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No One Deserves a Spot at Harvard

Michael Sandel makes the case against meritocracy.

September-October 2020

Illustration about meritocracy: one mother penguin and chick wear college mortarboards, while another mother penguin and her chick don’t.

Illustration by Barbara Dekeyser


Illustration by Barbara Dekeyser

The British sociologist Michael Young coined “meritocracy” in 1958 in the title of a satire, The Rise of the Meritocracy, which purported to look backward from 2034 at a dystopian United Kingdom on the brink of revolution. Young feared the new meritocrats he saw emerging in the post-World War II order would surmount multiple rounds of rigorous testing for intelligence and talent, then wield their authority over government and business with the assurance that, unlike the aristocrats of yore, they had earned their perch atop a hierarchy. Everyone else would have lost the chance for power and prosperity because of personal failings like laziness—which would fuel resentment among populists who felt shut out of the system. To Young’s dismay, he lived to see the notion of “meritocracy” enter common use as a term not of censure but of praise, used by leaders from Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. More recently, Barack Obama recited “You can make it if you try” like a personal slogan in more than 140 speeches during his presidency.

For much of the past half-century, in the form of “equality of opportunity,” meritocracy has enjoyed broad support: ensure everyone a fair place at the starting line, and see who can run the fastest. Wide acceptance of equal opportunity as an ideal in politics and law has largely precluded criticism of the underlying assumption that fair contests for scarce opportunities will produce just outcomes.

But the concept has undergone fresh criticism during the past five years—especially since the 2016 presidential election made Young’s prophecy of populist backlash newly relevant to Americans. Many of the sharpest criticisms have come from senior faculty members at the universities atop the meritocratic credentialing system. In 2015, Lani Guinier, Boskey professor of law emerita, published The Tyranny of the Meritocracy, an attack on the regime of “testocracy” in public education; she proposed redefining “merit” to encompass traits like collaboration that bolster democratic participation (see “What Ails the Academy?” November-December 2015, page 64). Last year, Yale Law School professor Daniel Markovits contended in The Meritocracy Trap that meritocracy creates an endless, soul-deadening treadmill of competition for those on top that nevertheless allows their class to capture most of the rewards of economic growth.

The latest entry in this debate comes from Bass professor of government Michael Sandel, the political theorist whose “Justice” course is familiar to Harvard students and online audiences worldwide. In contrast to Guinier’s reformist account, his The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? launches a direct attack on the philosophical underpinnings of meritocracy: he comes not to salvage the concept, but to bury it. Meritocracy, he argues, is obviously imperfect in its current form; it approximates true equality of opportunity only roughly. But even if equality of opportunity were attainable, which Sandel doubts, he thinks meritocracy would be neither desirable nor sustainable: even a perfect meritocracy has multiple flaws that make it unjust. The biggest problem is that meritocracy demands equality of opportunity at the starting line, but legitimates whatever inequalities follow as natural products of innate differences in talent and virtue: hardworkingness, intelligence, perseverance.

Like Young, Sandel worries that such meritocratically sanctioned inequalities of outcome cultivate insidious self-satisfaction among the “winners,” who believe they’ve fully earned the fruit of their hard work, without appreciating the luck, circumstances, and public goods that allow intelligence and hard work to blossom fully. That failure to see how “there but for the grace of God go I”—having to drop out of high school, say, in a different life—can lead “winners” to strip dignity, pride, and honor from work that doesn’t require higher-educational credentials. “A perfect meritocracy banishes all sense of gift or grace,” Sandel writes. “It diminishes our capacity to see ourselves as sharing a common fate. It leaves little room for the solidarity that can arise when we reflect on the contingency of our talents and fortunes.”

 

Sandel never defines meritocracy outright, but in a 1999 essay on “Merit and Justice,” Lamont University Professor Amartya Sen suggested understanding it as a system for “rewarding good (or right) deeds for their incentive effects”—a kind of photo-negative of a penal code. Sandel and Guinier would point out that our current evaluation method for those rewards is education—particularly admission to selective colleges, where sorting for ranked spots takes its most naked form. Educational institutions mediate access to a vast range of social incentives: eligibility for esteemed and well-compensated careers; networking benefits with others in such careers; money. These rewards are forms of power—the “-cracy” part of “meritocracy.”

Many people conclude that making college admissions as fair as possible will therefore distribute power more fairly: that educational meritocracy remedies inequality. Sandel doubts that’s the case, writing, “American higher education is like an elevator in a building that most people enter on the top floor.” He cites research by Ackman professor of public economics Raj Chetty showing that the more money your family has, the more likely you are to go to college. That’s true even at moderately selective institutions that do create strong upward mobility (Cal State LA is one), and drastically more noticeable at the most selective schools. To take just one statistic from Chetty that Sandel cites: “At Ivy League colleges, Stanford, Duke, and other prestigious places, there are more students from the wealthiest 1 percent of families than from the entire bottom half of the country.” Viewed in the aggregate, college admissions practices redistribute power far less frequently than they ratify its generational transmission.

But competition for a fixed number of spots at selective universities makes acceptance feel intensely earned to those who’ve fought for them—and this, Sandel worries, is where meritocracy causes its true moral corrosion. No one deserves admission to Harvard, or anywhere else. But Sandel reports anecdotally that through the decades, students of every political persuasion and background in his classes have grown more ardent in the belief that they earned their place. “The suggestion that they were admitted due to luck or other factors beyond their control provokes strong resistance,” he deadpans. Believing your personal success means you have done right sets you on a slippery slope to believing contingency played no role in others’ outcomes, either. Making Harvard admissions random above a basic minimum threshold, he proposes, would inculcate a healthy humility in students. It would at least help to rid applicants, successful and unsuccessful, of the illusion that admission decisions measure their personal worth.

Even as meritocracy inflates the winners’ opinion of their own worth in society, Sandel argues that it ignores or demeans the contributions of those who don’t proceed through meritocratic sorting mechanisms. The modern political left focuses on distributive justice—investing the revenues of progressive taxation in public goods and welfare programs. But Sandel thinks redistribution alone isn’t sufficient to fix inequality, because what’s at issue is not just inequality of wealth, but inequality of esteem. He argues a robust vision of contributive justice needs to supplement economic redistribution: “an opportunity to win the social recognition and esteem that go with producing what others need and value.” Respect and money need to go hand in hand. He advocates dismantling the pyramidal “hierarchy of esteem” surrounding university-mediated careers: “Learning to become a plumber or electrician or dental hygienist should be respected as a valuable contribution to the common good, not regarded as a consolation prize for those who lack the SAT scores or financial means to make it to the Ivy League.”

But this well-intentioned pronouncement contains several lapses of judgment. First, in the contemporary world, the real burden of disrespect doesn’t hit plumbers, electricians, or dental hygienists hardest (all of whom work for their own credentials and licenses), but rather workers like meat processors, housecleaners, and fast-food and retail employees, whom the economists label “unskilled”—barely deserving of a euphemism. Second, even if such workers had scored 1600 on the SAT and graduated from Harvard, they would still suffer the same disrespect. (“If you went to Harvard, why are you at McDonald’s?”) The problem lies in the compensation for and prejudices toward the jobs, not in the question of credentials.

 

At times, Sandel risks bifurcating U.S. social topography into a collection of smug Ivy League graduates at one end and resentful, underpaid blue-collar workers on the other. Diverse lives and feelings lie between—but I recognized both these poles from my own life. I grew up in a middle-class family: not poor, but not nearly rich enough for the fancy summer programs and college consultants Sandel and others describe. For more than three decades, my dad worked the kind of unionized manufacturing job that has now largely vanished; my mom did clerical work, just as hard, for far less pay. My sister and her boyfriend work at an auto shop in our hometown. I remain the only person in my family to go to college. Harvard came as a shock. After graduation, like Sandel, I attended Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar (another “meritocratic lottery”). And now, as a graduate student at Yale, I supplement my stipend with the kind of private tutoring and college consulting that arguably propel the meritocracy’s worst excesses.

Sandel worries about squadrons of arrogant young adults in elite colleges, believing they deserve their places. I have generally found the opposite. Young meritocrats are often obsessed with analyzing their privilege (racial, economic, and otherwise), and with confessing and expiating guilt over that privilege. A child of doctors may find a life’s calling in addressing homelessness. People caricature as craven the graduates who throng to Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and top-tier consulting. But while such people do exist, I’ve found many of those students off at Goldman or Facebook are soberly mindful of luck’s role in establishing their careers and lives. They believe fast-food and transit workers deserve respect and better pay. Yet none of this good will and humility among the meritocrats-in-waiting fixes the core problems: quasi-heritable accrual of power among those who “win” at meritocracy, and mounting resentment over diminishing dignity and pride among those who “lose.”

What work would credentialed meritocrats be happy for their own children to do?

I would frame the question not as what work meritocrats will profess to respect (as Sandel says), but rather as what work they would be happy for their own children to do. Many of the meritocrats I’ve met believe in principle that the custodians, secretaries, wait staff, and construction workers around them all deserve esteem, and they do their best to show respect. But they would be disappointed or even angry if their own children took such jobs. They would worry such lives would present hardship. Or they’d fear what the neighbors would say. Many in that ruling class privately hector, threaten, or otherwise coerce their children to avert such outcomes.

Only when professionals and executives accept with calm the notion that their children might work meaningfully and with dignity in fields like home health and food service will such careers become compensated to a degree sufficient to live in comfort and dignity. Sandel deems credentialism “the last [publicly] acceptable prejudice.” Whether that is true or not, like other prejudices of race, class, creed, gender, and sexuality, it will fall only when people routinely, happily accept the possibility that the object of that former prejudice might form a part of their own families. I hope I would accept the possibility my child might not attend college and instead work in the kind of business my parents or sister do—if that is what they want to do. I hope you might, too. 

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