Friday, May 9, 2014

Meritocracy Has Eleven Letters, Not Four

by Dr. Ellen Brandt

It takes some pretty convoluted anti-logic to turn the term Meritocracy into something less than wholly admirable. But that's exactly what some political activists have done recently, with motives ranging from sincere-but-poorly-conceptualized to downright retroactive and thuggish.

Let's start by explicating the term Meritocracy. Choose any standard dictionary or thesaurus, and you'll find a definition along the lines of "a system in which able and talented persons are rewarded and advanced" ( or "leadership whose progress is based on ability and talent rather than on privilege or wealth" (

Not very controversial, is it?

In fact, until very recently, the concept of Meritocracy was acknowledged as a central tenet of modern democracies, tied closely to the goal of a class-free society, in which every citizen should be granted an equal opportunity to survive and thrive based on her/his education, experience, intelligence, talent, and hard work.

A Meritocratic system supports education, especially higher education, as a means of unleashing and developing one's natural intelligence and talents.

A Meritocratic system favors those who continue to learn and perfect their skills and talents throughout their lives, acknowledging that most worthwhile accomplishments do not come easily and may require many years of effort and experience to reach fruition.

A Meritocratic system respects and values those citizens, workers, and creators who have taken the time and made the effort to develop their skills and talents, for their own satisfaction and for the greater good of the society in which they live.

Yet there are now various political cadres claiming to be either Progressive or Conservative - with strong emphasis on the "claiming" - who don't like the idea of Meritocracy one bit. That's because deep down, they don't really want a society in which experience, accomplishment, education, and hard work are properly valued. They prefer a society that rewards people who belong to certain groups over people who belong to other groups - although their definitions of which groups to reward vary greatly, based on which biased prisms they're looking through.

What's new quite recently is their daring to deprecate Meritocracy - both the word and the concept - outright, in the process deprecating what America and other modern democracies have been all about since their founding.

Sincere But Poorly-Conceptualized

As we said, some of these attacks seem sincere, just poorly-conceptualized, while others are out-and-out retroactive and thuggish.

In the first category, I'd place the brouhaha, heavy with competing propaganda, about Silicon Valley being a "Meritocracy for white men only."

This highly-publicized "conflict" began with a medium-sized northern California company placing a rug in its lobby proclaiming itself a Meritocratic entity. A group of young feminists took exception to this proclamation-by-floor-covering, stating to every reporter who would listen that the company - and by extension, every tech company in the state - had a terrible record hiring, helping, and promoting women and minorities.

If this is so, by all means, work to correct it and campaign to correct it. (And I wish to state here, as anyone who has ever met me certainly knows, that I was a feminist in my mother's womb and believe wholeheartedly in equality of opportunity in employment, education, the legal system, and everywhere else.)

But the phrase "Meritocracy for white men only" is utterly ludicrous. If a company or industry or other entity favors one sex or one race or one ethnic group or one religion or . . . pretty much any other arbitrary criterion besides the Meritocratic criteria of experience, accomplishment, talent, intelligence, and hard work, it is simply not a Meritocracy, period.

If you wish to attack said company or industry or other entity, do so on the basis of its not being a Meritocracy, rather than attacking the concept of Meritocracy per se, which is the ideal you should want them to embrace.

A similar brouhaha arose recently at Stanford University, where a study revealed that "legacy" applicants  - i.e. the children of alumni - were being allowed into Stanford at "three times the rate of acceptance" of non-legacy applicants.

This revelation led to an outpouring of outrage by commentators at a number of publications, large and small, several once again attacking Stanford as a "Meritocracy for the rich and privileged" - the same mistake the Silicon Valley feminist group made. Once more, there is no such thing as a "Meritocracy for the rich" or a "Meritocracy for the privileged." Systems favoring the rich or the privileged are anti-Meritocracies, using standards that should rightly be scorned and criticized.

The Stanford "legacy" brouhaha, like the tech company floor-covering to-do, belongs in the category of "sincere but poorly-conceptualized" for several reasons - the first being simple statistics.

Only about 5 percent of Stanford applicants have been accepted for admission in recent years, a percentage that also has applied at all eight of the Ivy League schools and similar top-tier universities in the U.S. and other developed nations.

So if "legacy" children of alums are being accepted at three times that rate, that  means that only 15 percent of them are being accepted. Put another way, 85 percent of children of alums are not being accepted - a pretty hefty rate of rejection, especially if you consider that aside from genetics (smart parents tending to have smart children) or "privilege" (attending good high schools and being encouraged to engage in enrichment activies like music, art, and sports), children of alums will probably know the ins and outs of university admissions, having likely attended the (generally free) workshops for potential applicants local alumni groups hold.

Stanford is also a special case, even among top-tier schools, because it includes not only very good graduate schools of law, medicine, and engineering, but also one of the consistently top-ranked business schools in the world. "Legacy" children's parents, therefore, include not only those who attended Stanford as undergraduates, but also those who attended one or more of the prestigious graduate schools. You are talking, then, about an exceptionally well-educated group of "legacy" families - although, again, 85 percent of their children are rejected at the undergraduate level.

Quite aside from poorly-interpreted statistics, several commentators on the Stanford "legacy" brouhaha veered off on a tangent-with-an-agenda, accusing the university - and then, by extension, all top-tier schools - of trading admissions slots for cash contributions by alumni parents.

If this accusation can be proven - at Stanford or anywhere else - by any standard, it is a detestable practice, akin to any sort of bribery, which certainly needs to be stopped.

The way to proceed, however, if one believes the above practice exists at a given university, is to do some rigorous and unimpeachable research which proves beyond a doubt that "legacy" families' progeny are accepted or not accepted at said university based on whether or not a family contributes substantial cash to the school.

By all means, use anecdotal evidence in your study: Sally Smith, "legacy" daughter, whose parents contributed $150 to Stanford's medical school over the past decade, was rejected for admission, despite being valedictorian of her high school; captain of the field hockey, tennis, chess, and debate teams; three-time class president; and an accomplished classical cellist. But Julius Jones, "legacy" son, whose parents contributed $150,000,000 to Stanford's business school over the past decade, was accepted for admission, despite having a C- average in high school, no extracurricular activities to speak of, three stays in drug rehab, and a sealed juvenile justice record.

To be quite frank, I don't think you'll find very many - if any - anecdotal pieces of evidence like the above. Nor do I believe your research is likely to come up with a grand hidden admissions protocol which links a "legacy" family's amount of financial contribution to a top-tier university to the chances of their progeny getting admitted to the school.

But if you do find such a scheme, by all means, reveal it to the world and propagandize about it as loudly as possible. It would be a decisively anti-Meritocratic scheme and would go against the core principles of what a top-tier bastion of higher education should be all about. Alumni and their families would - and should - be angrier about it than anyone else.

Attacks Which Are Retroactive and Thuggish

While the to-dos in Silicon Valley and at Stanford may be classed in the "sincere but poorly-conceptualized" category, some attacks on Meritocracy are blatant, retroactive, and thuggish.

Possibly the most glaring example is occurring right now during the hard-fought and drawn-out Indian election process, in which the concept of "reservations" - or out-and-out quotas - is a major issue among the principal parties.

As its population has become more prosperous and better educated over the past 50 years, India has aggressively embraced Meritocratic principles, favoring its citizens based on their accomplishments, experience, talent, and intelligence, rather than on the circumstances of their birth. And judging by the prominence of Indian nationals in  worldwide academic and entrepreneurial ranks, the concept of Meritocracy has clearly taken hold with a vengeance.

In the past few national elections, however, some prominent politicians have tried to turn Meritocracy into a curse word, claiming that the growing group of well-educated Indians are somehow a threat to the interests of the rural and urban poor and calling for more and more "reservations" - or quota systems - wherever one can put them, in political representation, in hiring, and in academic placement.

In this year's election, the former head of one of India's biggest companies - a company known for hiring and promoting the brightest grads of the best universities - has made front-page headlines, now that he's running for office, by saying he now favors hiring and promoting more people based on their ethnic, religious, and "class" background, rather than on Meritocratic principles.

Being neither Indian nor an expert on Indian politics, I don't wish to comment specifically on whether India is somehow a special case, as this particular politician believes. He told reporters a few weeks ago that, “in India, certain sections of the society, because of historical reasons, were handicapped and thus require a leg up through reservations" - i.e. quotas.

But no matter which country, region, industry, or other entity is in question, I find this kind of thinking extraordinarily backwards-looking and thuggish. Not only does it not promote equality of opportunity, it tends to do exactly the opposite, as groups are pitted against one another, fighting for crumbs, rather than cooperating and seeking consensus on how to grow the economic pie.

Meritocracy, Aye - "Thug-ocracy," Nay

And that may be the real, badly-hidden reason behind every attack on the concept of Meritocracy in recent years: The Super-Wealthy in the vaunted 1 percent - which worldwide is more accurately possibly 1 percent of 1 percent - understand that Meritocracy is an extreme threat to their "Thug-ocracy" of Wealth for Wealth's Sake, just as it has always been.

The "Thug-ocracy" is the main beneficiary, when groups of people within a country, a region, or a world are spurred on to compete with one another, like pit bulls in a dogfight, on the basis of sex versus sex, generation versus generation, ethnic group versus ethnic group, religion versus religion, or tribe versus tribe.

Only when the Meritocratic criteria of education, intelligence, talent, experience, and hard work are properly honored and rewarded does a society have the chance of closing gaps in opportunity, political participation, influence, and income.

That is the goal of a Democracy. And when we forget it, we do so at our very great peril.

After a couple of "housekeeping" posts about the Bring Back the Meritocracy! project and its progress, we'll begin to examine how and why the Baby Boomer generation has become the center of the Meritocracy debate and why helping Boomers regain our financial and professional footing could well be the key to a prosperous world economy for decades to come - as well as the best way to close the worldwide income gap and begin to defeat the "Thug-ocracy" of Wealth for Wealth's Sake.