Several years ago in these pages, I reviewed a book by E. Digby Bakzell, the sociologist of the American elite (he invented the term WASP), and heartily endorsed Baltzell’s observation that the old American “Protestant Establishment” (another term Baltzell invented) had been replaced by a new “SAT meritocracy.” I suggested that the rise of the latter group would make a good book of its own.

Since then, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray have published The Bell Curve, which makes claims for the triumph of the SAT meritocracy that make Baltzell’s seem super-cautious, and I have been working on my own book about the history of the American meritocracy. I hope the book, besides laying out what actually happened, will set off a discussion of meritocracy’s strengths and weaknesses.

The word “meritocracy” was invented in 1958 by a British sociologist and Labour Party policy wonk named Michael Young, in a strange, compelling little book of soc-sci-fi called The Rise of the Meritocracy. It is essential to understand that Young invented the word in order to condemn it, and that he wrote the book to persuade liberals to abandon their commitment to the idea of universal, individual equal opportunity. The more this goal is realized, Young thought, the more deeply stratified society will become; and, if success and failure have been derived through a fair competition, the left will be deprived of a rhetoric with which to attack the real problem, inequality itself. Instead of equal opportunity, liberals should promote equality (what conservatives call “equality of result”) as the overarching goal.

In Britain, the Labour Party, although it has now abandoned the goal of equality of result, was founded as explicitly socialist; for it to embrace equal opportunity represented a shift to the right. In America, however, equal opportunity has almost always been the banner under which liberal progress has been achieved and by no stretch of the imagination represents a retreat from higher principles. Second, although Michael Young invented the word meritocracy, the essential idea of a classless society in which one’s station is a product of one’s effort is an old one in America, much older than it is in Britain. Young’s notion that the choice is between a rigid class system run by a hereditary aristocracy and a ruthless meritocracy generating vast inequality doesn’t resonate here because there are other alternatives within our historical memory.

But Michael Young does exert a certain grip on the mind.

America is a huge country with a much less unified culture than you’d think from reading the national press and watching television. The SAT meritocracy is best understood as a distinct, even smallish American subculture—but one that has had enormous influence on society as a whole. The operative idea in the American meritocratie subculture is that in the bad old days (roughly, before the Second World War) the country had slid into being the next thing to a hereditary aristocracy like England. Everything worth running was run by Baltzell’s Protestant Establishment. Members of inconvenient ethnic groups—hell, anybody who had not been educated at a New England boarding school—wasn’t allowed to play. And the favored few had no quality that looked to an outsider like merit.

Believing that the country needed to become strikingly more meritocratic after World War II, a group of prominent educators led by the president of Harvard, James Bryant Conant, set up a system of national testing to discover the meritorious (defining merit as high IQ and good grades in school), get them to elite universities, and put them on course to take over the jobs that had been reserved for Episcopalians. These included parts of the government (the Foreign Service, Cabinet members, and many of their top aides, but not the civil service), tenured faculty positions at Ivy League universities, investment banking, high-end academic research, medicine, and corporate law firms.

For those who have prospered under the Conant system, the idea that it is a perfect meritocracy, and the only meritocratic part of America, is extremely powerful. It is what you grow up on. The meritocratic race begins as early as the age of three (when you take the standardized intelligence test for admission to nursery school), and from then on life is a series of ruthless educational selections, reaching an emotional crescendo with application to college and graduate school. At every step, after you make the cut, your existence becomes a little more rarefied, your contact with everybody else more restricted, and the message that you are superior more explicit. All this only increases your nervousness about the horrifying possibility of being cast out into the general pool if you fail to make the next cut.

Although the word meritocracy isn’t in regular use outside the mandarin subculture, the idea of it is widely accepted almost everywhere in America. Career military officers, farmers, shopkeepers, entrepreneurs, corporate salarymen—all of them believe that in their world, success is a function of merit, not family background or connections. What distinguishes the official, self-conscious, mandarin meritocracy is the use of the education system to judge merit. The meritocratic machinery was set up by professional educators who truly, deeply believed that there is a total overlap between merit and educational merit—that there is no talent the education system doesn’t catch. They were, on the one hand, deeply offended by the undeserved lock that the Protestant Establishment had, and, on the other, certain that the unorganized marketplace could not function meritocratically because it was not systematic enough. The perfect solution to both problems was to reform and expand the education system so that it became essentially the personnel office, the central opportunity provider, of the United States. As one crucial early report by the meritocracy-builders put it, “the democracy of the campus is finer than that of the street.”

So in order to think clearly about how well the American meritocracy works today, it is necessary to uncouple some ideas that have gotten so firmly linked in our minds that we’ve forgotten that they don’t necessarily go together. A meritocracy does not have to be based on educational selection. All opportunity does not have to flow through the education system. That our meritocracy works as it does is the result of decisions we’ve made about how to structure the society. Were these the right decisions? How have they worked out? Those are the questions we should be asking about the meritocracy. More specifically: Does it reward merit in all its forms, or only one kind of merit? Does it provide genuine equal opportunity to all, or only to those who are so situated as to perform well in school?

Taking a Second Look

Let’s divide the evaluation into two parts, elite and mass.

If you are in, or within range of, the mandarin elite, it can be difficult to get enough perspective to see the essential point: the original mission, to find high-IQ young people and put them on a track, has been successfully completed. From within the system, there is a powerful tendency to focus on its imperfections. How many hours have you spent in conversations about the unfairness of someone’s having gotten an undeserved elite berth in the mandarinate? It takes up an enormous amount of psychological space when someone you knew had to go to Cornell instead of Brown because of an affirmative action or alumni-child admit; your strong natural inclination is to think that any deviation from neutral equal opportunity to attend an elite institution is a betrayal of the ideal of equal opportunity for all Americans. But that obscures the true situation, which is that America does a fabulous job of providing the academically outstanding with first-class university education. We are the most IQ-tested and -sorted country in the world, and we are also the country in which it is easiest to get into a first-rate university. The problem of wastage of those high in academic intelligence is not a big problem in America today.

The real problem for the meritocratic elite today is something different. According to the original design, the American meritocracy was supposed to function like Plato’s Republic: the best students would be found and given elaborate special training, and then would become the Guardians, revered leaders of society whose activity was running the State. The American meritocratic mandarins haven’t followed this script. They are selected and trained, yes, but then they don’t do with their lives what they were supposed to. And rather than being treated by the rest of the society as a natural leadership group, they are unpopular. In political-science terms, they’re an elite that lacks legitimacy.

The mandarins were supposed to become technocrat-statesmen who would operate a complicated new national applied-research apparatus and provide policy and administrative expertise to government. As the system actually works, only a few do what they were supposed to do in the public sector. The standard function of the mandarins is to act as high-level and well-paid providers of advice and expertise to business: corporate lawyers, investment bankers, management consultants. They are very good at what they do—the whole world seeks their services—but they are too obviously self-interested to have an automatic high moral standing with the public.

Americans admire rich people who have gone out and started something new, but most of the mandarins are too risk-averse for entrepreneurship. Being devoted primarily to the public good would also win national quality standard appeared nearly insuperable 50 years ago. The feeling was, let’s get the new elite selected and in place and set up a big education machine, and we’ll address the problem of educational opportunity for all later. This hasn’t happened. Instead, over the last half-century the triumph of the SAT meritocracy has made education essential to individual success—alternative routes have been closed off—yet a substantial minority of American public schools are still of unacceptably poor quality. It’s impossible to assert with a straight face that children who attend these schools have the same chance in life as everybody else.

There is a further difficulty: to use an education system, even a perfect one, as the national personnel department is fairer than having an explicitly hereditary aristocracy, but not ideally fair. First, it locks in too narrow a definition of merit. People who don’t have talents that are going to show up on a transcript are disadvantaged unfairly if the transcript is made the gateway to all the good roles in society. Second, education is too front-end loaded. People interact with the education system, for the most part, during the time of life when they are still living with their parents; the idea that making decisions about people based on their educational performance somehow neutralizes the background they were born them admiration, but most of the mandarins don’t have that quality either. Specifically, a decision made very early in the development of the system—to defer the brainy from front-line military service—has disastrously undercut the mandarins’ ability to function as the acknowledged leaders or the society. Rather than being revered, the mandarins, under names like “the cultural elite,” have become a group that one can make political hay by attacking.

On the mass-opportunity side, the American meritocracy has done a much less good job than it has with the task of elite selection. Providing opportunity to all is a much bigger job than selecting and training a small elite, and opportunity was never the main goal of the people who set up the system anyway. Remember that in 1950, only a bare majority of Americans finished high school, and in the rest of the advanced world an eighth grade education was the norm. The country was (and still is) deeply attached to the idea that public education should be provided by small towns, not the national government. To find a way of guaranteeing education to all at a into is a fantasy. It is necessarily, again, to pull yourself forcibly out of grip of the automatic assumptions of the mandarin culture to see that a doctor’s kid from Georgetown who upon graduation from Sidwell Friends gets into Harvard is not someone whose success is wholly a matter of personal effort in an open competition. To construct society so that as many permanent decisions as possible are made by the time people are 22 is to come perilously into range of being an aristocratic system.

The Next Step

What should we do now about meritocracy in the United States? It’s a big, complicated subject that I’ll deal with here by proposing guiding principles, rather than detailed policies.

Principle Number One: Equal opportunity should still be a central, animating, liberal idea. We should recognize that the day of universal equal opportunity is still a long way off and work hard to bring it nearer. We should also recognize that when it arrives, it will not wipe out all economic inequities.

Principle Number Two: Inequality is more acceptable if it is earned, and temporary. The worst kind of inequality is the explicitly inherited kind. Next-worst, though, is the kind that the meritocratic machinery generates, where you are virtually guaranteed a lifetime berth at the top of the income distribution not for actually doing anything, but for getting outstandingly good grades in school. Rewards for true performance—winning the election, directing the hit movie, starting the successful business—are morally preferable to rewards for merely demonstrating potential by being a good student. That is why they are much less resented. Also, true high performance is almost always sporadic; winners don’t get the lifetime lock, but experience ups and downs over time (with the downs giving other people a chance to be winners, and the former winners a lesson in empathy). Inequality is better when it is not the result of a permanent irrevocable grant of high status.

Principle Number Three: If the meritocratic mandarins want to function as national leaders, rather than as business advisors, they must make a greater contribution to and become more personally involved with the rest of the society. Mandarins almost never serve in the military, usually live in isolation from the mainstream, and are often too busy to devote time to community and volunteer activities outside of their careers. They tend to make enough money to live very well, but not enough to be free of having to think about money at all. All that isn’t the worst of it; the worst of it is that mandarins spend their lives being given special handling in a rarefied environment made up of other people like themselves. This produces a strange mix of arrogance (from being told you’re superior so often), insecurity (because the possibility of being put back into the general pool, without the validation of being surrounded by other certified overachievers, is profoundly unfamiliar and scary), and lack of a natural feeling for what life is like outside the compound. A better connection to the rest of society can be forced upon the mandarins, through national service requirements and the like, or it can be adopted by them voluntarily, but if it is not forged one way or another they will become more peripheral in American life.

Principle Number Four: The main purpose of education, especially public education, should be not to select, sort, and order the population, but to equip everyone with as many skills and as much learning as possible. The meritocratic race ought to begin, not end, on graduation day. The main purpose of the education system ought to be opportunity provision, not elite selection.

This last principle sounds simple and common-sensical when stated baldly, but it is actually the most radical of the four, because if carried out it would deeply subvert the structure of the mandarinate. I find that when I try it out on members of the mandarin class, I get a “You’ve lost your mind” look in return. We are all so deeply socialized into the system by now that it’s initially hard to imagine how you’d select people for key roles in the society if not through educational competition. (The answer is, to the greatest extent possible, through performance in apprenticeships, and on the job, and through recognition of important qualities that tests can’t measure, such as courage, character, wisdom, judgment, compassion, and creativity.) And—the deeper, darker problem—there is an unstated, powerful feeling that for the better sort of people to be educated amidst ordinary people would be deadening, even dangerous. Back in 1961 John Gardner, who as head of the Carnegie Corporation was one of the key builders of the American meritocracy, published a book called Excellence in which he agonized (for about five seconds) over the possible unfairness of using the education system to close down life options for most Americans, and then magnanimously acknowledged that we ought to wait “until as late as 18 or 19 years of age” before making final decisions, to give the late bloomers a chance. By now it is ingrained in mandarin culture that any other approach would be madness, rank and dangerous utopianism. To unlock the grip of this not fully acknowledged idea on the minds of the mandarins (and on the structure of the society) will be a huge project.

Let me make a few stipulations about the idea of education for opportunity, not selection.

I am not advocating dumbing down the school system. The reason for people to go to school is to learn, not to be patted on the head. Schools whose students can’t meet a standard are no good. But, on the other hand, the goal is to engender as much learning by as many people as possible, not to maintain high standards for the few best students and warehouse everybody else.

I am not advocating reforming schools with an eye to having them continue to be selective in their essential purpose, but with a modified set of winners. There is a tendency among liberals to want to twist the dials of the meritocracy so as to produce a more diverse, more humane educational elite, via affirmative action and a host of other means. Some of these ideas are good, some aren’t. Here I don’t want to go through them one by one, but instead to say that the main goal is not to alter the appearance of the education-derived elite, but to avoid having an education-derived elite at all, except in those cases where the elite role is one that truly requires selection by education, like a classics professor. (And even he should be subjected to performance tests.)

Finally, carrying out this program will require imposing a much greater degree of centralized, national control upon public education—an idea that currently is not in the acceptable range of the spectrum. The United States has by far the most decentralized education system in the advanced world. When it works, that isn’t a problem, but when it doesn’t work, a higher authority should step in and set a guaranteed minimum level of quality. If the local school board is producing an acceptable educational result—literate, numerate students—then it should be left alone. If it isn’t, authority over the school should keep moving one rung up the ladder, from district to city to state to the federal government, until the school becomes decent. This is already happening in many places (Chicago, New York City, New Jersey), except for the final step of federal takeover in the event of continued failure. Despite all the rhetoric about its incompetence, the federal government does many things well, and nothing as poorly as the way in which the worst American public schools are run.

What I’m proposing here is not an unattainably enormous project. The number of unacceptable public schools is limited. Getting them up to grade is well within the range of possibility. The overall principle is not a radical one either. We have made a society where people who don’t have a decent basic education are consigned to life at the bottom. We have long since committed ourselves to providing everyone with the promise of a decent basic education at public expense. Now it’s just a matter of truly delivering on the promise—which becomes a more pressing cause the fewer options there are for people without education. If the idea of using education primarily to teach the many rather than to anoint the few seems loony to you, you should ask yourself a couple of uncomfortable questions: Do you feel that way because you’ve got such a good deal the way things are now? Have you unconsciously absorbed the idea that the great mass of Americans are people on whom a real education would be wasted?

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Nicholas Lemann

Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for The New Yorker. His most recent book is Transaction Man.