Meritocratic Alibis

by Rob Horning

13 January 2010


Grooming for the habitus of command begins early, and most of the kids who go to the elite schools probably have no idea that they have been conditioned to presume their own significance, to assume authority as if by some instinct of entitlement, to never doubt the value of the contributions they have to make. The rest of us, we derive that attitude vicariously from various representations of celebrity and heroism, which serves to reinforce the idea that such presumption has no place in our everyday lives. What the privileged experience as entitlement, we experience as ambition, a fire that must be continually stoked and for which fuel can be scarce.

This Boston Globe op-ed by Neal Gabler about college admissions to the elite schools states it pretty baldly:

So here’s the bottom line for all those exceptional middle-class and lower-class high school seniors who will doubt their own worth when the near-inevitable rejection letters arrive: The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in you. The fault lies in the system, and the system isn’t going to change, because it benefits the people it is designed to benefit - people who understand how much a real meritocracy would threaten their power.

Elite institutions exist to reproduce the elite class as it is presently constituted. Social mobility is held as close as possible to the point at which the elites and their prerogatives remain undisturbed but the nonelites still feel they have a chance to pursue their ambitions, if they are strong enough. But Gabler, I think, is wrong when he says that children are aware that meritocracy is a sham:

They know that America, for all its professions of meritocracy, is a virtual oligarchy where the graduates of the Ivies and the other best schools enjoy tremendous advantages in the job market. They know that Harvard or Stanford or MIT is a label in our “designer education’’ not unlike Chanel or Prada in clothes.

We are instead balancing a contradiction in our minds; the oligarchy and meritocracy coexist and we can selectively recognize evidence to support either, based on our mood and based on our situation. The ideal of meritocracy lingers on so that it can serve to always plant that doubt in the minds of the nonelites: “Perhaps the social structure is rigged for the benefit of elites, but you could have tried harder, you could have done more, as other aspirants before you were able to do.” It’s always there to help us redirect our discontent at ourselves. Arguably, the culture industries controlled by these elites tend to do what they can to reinforce the salience of meritocracy while casting suspicion on the idea of oligarchy. Gabler’s op-ed is a respite from that, one of the reasons it seems sort of blunt.

The shock that in some quarters has greeted Roger Lowenstein’s NYT essay about walking away from your mortgage when you owe more than the house is worth has to do with this as well—we regular folk are meant to be abiding by a code of ethics and mutual responsibility that doesn’t apply to elites and the institutions they run; after all this is what is supposed to make us “better than them” in the final judgment. It should make us feel that way, anyhow. “No power for you, but you’re better off with dignified suffering anyway.”


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