This post is an essay by Blake Smith that first appeared in Tablet. Here’s a link to the original.
It’s about a phenomenon I started noticing a few years ago in the peculiar process of admissions to elite universities. In this process it’s not enough to present yourself to the admissions committee as the ultimate meritocrat — with high scores, high grades, and elite education credentials. In addition you need to present yourself as a person with the right values.
As Smith notes, that has always been true in elite admissions, but the nature of the desirable values has changed. It used to be the practice to demonstrate that you’re a member of the WASP club, who would fit comfortably into the cultural context of the Ivies. But now the pressure is on to use your application essay to establish that are properly positioned in the current identity politics of the elite academy. Ideally, you need to find a way to present yourself as having an identity that protects you from the charge of being just another privileged applicant. You want to show that you’re not a member of that club by demonstrating a form of disadvantage you experienced as a racial minority, second-language learner, female, LBGTQ member, learning-disabled student, or affiliation with some other diversity category. If you can’t manage that, then you need to show how your commitment to social justice for such disadvantaged populations is a central principle in your life.
Since I was teaching at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, the students were applying to graduate programs in the field, and most of them were schoolteachers. So the canonical application letter had to include — preferably start with — a vivid vignette in how you used your role as teacher to provide a crucial boost to the life chances of a student from an ethnic or gender minority.
Here’s the opening paragraph from an admissions essay that has particularly stuck in my head as an over-the-top example of this genre.
Juan’s tear fell on his test paper, which he had put on my desk. He was there in a last-ditch effort to get my help in rescuing him from what I learned was yet another experience of academic failure.
The story continues with the successful intervention by the teacher-applicant in pulling the student back from the brink and giving him the chance to prove what he could do. One child saved from the school machinery that is so effective at sending minority students to the bottom of the class and a life of struggling for survival.
See what you think of Smith’s analysis.
Every level of American education, from earliest grades to elite universities, is informed, to a greater or lesser extent, by two apparently contradictory forces: competition in the name of meritocracy, and identitarian notions of social justice. Meritocracy and wokeness seem to be at odds, particularly in debates about criteria for college admissions or the continued existence of selective public secondary schools. Between those who see meritocratic admissions as giving fair rewards to hard work and ability, and those who demand that schools focus on students’ identities rather than individual performance, there appears little room for compromise.
But the two positions have unexamined common ground, coexisting in the consciousness of students and teachers. At the University of Chicago, where I have taught for three years, I see students combine meritocratic and identitarian ideas in ways that reveal these two apparently antagonistic modes of thought to be not only compatible, but complementary symptoms of our collective failure to think honestly about the real purposes of education. Notions of meritocracy and social justice alike direct our attention away from the way our schools do not simply reward competence or resist inequality, but also shape the character of our elites and our very nation.
My students have experienced their schooling as both a long, isolating competition and as a continuous solicitation to stage their membership in racial and other identity groups. By the time they come into my yearlong great-books-style seminar, “Self, Culture, and Society,” they have been through more than a decade of evaluations that compare them to peers through supposedly objective (and therefore, uncriticizable) measures of competence. They are ranked not so much by teachers as by rubrics and metrics, and they learn to see the world in terms of such individualizing but impersonal rankings.
In almost every instance, my students come to study at the University of Chicago not because some particular quality about this school (its “nerdy” reputation, location, etc.) appealed to them, but because it was the “highest-ranked” school that accepted them. Once here, they organize their leisure and career aspirations around rankings. Many student clubs require potential members to submit applications and undergo interviews, and students seem to get a certain sadistic thrill from doing to others as the educational system has done to them. Already in their sophomore years, they are applying for internships that will open paths to careers in consulting and finance, which they also perceive in terms of rank—only a few “top” firms in New York, they have learned from peers and parents, are worthy of a bright young person’s ambition.
But many of my students have also learned that, while working themselves to the top of whatever rankings are on offer is the only way to prove themselves worthy of respect, they must combine their ambition with affability. This is not an easy lesson—less socially skilled students often rankle faculty sensibilities by directly asking, even fighting, for a better grade. Too transparent in their striving desperation, they lose out to more Machiavellian peers.
One of my most disturbingly honest students, a young Asian American man who often wore a sweatshirt letting fellow students know he had attended one of the most expensive high schools in the country, told me that his parents had made him “do sports as a kid, so that white people would like me.” Indeed, he had the casual, embodied confidence of someone who had grown up knocking limbs against the sons of old money. He had figured out for himself, he said, to approach English teachers with poignant anecdotes about how much a particular poem had touched him—dazzled by the possibility of living their Dead Poets Society fantasies, how could they give less than an A to such a sensitive, promising young man?
Our elite universities have long had as a primary (although not always explicit) mission to nurture this kind of personality, in which intelligence and ambition are smilingly hidden by a “well-rounded” and not apparently mercenary interest in sports and art. An ingratiating human touch has been part of admissions criteria to elite universities since the early 20th century, when notions of “character” were developed to keep the children of Jewish immigrants from getting into the Ivy League on the basis of mere brainpower. Since then, generations of immigrants have taught their children that their intellectual acumen won’t get them far unless they can also mimic the ideal personality of the American elite. This image of the smart, athletic, sociable individual who sheathes his competitive edge in good humor has likewise shaped our national culture, in which the aim of mass education has been conflated with preparing children for college. University admissions, particularly at the most exclusive schools, is thus not only a matter of finding the worthiest candidates, but of telling young Americans what kind of person they ought to be. Debates about college admissions standards are debates about the moral character of our elites and the nation they rule.
What is new about education’s turn to woke identity politics is not the fact that administrators and faculty are influencing students’ sense of self, but rather the sort of values that the new ideal personality is supposed to uphold. The contemporary ideal, increasingly, is no longer someone so charmingly personable that others forget he is in fact a ruthless competitor, but a person who so convincingly narrates her having overcome some kind of social injustice that others forget she is in fact a beneficiary of systems of privilege.
My students are experts at performing this kind of self, and their stories of overcoming are almost all about “identity”—stereotyped racial dramas. I realized this when I organized a series of lessons on the theories of Michel Foucault. I had asked students to explain how institutions like the university elicit us to speak ’the truth’ about ourselves, and in doing so reshape who we are. They told me about their college admissions essays, narratives about themselves that both reflected a cunning sense of what their audience wanted to hear, and reached, more deeply than I think students know, into their own souls.
Students of color, particularly from immigrant backgrounds, wrote about the psychic suffering that had been inflicted on them by the dominant white culture. They had stories about having to learn to love their curly hair, their “unusual” names—in short, themselves. College applicants—and Americans generally—are increasingly asked to recount how through great difficulty they have succeeded in taking the self as the object of their love, a stage of narcissism that for earlier generations of psychoanalysts appeared not as a challenging achievement too often thwarted by an oppressive culture, but as a falling back into an infantile condition.
Members of less obviously oppressed groups had variant strategies. A number of Asian American students, for example, told me that they had written their admissions essays to demonstrate that they weren’t “like other Asians,” with narratives of how they had to challenge their strict parents and limited cultural horizons to develop passions for, as one wrote, beat-boxing and hip-hop.
These are not students’ own stories. Many students in my class received tremendous amounts of help on their admissions essays from dedicated tutors at their high schools as well as private writing coaches. Their letters are a collective output, a kind of shared fantasy of the ruling class. They should not be read for their insight into what students are really like, but for the purposes they serve their supposed authors and the society that has trained them to speak of themselves in these terms.
Students told stories that were variations on a theme we often find in modern American culture, in phrases like “black excellence,” or in the endless exhortations to recognize women’s intellectual achievements and potential. In this vision of the world, racism, patriarchy, etc., have long warped our society by obscuring the talents of certain groups. This perspective allows us to reconcile our commitment to meritocracy with our new moral sense that any state of affairs that does not see Black people, women, etc., represented in a given field in at least (but preferably greater than) their proportion of the general population is necessarily racist, sexist, etc.
One obvious wrinkle to this intuition is that centuries of oppression would seem rather likely to diminish the capacities of members of oppressed groups. When I confront students with Simone de Beauvoir’s version of this argument as we read The Second Sex (Beauvoir was concerned to explain why there had been, in her opinion, no female geniuses), they are horrified to find the mother of modern feminism insisting that oppression makes the oppressed objectively “inferior.” Women, still suffering the effects of historical and present-day sexism, are not yet “as good” as men in many fields, Beauvoir claimed. But students, and Americans more generally, prefer to imagine that oppression, however traumatic, in no way deprives the oppressed of merit. Thus, we can both speak of racism and sexism, in ever more dramatic terms, as terrible national problems, without having to imagine that increasing “diversity” in various fields of work will mean any loss of competence.
Stories of heroically overcoming discrimination help us collectively reconcile the apparently antagonistic values of meritocracy and wokeness, but they are no less useful for individual students, who are able to imagine themselves as singular, isolated subjects who have triumphed over vast “structural” inequities. The story of a self that resists hegemonic forces of racism and sexism may seem to oppose, but in fact confirms, the self-image of a successful meritocratic individual. Such a person speaks of herself as the bearer of internal, personal talents, which she deploys through hard work to win the recognition and compensation that are the fair due for her accomplishments. Narratives of triumph over oppression similarly position the subject as winning for herself—this time against a hostile and unfair system—the just rewards of her work. The teller of such a story does not need to—and perhaps, telling such stories so often, loses the ability to—understand herself as the beneficiary of several kinds of privilege or good fortune.
No students get to my classroom without having had a lot of good luck, or without learning how to occlude that luck through narratives of merit and identity. Nearly all of them have been born into wealthy, stable families, and attended excellent primary and secondary schools. Parents, teachers, and classmates pushed them to make the most of their cognitive abilities (another stroke of genetic and environmental fortune) and to develop the sort of personality most congenial to teachers and future employers. None of this was their own doing.
They were all, of course, trained to work hard, and eventually internalized a commitment to hard work to such an extent that they may believe themselves to have earned, by their own efforts and choice, access to a university degree that will in turn grant them entry into the highest levels of such lucrative professions as consulting and finance. They are able to tell themselves, through stories of personal merit and victory over oppressive structures, that they were the heroes of their own lives.
When I ask students to explain how they choose their desired career paths and majors, however, they often answer that these were chosen for them, by their parents, or don’t seem to have been chosen at all, but simply bubbled up into their consciousness from their social milieu. Throughout their childhoods, they complain, they were overscheduled, given almost no free time in which they might develop interests and commitments independent of their parents’ ambitions for them or the notions of adult “success” that were dominant in their family, school, and neighborhood.
Most of them report never having experienced what, before teaching, I thought was an obligatory American rite of passage: an adolescent crisis that pitted them against their parents’ values. My students say their parents are their best friends and surest allies. It’s true that they could never have made it to the University of Chicago without massive, uninterrupted parental supervision, which has left them without an effective sense of personal agency. What they have instead are stories, in meritocratic and woke versions, about how their own efforts and talents lead them as far as my class, and will lead them, after it, to high-paying jobs at the commanding heights of our economy.
Students’ absence of an internal locus of control—a core self whose values they know to be their own, and against which they can measure, and sometimes refuse, the demands of the world—appears even in what may seem to be simple questions of learning and skill, such as their ability to write. After my first year of teaching, troubled by the unclear, disorganized, and utterly unaesthetic papers written by students who had, in theory, received the best (and certainly the most expensive) educations in the country, I tried a new method to inspire them to improve their writing. In my office hours, after confronting a student with the revisions they would have to make to whichever assignment, I would ask them to tell me the last book they had enjoyed reading. My naive expectation was that in response to their answer I could send them off to analyze what had made its author’s writing style seem so effective.
The exercise was a failure. Most students had not read a book for pleasure for years; they had no time. Even in college, away from their parents’ schedules, they kept themselves busy with student organizations that are often indistinguishable from classes (the finance and consulting clubs, membership in which is highly sought after, assign homework and study sessions). They have—or give themselves—no opportunity to read what they like. Without even a sense of their own tastes, they cannot develop their own sense of what it is that makes what they like enjoyable. Instead of a personal sense of their own tastes, and therefore capacity to ask what, beyond the subjectively pleasurable, makes good writing good, students merely have a sense that each instructor has his or her own arbitrary standards, each expressed in terms of rules and rubrics.
Blake Smith, a contributing writer at Tablet, is a Harper Schmidt Fellow at the University of Chicago, where he works on cultural ties between France and India. He is a writing fellow at Heterodox Academy.