Meritocracy’s Limits

America may be the land of opportunity but it helps to have a head start in the rat race.

Stacy McCain, who along with myself is among the most notable graduates of Jacksonville State University*, laments the sense of superiority that comes with the increasingly meritocratic nature of American higher education.  Essentially, because the Ivy Leagues are now more open to the most intellectually gifted students, its graduates believe they must therefore be the best and the brightest and are therefore entitled to everything they get.

This view amounts to a repeal of the American founding. If the graduates of elite institutions are exclusively qualified to govern, then most citizens are thereby adjudged incapable of the self-governance which was the ideal of the Founders.

Stacy ascribes this view to Andrew Sullivan and David Brooks and the Sarah Palin controversy but it’s actually quite widespread.  See, for example, this week’s bizarre dustup between Jack Cafferty and Alec Baldwin in which the former asserts that, while Baldwin isn’t qualified to run for Congress because he’s a mere actor, Al Franken is qualified to be a United States Senator on account of “He’s Harvard educated.”   Baldwin doesn’t so much dismiss the absurdity of that argument as point out he himself went to NYU.

Regardless, Stacy notes, while many of our brightest kids go to the Ivies, many do not.

Not every kid who scores well on standardized tests decides to orient his life toward graduating at the top of his high school class and attending an elite university. Those who elect to follow that treadmill of “gifted” programs and honors classes, who grind for an all-A average and organize their extra-curricular activities with an eye toward how it will look on their applications to Harvard, can be said to differ from other children (including children of equal or greater intelligence) in terms of temperament.

The Sully-Brooks “meritocratic” theory ignores the influence of temperament in the operation of the cognitive partition system. Our public education system, after all, is not operated by geniuses. As The Bell Curve points out, education majors are, on average, the stupidest category of college graduates.

Despite the special pleading (I have it on good authority — Stacy himself — that he was less than a model student) and irony of decrying a meritocracy of IQ while engaging in a different form of it, this is certainly true.  Not every very bright kid is good at sitting quietly in a classroom in his youth.  Certainly, I wasn’t; I routinely got A’s in my academic subjects and C’s in deportment well into junior high.

Stacy is also right that many academically talented students prefer to spend their time fixing cars, playing sports, chasing girls, and otherwise diverted from doing the things necessary to get into Harvard.  This is especially true of boys, for whom academic excellence is not necessarily the path to social popularity.  The quarterback on my high school football team, for example, went from being a grade school honor student to a rather mediocre student afterwards because of an accurate assessment of the short-term rewards.  (He went on to do well enough in college — Jax State, in fact — to wind up teaching and coaching at our high school.)

This, though, is even more important:

This, of course, doesn’t even begin to confront the “meritocratic” myth that socioeconomic class no longer presents obstacles to the bright-but-poor student’s admission to elite schools. Legacy admissions afford an important advantage to the children of alumni, and there is no point in a student applying for admission to a school that he could never afford to attend. (My own daughter was offered scholarships we couldn’t afford for her to accept.)

For all the talk of “diversity” at elite schools, their student bodies are overhwelmingly composed of young people from affluent backgrounds whose adolescence was consumed by a single-minded devotion to the goal of being admitted to a top university. It is their affluence and precocious ambition, rather than intelligence per se, that distinguishes them. Having excelled in bookish ambition, members of this elite then congratulate themselves on the proof of their superiority to others: Je suis un meritocrat!

I made decisions about both college and graduate school with affordability very much near the top of the list.  Beyond that, while I understood that Harvard and Yale and Princeton and MIT were great schools and graduating from one of them was beneficial, I had no clue how much difference it made.  Nor did I have any idea the degree to which there’s a pecking order below that.  (Something that’s even more true now than it was then.  The infamous US News ranking system, for example, started in 1983, the year I was applying for college.)

My college application process, then, was limited by issues of finances and a lack of cultural awareness of what mattered.   MIT is the only big time university I considered but I didn’t bother to apply because it was expensive to take all the tests and submit the various applications required.  (In hindsight, it was just as well as my math SATs weren’t competitive; I could likely have gotten into one of the lesser Ivies but not the world’s top engineering school.)  The schools to which I applied, then, were:  West Point, Annapolis, Air Force, the Coast Guard Academy, Alabama, and Jax State.    I got accepted at West Point, Alabama, and Jax State (with full scholarships at all three) and waitlisted at USCGA.  I also had Army, Navy, and Air Force ROTC scholarships that would have paid tuition and books anywhere I got in but the costs of living were not covered.

West Point was my first choice and I eagerly accepted but, alas, I didn’t fit in for a variety of reasons.  (Long story short, it was a jock school whose students were also exceptionally bright and I adjusted to the challenges too slowly, prioritized the wrong things, and ultimately couldn’t maintain the juggling act.)   When I left after three semesters with a 2.08 GPA, my scholarships were no longer available and I wound up at my safety school where, through a combination of ROTC and the Army Reserves, I was able to pay for tuition, books and incidentals while living with my parents a few miles away.

After four years in the Army, I wanted to get my PhD and applied to exactly one school: Alabama.  I was accepted but my going was contingent on getting a graduate assistantship that paid for tuition and books and provided a monthly stipend in exchange for working 20 hours a week.  Fortunately, I got one.  The combination of that and the GI Bill allowed me to graduate debt free three years later.

Had I known what I would just a few years later, I’d have applied to more schools.  But I reasonably figured that I wasn’t going to get into one of the great schools with a degree from Jax State and a mediocre GPA (owing to having transferred in all those credits from USMA) and had no understanding at all that there was a difference in attractiveness to hiring committees between, say, Alabama and Georgia, let alone between Alabama and North Carolina or Ohio State.

Money also matters at other points in the process, especially in the elite professions.  Many jobs in media and public policy, for example, require an entry level apprenticeship in DC or New York for little or no pay.  It never seriously occurred to me to apply for any internships or to take a job making next to nothing in a big city when a real paycheck was a ready alternative.  It’s not surprising, then, that kids with wealthier parents to supplement their earnings, predominate in these jobs.  And, considering that these same kids are more likely have gone to the right schools and be attractive to the selection committees, it’s a two-fer.  (This is a fascinating subject.  See “Unpaid Internships? No Such Thing,” “The Internship Racket,” “Progressive Non-Profit Work Only for the Privileged,” “Unpaid Interns Slaves to the System,” and “Are Unpaid Internships Destroying America?” for a variety of views.)

I don’t have any complaints about any of this, really.  I’ve been more fortunate than most, have been able to do the kind of work I enjoy doing for years, and have made a pretty good living.  But it’s undeniable that growing up in an elite household confers enormous advantages in preparation, connection, and understanding of the impact various choices have on the available paths later on.

My wife went to college at Southern Connecticut State, within walking distance of Yale, and has also done quite well for herself.  But she’d no doubt have been better off with a degree from Yale, provided she maintained the same work ethic.

Our daughter is only six months old, so we’re a little ways off from worrying about what college she’ll attend.  But chances are good that she’ll be able to go to the best school she can get into and that she’ll have a pretty good idea of the implications of various choices she faces.

______________________________

*I was going to make this joke before realizing we were both actually on the Wikipedia page, which makes it funnier.  I hasten to add that hundreds of JSU graduates of whom even fewer people have heard of than Stacy and myself include physicians, nurses, teachers, and military officers who have gone on to do far more important things in quiet obscurity.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. DC Loser says:

    And similarly, a degree from an Ivy League school is no guarantee of a high profile career. I’ve met a few Ivy grads who are just like you and me, and I suspect there are more like them. In the end, family connections count more than where you went to school.

  2. odograph says:

    Look at Bill Gates :-/, part of his myth was that he was a Harvard drop-out.

  3. I dropped out of high school after 10th grade. Went on to drop out of San Francisco State. Spent the next decade getting in trouble, smoking weed, doing dead-end jobs.

    I was 35 before I put any thought into a career. I put away the bong, got semi-serious about writing, and five or six years later saw my first seven figure check.

    Now I work a grueling 4 hour day, sitting in a rocker in my back yard, smoking cigars and drinking French roast while tapping away on my laptop. I earn more than Barack Obama who, I believe, got quite a good education.

    The point being that the straight-A grind path to success is all about lawyers and doctors and bankers. A good, hard-working plumber can make what a Harvard lawyer makes. A good hard-working kid book author likewise.

    My only educational regret? I’m writing 600 page books with two fingers. Harvard wouldn’t have helped, but a typing class would have been very useful.

  4. Bill H says:

    Not to mention that not going to college at all does not make you stupid. I graduated from high school without ever in my life gotten anything lower than an A but, due to growing up as an itinerant in the Air Force, being in six different high schools, an unwillingness to strike for an Air Force commission, and no money for college, enlisting in the Navy was my best choice after high school. After leaving the Navy I went from maintenance electrician in a large steel plant to machine operator, then to supervisor, then into the office, then back into the plant as plant manager. Notice no college in that? I then formed my own company designing and performing machinery installations. When I got bored with that I taught myself landscaping and became manager of a landscape installation and maintenance company for ten years. In retirement I have taught myself five programming languages and am consulting with several businesses to provide them with online MIS and communication services.

    How long and where one went to college is an inadequate measure of ones ability to do anything. I have a friend with a PhD from Wharton who can barely tie his shoes.

  5. One Fine Jay says:

    Dr. Joyner, I try not to talk about our decline as a civilization—given that I hold the hope that with the due dilligence of an aware citizenry, we can pull our s**t together—but some facts can’t be ignored.

    Set aside the pop culture obssession. Every country, great and small, rich and poor, has its equivalent. I agree with Stacy, but from a different angle.

    The more the hoi polloi defer to the intelligentsia coming out of the Ivies, then the Ivies become the prime breeding ground for our future tyrants. Cafferty is one of those guys who will lay his freedoms at the feet of a Harvard graduate. His status as a media figure has basically told his audience (assume that 99.9% of media consumers are sheep) that they are not ready for a Congressional run unless they have gone to Harvard, or the like.

    This is a disgrace, and as this mentality is ingrained in more people people, we will continue to elect the captains of our destruction.

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    That smart people go to Harvard does not imply that people who go to Harvard are smart.

    Al Gore (Harvard), John Kerry (Yale), and George W. Bush (Yale, Harvard Business) were all legacies. I have no doubt they’re all over the median IQ but it would take a lot evidence to convince me that any of them is more than a couple of standard deviations over that.

  7. I’ve been thinking about this and asking myself whether there is some group of people, some class, some profession which, added to the mix, would improve congress.

    I don’t think the answer is more Harvard grads. But I don’t really think it’s my people either: writers, artists, directors etc… I think we’d benefit from more entrepreneurs, more small businessmen, a scientist or two, and more community organizers. More working mothers would be great.

    I mistrust people so single-minded that by high school they were already obsessing over their career path. No wonder so many senators end up in sexual difficulties — when they were young and should have been devoting their thoughts to getting laid they were worrying about their future careers.

    The remarks David Brooks made yesterday about politicians being (paraphrasing) immature and socially inadequate I suspect are true. But I’d guess you’d find many of the same personality defects at any big NY or DC law firm.

  8. PD says:

    michael, two words:

    Plumbers !

  9. Dave Schuler says:

    Michael, that reminds me of William F. Buckley’s wisecrack that he’d rather be governed by the first 100 people in the Boston telephone directory than by the Harvard faculty (of course, Buckley was a Yale man).

    In Federalist in answer to the question of who the members of Congress would be Madison (I think) wrote that it would be comprised of landowners, merchants, and members of the learned professions. Now most of Congress are career politicians and bureaucrats, overwhelmingly lawyers.

  10. Houston says:

    Not to get off topic, James, but I thought that if you used an ROTC scholorship as an undergrad (as I did also), you were not eligible for post-grad GI Bill…..how does that work?

  11. Dave Schuler says:

    One of the problems with excessive reliance on Ivy League diplomas as measures of worth be it in academe, business, or government is that you’re effectively outsourcing your due diligence to the admissions departments of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Are their admissions departments (not necessarily composed of Ivy League grads themselves) worthy of that trust?

  12. James Joyner says:

    used an ROTC scholorship as an undergrad (as I did also), you were not eligible for post-grad GI Bill…..how does that work?

    Not sure but I actually DIDN’T use the ROTC scholarship. In those days, scholarship students couldn’t participate in the Army Reserve/ROTC Simultaneous Membership Program. Because JSU’s tuition was very low ($400/semester when I started in 1986) I was financially better off taking the $100/month ROTC Advanced Program stipend, $145/month as an E5 in the Reserves, and $135/month for GI Bill.

    Ordinarily, I’d have been ineligible to use GI Bill again in grad school. But they (temporarily?) changed the rules during the post-Cold War drawdown and, indeed, allowed me to pay a lump sum $1300 or so to buy 3 years of GI Bill benefits at separation. Considering I was headed to grad school, it was a sweet deal.

  13. And exactly what intellectual attributes are most helpful to legislators? You would think that if you packed an institution full of ivy league grinds you’d at very least get a congress capable of intellectual rigor.

    Rigor in the non-mortis sense.

    Does anyone think we’ve got a government loaded with people who think carefully and precisely about the legislation they craft? Or are they pretty much just cooking up new ways to pander to constituencies? And if pandering is the crux of the job, why not just hire waiters or former personal assistants to celebrities? Or women who’ve retired after long service at the Mustang Ranch?

    Of course then the pandering wouldn’t be artfully concealed within hundreds of pages of legalese . . . ah, now I get it. That’s why we elect lawyers.

  14. steve says:

    My sense is that most voters do not care where their pols went to school. This is a debate mostly amongst some pundits. The voters are influenced by much more important stuff like height, what their candidate eats and what kind of dog they own. More seriously, most of the people I know think more about what people have done after school rather than where they went. Having elite friends and relatives probably matters more here.

    Steve

  15. Brett says:

    Baldwin doesn’t so much dismiss the absurdity of that argument as point out he himself went to NYU.

    He also points out that Cafferty is throwing stones from a glass house, in a particularly biting way.

    Many jobs in media and public policy, for example, require an entry level apprenticeship in DC or New York for little or no pay. It never seriously occurred to me to apply for any internships or to take a job making next to nothing in a big city when a real paycheck was a ready alternative.

    I did a politics internship for no pay, but it’s definitely rough. The only reason I could do it was because I had savings, and even then, I went into some credit card debt to pay rent.

    And that was when I was partially subsidized by student loans, going to college at the same time. Try to do that while living on your own, with no savings, in a highly expensive area to live.

  16. ggr says:

    Betrand Russell’s comment on the opinions of very highly educated sums up the problem nicely:

    “This is one of those views which are so absolutely absurd that only very learned men could possibly adopt them.”

    I think he also made a comment at one point about there being almost no difference between the decisions of the highly educated and the general public, other than the highly educated have learned to do a better job rationalizing their prejudices.

  17. kth says:

    One of the enduring mysteries of this site is that you tend to link to people who don’t have 1/10 the sense that you yourself possess. R.S. McCain is making a strawman argument, as neither David Brooks nor Andrew Sullivan would argue that an Ivy League degree is a requirement for one who seeks high office. And Sully and Brooks probably represent the snob apex, so there’s no reason to suppose that this prejudice exists at all, let alone that it is as widely held as McCain wants us to believe.

    McCain fashions this strawman from the fact of the widespread derision of Sarah Palin. But just because Palin was generally deemed not smart or accomplished enough to be the running mate of a 72-year-old cancer survivor, doesn’t mean that there’s some artificially high standard in place (Jack Cafferty’s half-baked thought notwithstanding; one’s reluctance to vote for Alec Baldwin, even if one sympathizes with his politics, surely has more to do with his unsettled personal life (note the blatant contrast with Franken in this regard) than where he or anyone he might run against went to college).

  18. sam says:

    irony of decrying a meritocracy of IQ while engaging in a different form of it

    Another irony: I’m sure McCain is just fine with the outcome of the New Haven firefighters’ case, at the center of which was success on a written exam. I guess some meritocracies have more merit than others.

  19. James Joyner says:

    R.S. McCain is making a strawman argument, as neither David Brooks nor Andrew Sullivan would argue that an Ivy League degree is a requirement for one who seeks high office. And Sully and Brooks probably represent the snob apex, so there’s no reason to suppose that this prejudice exists at all, let alone that it is as widely held as McCain wants us to believe.

    There are several overlapping arguments. I would agree that few think an Ivy degree is literally a requirement for the presidency. It has, however, seemingly become a requirement for the Supreme Court.

    OTOH, there’s a large swath of elite opinion that holds that an Ivy League degree is, a priori, qualification for office and an indication of superb judgment and intellect.

    I heard constantly during the campaign that, despite his near total lack of high level leadership experience, that Obama was president of Harvard Law Review and therefore obviously qualified. Or, in the Harriet Miers-Sonia Sotomayor comparison, I saw it pointed out that the former went to SMU while the latter went to Yale.

    Now, I thought neither Palin nor Miers were qualified — or, at least, well qualified — for the jobs they were nominated to. But the citation of degrees for people in mid-career has long struck me as dubious.

  20. Ottovbvs says:

    Appreciate the honesty about your own experiences Jim but, this is all a bit of a strawman isn’t it. US leadership is actually fairly diverse intellectually ranging from the dazzling to the downright mediocre. Attendance at Ivies doesn’t automatically propel you into the dazzling. After all GWB went to Yale AND Harvard. That said there’s no doubt the Ivies and I’d add a few others like MIT, Duke, and pace Alex Baldwin NYU, do tend to attract the brightest students and when they’ve got them deliver a fairly outstanding education that hones the intellect until it’s as sharp as a razor. What they do thereafter is up to them and success usually depends on a combination of hard work, savvy, connections, and being in the right place at the right time. Can’t underestimate the latter. You can argue that the best and brightest approach has limitations but are they really any more pernicious than an electoral system that seems to produce an exceptionally dim group of representatives in house and senate. The performances we see at some of these hearings are very depressing.

  21. Gustopher says:

    I’m more curious how my congress-critters would do on the LSAT now, than where they went to school 20 years ago.

    Can they understand what they read? Can they follow a logical argument?

    I’m not convinced they can.

  22. sam says:

    Via John Cole, I found this gem:

    “I [blog commentor Harry Hopkins, quoted at link] remember back in the late 1990s, when Ira Katznelson, an eminent political scientist at Columbia, came to deliver a guest lecture. Prof. Katznelson described a lunch he had with Irving Kristol during the first Bush administration.

    “The talk turned to William Kristol, then Dan Quayle’s chief of staff, and how he got his start in politics. Irving recalled how he talked to his friend Harvey Mansfield at Harvard, who secured William a place there as both an undergrad and graduate student; how he talked to Pat Moynihan, then Nixon’s domestic policy adviser, and got William an internship at the White House; how he talked to friends at the RNC [Republican National Committee] and secured a job for William after he got his Harvard Ph.D.; and how he arranged with still more friends for William to teach at Penn and the Kennedy School of Government.

    “With that, Prof. Katznelson recalled, he then asked Irving what he thought of affirmative action. ‘I oppose it,’ Irving replied. ‘It subverts meritocracy.’ ”

  23. pylon says:

    I heard constantly during the campaign that, despite his near total lack of high level leadership experience, that Obama was president of Harvard Law Review and therefore obviously qualified.

    Being president of the HLR wasn’t offered as a rebuttal to the experience issue. But, it is also not relevant to the “he went to X” argument. In fact, the opposite argument can be made. Obama didn’t just attend an Ivy League school – he had significant accomplishments there.

  24. Drew says:

    “Obama didn’t just attend an Ivy League school – he had significant accomplishments there.”

    And then used that base to accomplish basically nothing for years and years and years………..until he was tapped by the marketing machine.

  25. Eric Florack says:

    Our daughter is only six months old, so we’re a little ways off from worrying about what college she’ll attend.

    James;

    As someone with a 18 year old in the house… trust me when I tell ya… it ain’t as far off as you might think. (sigh)

  26. James Joyner says:

    As someone with a 18 year old in the house… trust me when I tell ya… it ain’t as far off as you might think. (sigh)

    One of the advantages to having kids late in life is that you’ve got a better sense of time. I’ve seen, for example, Steven Taylor’s oldest go from under 2 years old to 13 and his two youngest go from newborn to school age.