from Commentary magazine to the writings of Ben Wattenberg. To question any institution is to “knock America,” they tell us—more, it is an assault on standards, on legitimate distinctions of quality, on rationality itself. Will it ever be possible for them to see that the higher loyalty to standards and· to quality lies in abandoning credentials and embracing competence? That the true revolution of equality could come from the very same step? Perhaps they will respond to a metaphor that, if non-intellectual, is pro-American to the core: Why should the benefits of real performance standards be confined to the NFL?

James Fallows

James Fallows began his magazine career at the Washington Monthly in the 1970s, later serving as editor of U.S. News & World Report and as a White House speechwriter. He has written 12 books, the most recent being Our Towns, coauthored with his wife, Deborah Fallows, which was a national best-seller and the basis of a 2021 HBO documentary.