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Meritocracy in America

Well, a day has gone after Independence Day, and I read this interesting article by Bloomberg ($) columnist Adrian Wooldridge about the recent SCOTUS ruling against affirmative action as it applies to higher education. The Court ruled, among other things, that such action violates the 14 Amendment. Wooldridge, who has written a book about meritocracy (he is for it), has these comments:

The most serious problem with affirmative action (and one that the court ignored) is that it is too little too late. The best way to address inequality of opportunity is at the high school level and earlier, rather than at college when most of the damage has already been done. Elite America needs to shift its focus to fixing the supply chain of talent.

The obvious way to start is to abolish affirmative action for the rich, which the court’s judgement leaves in place, despite a lot of tut-tutting, because it is based on class rather than race. Astonishingly, Harvard actively discriminates in favor of ALDCs—athletes, legacies, the Dean’s interest list and children of university employees. For one, that could cover the children of politicians and celebrities as well as people who might give the university lots of money. It also sweetens the pill of diversity for the people who administer it by discriminating in favor of the children of alumni and staff. ALDCs make up less than 5% of applicants to the university every year but 30% of freshmen.

Harvard’s “preferences for the children of donors, alumni, and faculty are no help to applicants who cannot boast their parents’ good fortune or trips to the alumni tent all their lives,” Justice Clarence Thomas acidly wrote in his opinion. ALDCs are also 67.8% white (11.4% are Asian American, 6% are Black and 5.6% are Hispanic). Other elite universities pursue similar policies.

A second method is to emphasize objective rather than subjective assessments of applicants. That means academic and objective tests such as the SATs as opposed to so-called holistic ones that take into account extracurricular activities, personal statements, and measures of potential rather achievement.

I agree with much of this but, being a classical liberal chap that I am, I am sort of opposed to any outside interference with how a private university conducts its admissions policy, period. (If such a place takes taxpayers’ money, or is even forced to do so, that’s a separate issue.) A broader point, maybe, is that in US higher education and to some degree in other Western nations, the “sheepskin effect” of having a degree from a smart university is more potent than the intellectual capital that any person may have accumulated from his or her studies. Bryan Caplan, the economics writer, has written a book where he unpacks the whole issue and argues that much of present higher education, at least in most subjects as taught today, rests on this effect, and is socially regressive to the extent that such places receive State (ie, taxpayer) funding. The issue becomes even more egregious when you have attempts, as in that of the Biden administration, to “forgive” the college loans of people who are, mostly, middle class (and disproportionately women, which plays to how we live in an increasingly “gynocentric social order”, as the “manosphere” writer Rollo Tomassi might put it. (The Supreme Court has ruled against Biden on student loans. It’s been a good week for that court.)

In my view, how Harvard, Yale, Oxford or any other place of higher learning structures its admissions is up to the people who run it. To break any dangerous hold these institutions may have is going to mean a, genuine school choice and a re-focus on excellence in schooling (and encouragement where possible of homeschooling); the closure of government education bureaucracies and the end of monopolies of teacher training certification, which is a crucial problem. We need far more people, from all different backgrounds, to be able to teach. That, in my view, is a big issue. Tinkering with Higher Ed. admissions may do some good, but it is, as Woodridge says, too late when a lot of damage has been done already.

12 comments to Meritocracy in America

  • Paul Marks.

    I fully accept that a morally corrupt university, such as Harvard, may discriminate in favour of the children of donors – if the place gets no taxpayer money, not-one-Dollar, including no government backed “student loans”. Harvard has a massive endowment (due to tax law being rigged in favour of such institutions – which do not pay the taxes individuals are forced to pay) it can finance itself – at least for a while.

    But there is another problem.

    Why is a far left “education”, really indoctrination, at a place like Harvard considered vital for the “good job” that students (and their families) seek?

    It did not use to be the case – before World War II many industries actually shunned “College Boys” in positions of management, finding them both ignorant (ignorant of the industry) and arrogant (unwilling to learn, and filled with an unwarranted sense of superiority over people who had built up the business).

    But as, due to tax law and Credit money, more and more of the economy became dominated by ownerless corporations (whose shares were mostly owned by pension funds and the like – not individuals) so business management became more and more like the government bureaucracy. And the universities getting more and more leftist did not change the “need” for a prospective Corporate bureaucrat to have a “good degree” from a “good university”.

    At this point (I do not deny that once Harvard and co were great places of learning – but no longer) a degree from one establishment American universities (there are a few American universities where the spirit of liberty is kept alive – but not many) should be a-badge-of-shame – and employers should shun such people – the fact that they do not (that they demand college credentials) shows a lot about the employers – and none of it good.

    The United States has moved light years from when it was, basically, a meritocracy – where, for example, a rail hand such as Mr Lincoln could practice law (without ever going to Law School) and where people choose who they went to for medical help – rather than have State licensing authorities choose for them.

  • Steven R

    It’s not the education that a place like Harvard gives. It’s the contacts the student makes while he is there that will serve him for life.

    It ain’t what you know, it’s who you know.

  • Paul Marks.

    By the way – I do accept that there are some honest leftists, at least on this matter.

    Some leftists are denouncing Harvard, and other such places, giving special treatment to the children of people who graduated from these places in the past, or the children of donors. And those leftists who have denounced this are morally right (morally correct – if they do not like the term “morally right”) to do so.

  • Paul Marks.

    Steven R.

    Correct – and a good point. The word is “networking”.

    That is why some students, for example William “Bill” Gates, do not even bother to collect their degree.

    They have gone to Harvard, they have made their contacts, and their family will get them a sweetheart deal with some Corporation (in the case of Mr Gates his family got him the sweetheart deal with IBM).

    When the ordinary person thinks “everything is rigged – this is no more a meritocracy than matter is antimatter” they are correct.

  • Johnathan Pearce (London)

    Paul, I think the way that certain institutions of “higher learning” have been undermined by the sort of ideologies and obsessions you write about explains why to some extent, the SCOTUS ruling was possible that in a way would not have been so a couple or more decades ago. Higher Education is now, and quite widely, seen as a bad joke. The whole “cancel culture” thing, the unruliness, and sheer nastiness, of much of it; the fact that so many products of it are unemployable, half-educated, unpleasant brats who infest HR departments, etc. The “debt forgiveness” racket that is so obviously a pitch for the votes of middle class, often pro-Democrat/Labour women. In this environment, then, the Court felt emboldened to drop the hammer on all this.

    There is, as Wooldridge said, a need for genuine merit to be honoured and encouraged. Because while this nonsense goes on in the West, China and other places are investing billions into higher ed, into STEM subjects. How on earth is the US and other Western nations going to maintain a competitive edge, or defend themselves, when the minds of so many young people (a declining population as birthrates fall) are filled with this rubbish?

  • jgh

    In the UK, where now 50% of 18-year-olds go to university, a university degree is simply a school leaving certificate. It’s just proof that you are alive.

  • jgh

    Additionally, I dispair at the sort of jobs that require entrants to have degrees. I’ve worked in IT Admin where people have spent 50 grand on getting a degree to do what I call “IT Labouring” – resetting passwords and changing printer cartidges. There is absolutely no need for a degree for the vast majority of jobs out there.

  • Kirk

    Academia here in the US has ceased to provide that which we once termed “education”. That was plain to me the first time I encountered a “petroleum engineer” from Stanford, which was my great-uncle’s alma mater. He had the same degree, you see… He was an erudite man, educated to the old standard. You had to be on your toes talking to him, and if you didn’t leave a conversation with him having to check a dictionary or an encyclopedia (as a child… The adults in the room all knew the references and allusions he was prone to using), it was a rare occasion.

    The modern recipient of his degree that I met? A well-trained monkey with absolutely no idea about the rest of the Western canon that he should have gotten in order to be educated. I had to explain Sisyphus to him, in small words. Every time I spoke with that dolt, it was a challenge finding simple enough words to explain the meanings of what I was saying. That it was in a military setting where I had to communicate with both educated officers and putatively uneducated enlisted? He was notable for his charming simplicity; outside his technical field, he knew nothing, not even the barest outline of the Korean War. Which, considering that we were in South Korea, was a bit of a “WTF?” for me… The idea that someone could get through Stanford, and still have zero ability to place said conflict along the timeline of the 20th Century left me a little less than impressed at their educational standards. If they still had any.

    I’m dead serious, about that. Said officer, with a commission in the US Army, had zero idea at all about Korean history. Had not bothered himself to even demonstrate the least little bit of curiosity, either. I had to explain Korea’s colonization by the Japanese, their history during WWII, the aftermath, the Korean War, and on and on and on. My KATUSA soldiers were a little less than impressed, most of them being either recent college grads or students who’d had their educations interrupted.

    Incidentally, that officer? He single-handedly convinced three of my KATUSAs not to seek educational opportunities in the US, after having worked around him. The phrase “Educated, yet idiot…” hadn’t been coined at that point (that I’m aware of…), but it sure as hell suited him to a “T”.

    I don’t know what changed, or when, but the Stanford degree that my great-uncle had in that very same field was not the one he received. I suppose that the fact he’d chosen to pursue a military career rather than getting into actual petroleum engineering work might have been an indicator that the industry had also assessed him and decided “No…”, as well. He was a nice kid, but… Dear God, as an advertisement for US education? Yikes. Of a piece with AOC, I fear.

    I think the best term for what he was would be “Narrowly trained; not educated in any classical sense”.

  • Fraser Orr

    I share Johnathan’s concern that a private institution like Harvard should be able to set whatever guidelines it wants, no matter how stupid, indecent and unfair they might be. In this respect it is similar to another court case recently where it was determined that a Christian wedding web site designer could not be forced to make a web site for a gay couple, irrespective of how unfair that might be. Of course the cases were judged on different legal theories of equal protection and free speech, but conceptually I think they are similar — private institutions should be able to do business however they want to.

    Nonetheless, I think in this case the use of the equal protection clause is important. The 14th amendment applies to the government, both federal and state, it does not AT ALL apply to private businesses like Harvard. It is instead applied to Harvard by virtue of the fact that Harvard does business with the State, and so the state can impose whatever rules it wants on that private business.

    And this is the key point here. The fact that the state (or feds) takes vast resources from the public and then throws it around to assert control is the real problem here. Were the state not funding Harvard they could no doubt do whatever they want. Personally, I think this is a terrible thing, even if, in this case it has the result of more fairness. But at what cost? The ability of the government to control private entities? This along with what we see in places like social media where the government is outsourcing things it can’t do (such as censorship) to supposedly private entities through threats and intimidation, adds up to a terrifying process of the intrusion of government into ever realm of life, into our most private life.

    So I have mixed feelings about the affirmative action ruling. It is pragmatic in the sense that my preferred solution — getting government money out of this polluting influence — is not realistic, so this does correct some wrong. But it is at the cost of accepting a premise — that government can snoop into every corner of life.

    Thankfully for now cake shops and web design firms don’t do much business with the government and so their free speech remains intact for now.

  • Martin

    While I’m sure it’s theoretically possible, I can’t realistically see universities being completely independent of the state. At the minimum they’ll be the military sector research funding I assume, and can’t see that ending anytime soon, especially as the military gets more and more high tech. Given this the idea universities are private institutions that can do what they want seems like letting these institutions have their cake and eat it.

    Same applies to companies that obviously benefit from state largesse, like big tech, big pharma, arms manufacturers, private military companies, and banks.

  • Paul Marks.

    Johnathan Pearce – yes you make a series of good points, and I think you are correct.

    I can think of nothing to add. Other than to say that Donald John Trump appointed some decent (or at least decentish) people to the Supreme Court – most Presidents do not.

  • An interesting view of Harvard from a visiting Englishwoman in 1835