Deresiewicz on “hereditary meritocracy”

A New Yorker cartoon by Barbara Smaller, owned by Conde Nast

A New Yorker cartoon by Barbara Smaller, owned by Conde Nast

Halfway through this interview with Salon, critic of the Ivy League (and Ivy-League critic) Michael Deresiewicz discusses the way that our ostensibly meritocratic college admissions system serves to “launder privilege”:

Instead of saying, “You get to go because you’re born,” which is obviously unfair, we say, “You get to go because you have really great scores and grades and you’ve done a million extracurricular activities.” But the only way to get to that point is if you have rich parents. I mean, again, there are exceptions, but there are not a lot of exceptions.

Approximately 35,000 kids apply to Harvard each year, and 2,000 get in. When I was an SAT tutor, more kids submitted perfect scores to Yale than there were total admissions slots. As selective colleges become more selective, admissions become an arms race of adolescent achievement—one that demands more money than lower- and even middle-income families can afford. But we are invested in believing this system rewards merit, because the Ivies and so-called junior Ivies produce so many of our leaders.

Each of our last four presidents attended either Yale or Harvard. George W. Bush attended both, which is alarming when you consider that A) he was famously inarticulate and B) he was the son of a former president. One anecdote does not a pattern make, but we’re also not speaking in quantifiable terms. “Meritocracy” and “system of inherited privilege” are not brightly lined territories. In many ways, they are real insofar as we believe in them, or insofar as they become cynically inaccurate.

Deresiewicz believes in the second scenario. This is what he means by “laundering of privilege”: a system in which the children of social and economic elites become convinced that they are academic elites.

Yes, they got into Yale on the strength of their test scores and extracurricular activities. But you can’t play lacrosse and build schools in Zimbabwe if you have to work after school and every summer. Your parents won’t bring me into your house to explain how misplaced modifiers work if they can’t cough up $300 an hour.* Screen Shot 2014-09-03 at 10.08.16 AMWhile it is possible for a public-school kid with no access to tutoring to put together the same application package as a prep school kid with an admissions consultant, it’s significantly more difficult.

Once they get to Yale, Deresiewicz argues, these privileged kids become steeped in the certainty that they are getting a better education than their state-school counterparts—that they are an academic elite. That may be true. Certainly, Yale has a bigger endowment than the University of Iowa. But because few people attend both institutions, it’s hard for us to know whether Yale students are getting better educations or if they are merely ascending to the positions determined by their births.

They’re pretty sure that they are the best and the brightest, of course, and it’s just a coincidence that they and most of their classmates grew up rich. Those of us who went to Iowa—and, in our adult lives, saw some evidence that Ivy League graduates were not so clever after all—have an interest in believing that, too. Even if we did not win at college admissions, we want to think that an American advances by his wits and diligent labor, not by having a rich dad. Because that possibility is too depressing to contemplate.

Here we arrive at maybe the most daunting aspect of Deresiewicz’s assessment: it’s unfalsifiable. Maybe if his analysis of selective colleges and their laundering of privilege were based on income statistics, or if his thesis were about where graduates end up working instead of their qualities as “excellent sheep,” we could say whether it was accurate. But his argument is fundamentally qualitative. It’s about who we are rather than what we do, and so it cannot be objectively settled one way or the other.

The only thing we can say for sure is that we prefer meritocracy. Even people who were born into all their putative achievements want to think of America as a meritocratic system, as the cartoon above reminds us. Meritocracy is one of the few values we all agree on, which is odd because we also all seem to agree that it is waning.

Pundits and studies agree that Americans enjoy less income mobility than their counterparts in Canada, Europe and even Britain. Unless you regard us as chosen by God, classless egalitarianism is supposed to be essence of American exceptionalism. If we aren’t the country where anyone can become president, what are we?

In conclusion, I hope the wife of Yale law grad and former president Bill Clinton wins in 2016, so she can undo the damage from Harvard Business School grad and son of former president George W. Bush, which Yale law grad Barack Obama couldn’t fix.

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  1. Wait, how is Deresiewicz’s assessment unfalsifiable (and which one)? Because he didn’t provide the right evidence? Because only arguments about quantities are falsifiable? I demand a full explication of Combat’s theory of “falsifiability” before this label is dished out again!

    There are thousands, probably tens of thousands, of studies that bear directly on the quote at the beginning. Social psychologists, among others, study “who we are” all the time, it’s hardly a black box. And qualitative evidence is used routinely in the social sciences and history to falsify (or support) arguments. The thing that is daunting is not that complex assessments like these are “unfalsifiable” — whatever that means exactly — but that it takes a lot of work and research to say something about it.

    I love this blog, but blogs really feed the epistemology of the internet age that all the knowledge we have is on the internet and googlable in a few minutes. If not, that knowledge doesn’t or cannot exist. Why pay journalists and academics to produce knowledge when it’s already produced by blogs and wikipedia?

  2. Dan, just wanted to say that I thoroughly enjoy your blog. I am glad to know that you are still creating such witty and thoughtful output for all our enjoyment. Been a long time — hope you are well!

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