Posted in Capitalism, Culture, Meritocracy, Uncategorized

Clare Coffey — Closing Time: We’re All Counting Bodies

This is a lovely essay by Clare Coffey from the summer issue of Hedgehog Review.  In it she explores the extremes in contemporary American life through the medium of two recent books:  those who have been shunted aside in the knowledge economy and destined to deaths of despair, and those who occupy the flashiest reaches of the new uber class.  She does this through an adept analysis of two recent books:  Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, by Anne Case and Angus Deaton; and Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit, by Ashley Mears.  In combination, the books tell a powerful story.

Closing Time

We’re All Counting Bodies

Clare Coffey

Lenin’s maxim that “there are decades when nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen” can be tough on writers. You spend years carefully marshaling an argument, anticipating objections, tightening your focus, sacrificing claims that might interfere with the suasion of your central point, and then—bam, the gun goes off. Something happens that makes the point toward which you were gently cajoling the reader not only obvious but insufficient. Your thoroughbred stands ready, but the rest of the field has already left the gate.

So it is with Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. In 2014, Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, the latter a Nobel Prize winner, noted that for the first time, the mortality rate among white Americans without a college degree was climbing rather than dropping; further, while members of this group remained relatively advantaged compared to their black peers, the two cohorts’ mortality rates were moving in opposite directions. Case and Deaton found that a significant portion of this hike in mortality was due to deaths from alcoholism, drug use, and suicide—phenomena which, bundled together, they labeled “deaths of despair.”

Deaths of Despair Cover

Six years later, in this new book, the two economists attempt to turn these observations into a thesis: What can this horrifying data can tell us about American society at large? Instead of linking the deaths to any single deprivation, the authors place them in a context of wholesale loss of social status and coherent identity for those without purchase in the knowledge professions—a loss that encompasses wage stagnation, the decline of union power, and the transition from a manufacturing to a service economy.

For Case and Deaton, the closing of a factory involves all three, and cannot be understood strictly in terms of lost earnings or job numbers. Even in a “success” story, in which workers get new jobs at a staffing agency or an Amazon fulfillment center, a qualitative catastrophe occurs: to the prestige of difficult, directly productive work; to a measure of democratic control over the conditions of work; to the sense of valued belonging to socially important organizations; to the norms governing work, marriage, and sociality that developed in a particular material context, and which cannot simply transfer over or remake themselves overnight. At least some of these losses are downstream of sectoral transition only insofar as firm structure and historic labor organization is concerned. There is no purely sectoral reason for companies to outsource all non-knowledge jobs to staffing companies, or for Amazon to fire whistleblowers. The differences between NYC taxis and Uber lie in the fact that one has a union and the other classifies its workers as independent contractors, not in NAICS codes. But however carefully you parse the causes, deaths of despair are the final result of a long, slow social death.

Who are the culprits? Case and Deaton are careful not to absolve capitalism, but they insist that the problem is not really capitalism itself but its abuses: “We are not against capitalism. We believe in the power of competition and free markets. Capitalism has brought an end to misery and death for millions in now rich countries over the past 250 years and, much more rapidly, in countries like India and China, over the past 50 years.” This qualification is not unique to them; it takes different forms, from the regulatory reformism of political liberals such as Elizabeth Warren to the attacks on “crony capitalism” of doctrinaire libertarians, for whom the true free market has not yet been tried. For Case and Deaton, the big-picture problem is unchecked economic trends that encourage “upward redistribution”; their more specific and more representative target is a rent-seeking health-care industry.

Their complaint is not only that companies like Purdue Pharma arguably jump-started the opioid epidemic by hard-selling their pain medications and concealing these drugs’ addictive potential. Case and Deaton also argue that the health-care sector has eaten up American wage gains with insurance costs, funneling more and more money to health-care spending while delivering less and less in terms of health outcomes. The numbers the authors have assembled are convincing. But who at this juncture needs to be convinced? A teenager recently died of COVID-19 after being turned away from an urgent care clinic for lack of insurance. Hospital personnel are getting laid off in the midst of a pandemic to stanch balance sheet losses resulting from delayed elective care. Hospitals that have been operated on the basis of years of business school orthodoxy lack the extra capacity to deal with anything more momentous than a worse-than-usual flu season. Who is in any serious doubt that the American health-care system is cobbled together out of rusty tin cans and profit margins? The more pertinent question is what in America isn’t.

The release of Case and Deaton’s book just as an often fatal communicable disease was going pandemic was not, of course, the fault of the authors. But it makes for oddly frustrating reading. Positing a link between deindustrialization and health-care rent seeking and deaths of despair is an abductive argument about historical and present actors rather than a purely statistical inference. As Case and Deaton freely admit, you cannot prove by means of regression analysis that any of their targets are the unmistakable causes of these deaths. For that matter, there’s too much bundling among both the phenomena (alcoholic diseases, overdoses, suicides) and the proposed causes (deindustrialization, the decline of organized labor, wage stagnation, corporate restructuring) to conduct even a controlled test.

While it may not be possible to demonstrate airtight causality, Deaths of Despair nonetheless provides valuable documentation of the humiliations, losses, and unmoorings of those on the wrong end of a widening economic divide. The book is less a technocratic prescription than a grim body count.

In Very Important People: Status and Beauty in the Global Party Circuit, Ashley Mears is counting bodies too, albeit very different ones. From New York to Miami, from Ibiza to Saint-Tropez, all over the elite global party scene in which Mears, a sociologist and former fashion model, did eighteen months of research, everyone is counting bodies. The bodies are those of models, ruthlessly quantified and highly valuable to the owners of elite nightclubs. Very Important People hinges on one insight: The image of a rooftop party filled with glamorous models drinking champagne isn’t just a pop-culture cliché. It is a lucrative business model.

VIP Cover

According to Mears, up through the nineties the business model for nightclubs was simple. There was a bar and a dance floor. You paid to get in and you paid to drink. Ideally, you’d want a certain ratio of women to men, but the pleasures on offer were fairly straightforward. But in the early 2000s, a new model emerged, ironically enough, in the repurposed industrial buildings of New York’s Meatpacking District. Rather than rely on the dance floor and bar, clubs encouraged (usually male) customers to put down serious cash for immediately available and strategically placed tables and VIP sections, where bottles of liquor at marked-up prices could be brought to them. Clubs that could successfully brand themselves as elite might make enormous sums off out-of-town dentists on a spree, young financiers looking to woo or compete with business associates by demonstrating access to the city’s most exclusive pleasures, and the mega-rich “whales” proclaiming their status by over-the-top performances of generosity and waste.

The table is crucial for this strategy to succeed. It allows maximum visibility for both the whale’s endless parade of bottles of Dom Perignon (much of it left undrunk by virtue of sheer volume) and the groups of models that signal that this is the kind of club where a whale might be found. The good that is being advertised is indistinguishable from the advertising process.

A whole secondary ecosystem has grown up around this glitzy “potlach,” as Mears calls it—this elaborately choreographed wasting of wealth. There are the elite club promoters, who might make thousands a night if they show up with enough models, and whose transactional relationships with the models are defined in useful, fragile terms of mutual care. There are the models, young and broke in expensive cities, who get free meals, free champagne, and sometimes free housing as long as they show up and play nice. There are the bouncers, who police the height and looks of entrants, and the whales, who both command the scene and function as an advertisement for its desirability. Being adjacent to real wealth is a powerful incentive, especially for promoters, who dream of rubbing shoulders and making deals of their own through connections forged in the club.

The owners make money, and everyone else gets a little something and a little scammed. Perhaps among those who are scammed the least are the models, the majority of whom seem to be in it for a good party rather than upward mobility. When you are very young and very beautiful, the world tends to see those traits as the most important things about you. One way to register dissent is to trade them only for things equally ephemeral, inconsequential, delightful: a glass of champagne, moonlight over the Riviera, a night spent dancing till dawn. Reaping the benefits of belonging to an intrinsically exclusive club is not heroic. But it seems no worse than the trade made by the wives of the superwealthy, who in one scene appear, disapproving and hostile, at a table adjacent to their husbands’ at an Upper East Side restaurant. They have made a more thoroughgoing negotiation of their value to wealthy men—one resting on the ability to reproduce the upper class as well as attest to its presence.

Demarcating status is the limit of the model’s power. It is what she is at the club to do. The model is not there primarily to be sexually alluring—that is the role of the lower-class-coded bottle waitress. One of Mears’s subjects even confesses that models aren’t his type: They are too tall and skinny, too stereotyped, and after all, desire is so highly personal—less an estimation that a face has been arranged in the single best way as delight that it has been arranged in such a way. But models are necessary precisely because their bodies and faces have transcended the whims of any personally desiring subject, to the objectivity of market value. Their beauty can be quantified in inches, and dollars.

To contemplate and cultivate beauty is perhaps noble. To desire and consume it is at least human. To desire not any object in itself, but an image of desirability, is ghastly. There are many scenes in Very Important People, from the physical dissipation to the moments bordering on human trafficking, that are morally horrifying. What lingers, though, is this spectral quality: huge amounts of money, time, and flesh in service to a recursive and finally imaginary value. If anyone has gained from the losses of Case and Deaton’s subjects, it is the patrons of the global party circuit. But their gains seem less hoarded than unmade, in a kind of reverse alchemy—transmuted into the allurements of a phantom world, elusive, seductive, and all too soluble in the light of day.

Posted in Higher Education, Inequality, Meritocracy

Markovits: Schooling in the Age of Human Capital

Today I’m posting a wonderful new essay by Daniel Markovits about the social consequences of the new meritocracy, which was just published in the latest issue of Hedgehog Review.  Here’s a link to the original.  As you may recall, last fall I posted a piece about his book, The Meritocracy Trap.  

In this essay, Markovits extends his analysis of the role that universities play in fostering a new and particularly dangerous kind of wealth inequality — one based on the returns on human capital instead of the returns on economic capital.  For all of history until the late 20th century, wealth meant ownership of land, stocks, bonds, businesses, or piles of gold.  The income it produced came to you simply for being the owner, whether or not you accumulated the wealth yourself.  One of the pleasures of being rich was the luxury of remaining idle. 

But the meritocracy has established a new path to wealth — based on the university-credentialed skills you accumulate early in your life and then cash in for a high paying job as an executive or professional.  Like the average wage earner, you work for a living and only retain the income if you keep working.  Unlike the average worker, however, you earn an extraordinary amount of money.  Markovits estimates that in the 1960s, between a sixth and a third of the people in the top one percent in income earned this from their own labor; now the proportion is two-thirds.  The meritocrats are the new rich.  And universities are the route to attaining these riches.

At one level, this is a fairer system by far than the old one based on simple inheritance and coupon clipping.  These people work for a living, and they work hard — longer hours than most people in the work force.  They can only attain their lucrative positions by proving their worth in the educational system, crowned by college and professional degrees.  These are the people who get the best grades and the best test scores and who qualify for entrance into and graduation from the best universities.  This provides the new form of inequality with a thick veneer of meritocratic legitimacy.  

As Markovits points out below, however, the problem is that the entire meritocratic enterprise is not directed toward identifying and certifying excellence but instead toward creating degrees of superiority.  

Excellence is a threshold concept, not a rank concept. It applies as soon as a certain level of ability or accomplishment is reached, and while it can make sense to say that one person is, in some respect, more excellent than another, this does not eliminate (or even undermine) the other’s excellence. Moreover, excellence is a substantive rather than purely formal ideal. Excellence requires not just capacity or achievement, but rather capacity and achievement realized at something worthwhile. 

The university produced degrees do not certify excellence but instead define the degree-holder’s position in line for the very best jobs.  They are positional goods, whose value is in qualifying you for a spot as close to the front of the queue as possible.  Thus all of the familiar metrics for showing  where you are in line:  SAT, LSAT, US News college rank, college admission rate.  Since everyone knows this is how the game is played, everyone wants and needs to get the diploma that grants the highest degree of superiority in the race for position.  Being really qualified for the job is meaningless if your degree doesn’t get you access to it.  As a result, Markovits notes, you can never get enough education to ensure your success in the meritocratic rat race.

“The value to me of my education,” the economist Fred Hirsch once observed, “depends not only on how much I have but also on how much the man ahead of me in the job line has.”32 This remains so, moreover, regardless of how much education the person ahead of me and I both possess. Every meritocratic success therefore necessarily breeds a flip side of failure—the investments made by the rich exclude the rest, and also those among the rich who don’t quite keep up. This means that while the rich get sated on most goods (there is only so much caviar a person can eat), they cannot get sated on schooling.

Parents with lots of human capital have a huge advantage in guiding their children through educational system, but this only breeds insecurity.  They know that they’re competing with other families with the same advantages and that only a few will gain a place in the front of the line where the most lucrative positions are allocated.  Excellence is attainable, but superiority is endlessly elusive.

I hope you find this article as illuminating as I do.

Businessman running on hamster wheel

Schooling in the Age of Human Capital

Metrics do not and, in fact, cannot measure any intelligible conception of excellence at all.

Daniel Markovits

The recent “Varsity Blues” scandal brought corruption at American universities into the public eye. Rich people bought fraudulent test scores and bribed school officials in order to get their children into top colleges. Public outrage spread beyond the scandal’s criminal face, to the legacy preferences by which universities legally favor the privileged children of their own graduates. After all, the actions in the Varsity Blues case became criminal only because the universities themselves failed to capture the proceeds of their own corruption. The outrage was natural and warranted. There is literally nothing to say in favor of a system that allows the rich to circumvent the meritocratic competition that governs college admissions for everyone else. But the outrage also distracts from and even disguises a broader and deeper corruption in American education, which arises not from betraying meritocratic ideals but, rather, from pursuing them. Meritocracy itself casts a dark shadow over education, biasing decisions about who gets it, distorting the institutions that deliver it, and corrupting the very idea of educational excellence.The methods of meritocratic schooling drive the corruption forward. Scores on the SAT (formally called the Scholastic Assessment Test), grade point averages (GPAs), and college rankings—the metrics that organize and even tyrannize meritocratic education in the United States today—are manifestly absurd. It’s not just that SAT scores, GPAs, and rankings are culturally biased or that they lack predictive validity. These familiar complaints have a point, but they all proceed from the fanciful belief that merit may be measured and that meritocracy, if properly administered, supports opportunity for all and thereby makes unequal outcomes okay. The familiar objections argue only that the metrics are poorly designed and so miss their meritocratic marks. In some instances, as when SAT scores are criticized for poorly predicting college GPAs, the criticisms simply prefer one measure over another. But the real root of the trouble with SATs, GPAs, and rankings is deeper and different: These metrics do not and, in fact, cannot measure any intelligible conception of excellence at all. And really appreciating this objection requires stepping outside meritocracy’s conventional imaginative frame.

A Transparent Absurdity

Colleges and universities quantify applicants’ merits using SAT scores and GPAs. But as a measure of anything that is itself worthwhile—of any meaningful achievement or genuine human excellence—an SAT score or a GPA is not so much imprecise and incomplete, or biased and unfair, as simply nonsensical. Even if individual questions on the test identify real skills, and even if grades on individual assignments or courses reflect real accomplishments, the sums and averages that compose overall SAT scores and GPAs fail to track any credible concept of ability or accomplishment. What sense does it make to treat a person who uses language exceptionally vividly and creatively but cannot identify the core facts in a descriptive passage as possessing, overall, average linguistic aptitude or accomplishment? It is more absurd still to treat someone who reads and writes fantastically well but is terrible at mathematics as, in any way, an ordinary or middling student. But SAT scores and GPAs push inexorably toward both conclusions. Again, even if one sets aside doubts about whether individual skills can be measured by multiple-choice questions or whether particular course work can be accurately graded, these metrics create literally mindless averages—totally without grounding in any conception of how to aggregate skills or accomplishments into an all-things-considered sum, or even any argument that the these things are commensurable or that aggregating them is intelligible.

Applicants, for their parts, measure colleges and universities by rankings, including most prominently those published by US News & World Report. These rankings are, if anything, even less intelligible than the metrics used to evaluate applicants. For colleges, for example, the rankings aggregate many factors: graduation and retention rates (both in fact and as compared to US News’s expectations), an idiosyncratic measure of “social mobility,” class size, faculty salaries, faculty education, student-faculty ratio, share of faculty who are full-time, expert opinion, academic spending per student, student standardized test scores, student rank in high school class, and alumni giving.1 Once again, even supposing that these factors reflect particular educational excellences and that the data US News gathers measure the factors, the aggregate that it builds by combining them, using weights specified to within one-tenth of one percent, remains incoherent. Berea College, for example, enrolls students who skew more toward first-generation college graduates than Princeton University, and in this way adds more to the education of each student (especially compared to her likely alternatives), but it has a less renowned, scholarly, and highly paid faculty. What possible conception of “excellence” can underwrite an all-things-considered judgment of which is “better”? US News boasts that “our methodology is the product of years of research.”2 But the basic question of what this research is studying—of what excellence this method of deciding which colleges and universities are “best” could conceivably measure, or whether any such excellence is even intelligible—remains entirely unaddressed.

In spite of their patent absurdities, the metrics deployed by both sides of the college admissions complex dominate how students and colleges are matched: Schools use test scores and grades to decide whom to admit, and applicants use rankings to decide where to enroll. The five top-ranked law schools, for example, enroll roughly two-thirds of applicants with Law School Admission Test (LSAT) scores in the ninety-ninth percentile.3 And although law schools hold precise recruitment data close, one can reasonably estimate that of the roughly 2,000 people admitted to the top five law schools each year, no more than five (which is to say effectively none) attend a law school outside the top ten.4 Law school is likely an extreme case. But instead of being outlandish, it lies at the end of a continuum and emphasizes patterns that repeat themselves (less acutely) across American higher education. Metrics that are literally nonsense drive an incredibly efficient two-way matching system.

When a transparent absurdity dominates a prominent social field, something profound lies beneath. And the metrics that tyrannize university life rise out of deep waters indeed. Elites increasingly owe their income and status not to inherited physical or financial capital but to their own skill, or human capital, acquired through intensive and even extravagant training. Colleges and universities provide the training that builds human capital, and going to college (and to the right college) therefore substantially determines who gets ahead. The practices that match students and colleges must answer the need to legitimate the inequalities this human capitalism produces, by justifying advantage on meritocratic grounds. Even when they are nonsense, numbers provide legitimacy in a scientific age. The numbers that tyrannize university life in America today, and the deformations that education suffers as a result, are therefore the inevitable pathologies of schooling in an age of human capitalism.

The Superordinate Working Class

In 2018, the average CEO of an S&P 500 company took home about $14.5 million in total compensation,5 and in a recent year, the five highest-paid employees of the S&P 1500 firms (7,500 workers overall) captured total pay equal to nearly 10 percent of the S&P 1500’s collective profits.6 In finance, twenty-five hedge fund managers took home more than $100 million in 2016,7 for example, while the average portfolio manager at a mid-sized hedge fund was reported to have made more than $2 million in 2014.8 The Office of the New York State Comptroller reported in 2018 that the average securities industry worker in New York City made more than $400,000.9 Meanwhile, the most profitable law firm in America yields profits per partner in excess of $5 million per year, and more than seventy firms generate more than $1 million per partner annually.10 Anecdotes accumulate to become data. Taken together, employees at the vice-presidential level or higher at S&P 1500 companies, professional finance workers, top management consultants, top lawyers, and specialist medical doctors account for more than half of the richest 1 percent of households in the United States.11

These and other similar jobs enable a substantial subset of the most elaborately educated people to capture enormous incomes by mixing their accumulated human capital with their contemporaneous labor. This group now composes a superordinate working class. A cautious accounting attributes over half of the 1 percent’s income to these and other kinds of labor,12 while my own more complete estimate puts the share above two-thirds.13 Moreover—and notwithstanding capital’s rising domination over ordinary workers—roughly three-quarters of the increase in the top 1 percent’s share of national income overall stems from the rise of this superordinate working class, in particular a shift of income away from middle-class workers and in favor of elite ones. The result is a society in which the greatest source of wealth, income, and status (including for the mass affluent) is the skill and training—the human capital—of free workers.

The rise of human capitalism has transformed the colleges and universities that create human capital. Two facets of the transformation matter especially. First, education has acquired an importance it never had before. Until only a few generations ago, education and the skills it produces had little economic value. Even generously calculated, the top 0.1 and the top 1 percent of the income distribution in 1960 derived only about one-sixth and one-third of their incomes, respectively, from labor, which is to say by working their own human capital.14 Moreover, schools and universities did not dominate production of such human capital as there was; both blue- and white-collar workers received substantial workplace training, throughout their careers. In Detroit, for example, young men might quit childhood jobs on their eighteenth birthdays and present themselves to a Big Three automaker, to take up unionized, lifetime jobs that would (if they were capable and hard working) eventually make them into tool-and-die-makers, earning the equivalent of nearly $100,000 per year—all with no more than a high school education.15 And in New York, a college graduate joining junior management at IBM could expect to spend four years (or 10 percent of his career) in full-time, fully paid workplace training as he ascended the corporate ladder.16 Small wonder, then, that the college wage premium was modest at midcentury, and that the graduate-school wage premium (captured above what was earned by workers with just a bachelor’s degree) was more modest still.17 Elite schools and colleges, in this system, were sites of social prestige rather than economic production. Education had little direct economic payoff; rather, it followed, and merely marked, hierarchies that were established and sustained on other grounds. The critics of the old order were clear eyed about this. Kingman Brewster—the president who did more than anyone to modernize Yale University—called the college he inherited “a finishing school on Long Island Sound.”18

But today, education has become itself a source of income, status, and power for a meritocratic elite whose wealth consists, principally, in its own human capital. The college wage premium has risen dramatically, so that the present discounted value of a bachelor’s degree (net of tuition) is nearly three times greater today than in 1965.19 The postgraduate wage premium has risen more steeply still, and the median worker with a postgraduate degree now makes well over twice the wage of the median worker with a high school diploma only, and about 1.5 times the wage of the median worker with a four-year degree only. College and postcollege degrees also protect against unemployment, so that the effects of education on lifetime earnings are more dramatic still. Just one in seventy-five workers who have never finished high school, just one in forty workers with a high school education only, and just one in six workers with a bachelor’s degree enjoy lifetime earnings equal only to those of the median professional school graduate.20

Graduates of the top colleges and universities capture yet higher incomes, enjoying more than double the income boost of an average four-year degree, with even greater gains at the very top. The highest-paid 10 percent of Harvard College graduates make an average salary of $250,000 just six years out,21 while a recent study of Harvard Law School graduates ten years out reported a median annual income (among male graduates) of nearly $400,000.22 Overall, graduates of top-ten law schools make on average a quarter more than graduates of schools ranked eleventh to twentieth, and a half more than graduates of schools ranked twenty-first to one-hundredth;23 and 96 percent of the partners at the $5 million-a-year law firm graduated from a top-ten law school.24 More broadly, a recent survey reports—incredibly—that nearly 50 percent of America’s corporate leaders, 60 percent of its financial leaders, and 50 percent of its highest government officials attended only twelve universities.25 This makes elite education one of the best investments money can buy. Purely economic rates of return have been estimated at 13 to 14 percent for college and as high as 30 percent for law school, or more than double the rate of return provided by the stock market.26 Meanwhile, the educational alternatives to college have all but disappeared. According to a recent study, the average US firm invests less than 2 percent of its payroll budget on training.27

A second transformation follows from the first. Education, especially at top-tier colleges and universities, is now distributed in very different ways from before. Colleges, especially elite ones, have never welcomed poor or even middle-class people in large numbers. But once those schools chose students based on effectively immutable criteria—breeding, race, gender—so that while college was exclusive, it was nevertheless (at least among those who qualified) effectively nonrivalrous and not competitive. Even the very top schools routinely accepted perhaps a third of their applicants, and some took much greater shares still.28 As recently as 1995, the University of Chicago admitted 71 percent of those who applied. These rates naturally produced an application process that appears almost preposterously casual today. A midcentury graduate of Yale Law School, for example, recollects that when he met the dean of admissions at a college fair, he was told, based only on their conversation, “You’ll get in if you apply.” An easy confidence suffused the very language of going to college, as the sons of wealthy families did not apply widely but rather “put themselves down for” whatever colleges their fathers had attended. The game was rigged, and the stakes were small.

But today, education is parceled out through an enormous competition that becomes most intense at the very top. Even as poor and even middle-class children have virtually no chance at succeeding, rich children (no matter how privileged) have no guarantee of success. Colleges today—especially the top ones—are therefore both extremely exclusive and ruthlessly competitive. In a recent year, for example, children who had at least one parent with a graduate degree had, statistically, a 150 times greater chance of achieving the Ivy League median on their verbal SAT than children neither of whose parents had graduated high school.29 Small wonder, then, that the Ivy Plus colleges now enroll more students from households in the top 1 percent of the income distribution than from the entire bottom half.30 This makes these schools more economically exclusive than even notorious bastions of the old aristocracy such as Oxford and Cambridge. At the same time, while being born to privilege is nearly a necessary condition for admission to a really elite American university, it is far from sufficient. Last year, the University of Chicago admitted just six percent of applicants, and Stanford fewer than five percent.

These admissions rates mean that any significant failure—any visible blot on a record—effectively excludes an applicant. Rich families respond to this fact by investing almost unimaginable resources in getting their children perfect records. Prestigious private preschools in New York City now charge $30,000 per year to educate four-and-five-year-olds, and they still get ten or twenty applications for every space. These schools feed into elite elementary schools, which feed into elite high schools that charge $50,000 per year (and, on account of their endowments, spend even more). Rich families supplement all this schooling with private tutors who can charge over $1,000 per hour. If a typical household from the richest 1 percent took the difference between the money devoted to educating its children and what is spent on a typical middle-class education, and invested these sums in the S&P 500 to give to the rich children as bequests on the deaths of their parents, this would amount to a traditional inheritance of more than $10 million per child.31 This meritocratic inheritance effectively excludes working- and middle-class children from elite education, income, and status.

These expenditures are almost as inevitable as they are exorbitant. When one set of institutions dominates the production of wealth and status in a society, the privileged few set out to monopolize places, and the pressure to gain admission becomes enormous. Human capitalism, moreover, makes schooling a positional good. “The value to me of my education,” the economist Fred Hirsch once observed, “depends not only on how much I have but also on how much the man ahead of me in the job line has.”32 This remains so, moreover, regardless of how much education the person ahead of me and I both possess. Every meritocratic success therefore necessarily breeds a flip side of failure—the investments made by the rich exclude the rest, and also those among the rich who don’t quite keep up. This means that while the rich get sated on most goods (there is only so much caviar a person can eat), they cannot get sated on schooling. Finally, rather than pick schools based on family tradition, applicants make deliberate choices about where to apply, and almost always attend the highest-ranked school that admits them, as when effectively nobody admitted to a top-five law school attends a school outside the top ten.

In these ways, human capitalism creates an educational competition in which the stakes are immense and everyone competes for the same few top prizes. Whereas aristocracies perpetuated elites by birthright, meritocratic inequality establishes school and especially college admissions committees as de facto social planners, choosing the next generation of meritocrats. Education becomes a powerful mechanism for structural exclusion—the dominant dynastic technology of our enormously unequal age. This places extreme pressure on the schools, and especially admissions committees, which must decide which people to privilege, using what criteria, and to what ends.

Bohr’s Lucky Horseshoe

What happens to schools when the degrees they grant grow so valuable that the demand for them outstrips their supply, and when admissions decisions make or break applicants’ life plans and determine who gets ahead in society? How have schools and colleges responded to their admissions decisions’ raised stakes? And what has the rise of human capital, its dominant role in wealth (even among the rich), done to the nature of education itself—to education’s aims, and to the standards by which it determines success? Measurement, and the tyranny of numbers, turns out to play a central part in the answer to all these questions—and for reasons not just shallow but deep. The manifestly absurd metrics that dominate university life are direct consequences of the role that schooling plays in our present economic and social order.

That which is measured becomes important. But at the same time, that which is important must be measured—and on a scale that allows for the sort of confident and exact judgments and comparisons that numbers yield. In a technocratic age—suspicious (for good reasons as well as bad) of humanist, interpretive, and therefore discretionary judgments about value—the demand for certainty and precision becomes irresistible when the stakes get high enough. The rise of human capitalism therefore makes it essential to construct metrics that schools and colleges might use to assess human capital and to compare the people who possess it, in order to determine whose human capital should receive additional investments.

The problem becomes more pressing still because education is lumped into standardized units called degrees, so that schools (especially the most exclusive ones, which have no part-time students or “honors colleges”) cannot hedge their bets by offering applicants varying quantities or qualities of training, but must instead make a binary choice to accept or to reject, full stop. The metrics that admissions offices use must therefore be able to aggregate across dimensions of skill and ability, in order to construct a single, all-things-considered measure of ability and accomplishment capable of supporting a “yes” or a “no.” This task becomes especially demanding in a world that has rejected the unity of the virtues and insists instead that people and institutions may excel in some ways even as they fail in others. GPAs and standardized test scores, especially on the SAT, as well as university rankings as provided by US News & World Report, provide the required metrics—comprehensive and complete orderings that can make fine distinctions that all who accept the metrics must agree on. Averages, scores, and rankings operate as prices do in economic markets, corralling judgments made unruly by normative pluralism and fragmentation into a single, public, shared measure of value.

These metrics—especially the SAT—are of course themselves disputed, sometimes vigorously. Certainly, they rest on arbitrary assumptions, and precision comes only at the cost of simply ignoring anything intractable, no matter how important. Nevertheless, even challenges to particular measures of human capital often accept the general approach that lies behind them all, and therefore give away the evaluative game—as (once again) when the SAT is criticized for lacking much power to predict GPAs. And even when they are contested, metrics like the GPA and SAT suppress ambiguities that they cannot eliminate, by pushing contestation into the background, far away from the individual cases and the evaluation of particular applicants. We may disagree about the validity of the SAT, and indeed harbor doubts about the test’s value, but we will nevertheless all agree on who has the highest score. In this sense, GPAs and SATs are like Niels Bohr’s lucky horseshoe—they work even if you don’t believe in them. In a world in which people cannot possibly agree on any underlying account of virtue or success, but literally everything turns on how success is measured, numerical scores allow admissions committees to legitimate their choices of whom to admit.

The early meritocrats understood this. At Harvard, James Bryant Conant, president from 1933 to 1953, introduced the SAT into college admissions with the specific purpose of identifying deserving applicants from outside the aristocratic elite. (James Tobin, who would serve on President John F. Kennedy’s Council of Economic Advisers and win a Nobel Prize, was an early success story.33) Yale came to meritocracy later, but (perhaps for this very reason) embraced the logic of numbers-based meritocratic evaluation more openly and explicitly. Kingman Brewster, president from 1963 to 1977, called himself an “intellectual investment banker” and encouraged his admissions office to compose Yale’s class with the aim of admitting the students who would maximize the human capital that his investments would build. R. Inslee “Inky” Clark, Brewster’s dean of undergraduate admissions from 1963 to 1969, called his selection process “talent searching” and equated talent with “who will benefit most from studying at Yale.” The new administration, moreover, deployed test scores and GPAs not just affirmatively, to find overlooked talent, but also negatively, to break the old aristocratic elite’s monopoly over places at top colleges. Clark called the old, breeding-based elite “ingrown,” and aggressively turned Yale against aristocratic prep schools. In 1968, for example, when Harvard still accepted 46 percent of applicants from Choate and Princeton took 57 percent, Yale accepted only 18 percent.34

The meritocrats aimed by these means to build a new leadership class. The old guard recognized the threat and resisted, both privately and even publicly. Brewster’s predecessor had scorned Harvard’s meritocratic admissions, which he said would favor the “beetle-browed, highly specialized intellectual.” When Brewster’s revolution was presented to the Yale Corporation, one member objected, “You’re talking about Jews and public-school graduates as leaders. Look around you at this table. These are America’s leaders. There are no Jews here. There are no public-school graduates here.” And William F. Buckley lamented that Brewster’s Yale would prefer “a Mexican-American from El Paso High…[over]…Jonathan Edwards the Sixteenth from Saint Paul’s School.” Just so, the meritocrats replied.35

They added that their meritocratic approach to building an elite—because numbers measure ability and, just as important, block overt and direct appeals to breeding—would launder the hierarchy that it produced. Prior inequalities—especially aristocratic ones—were prejudicial, malign, and offensive. But meritocracy purports to be wholesome: backed by objective numbers, open to all comers, and resolutely focused on earned advantage. Indeed, meritocracy aspires to redeem the very idea of inequality—to make unequal outcomes compatible with equal opportunities, and to render hierarchy acceptable to a democratic age. In this way, the early meritocrats combined stark criticism of the present with a profound optimism about the future.

The Soldier, the Artist, and the Financier

The meritocrats’ optimism fell, if not at once, then soon. And it fell at hurdles erected by their own reliance on numbers. The metrics that the meritocrats constructed, and that now dominate education, turned out to be not just absurd but destructive.

To begin with, numerical metrics of accomplishment naturally inflame ruthlessly single-minded competition. There is no general way to rank learning, or creativity, or achievement—merit—directly. There is no way to say, all things considered, who has better skills, wider knowledge, or deeper understanding, much less who has accomplished more overall. People value different things for different reasons. We disagree with one another about what is most valuable: the entrepreneur’s resourcefulness, the doctor’s caring, the writer’s insight, or the statesperson’s wisdom. Moreover, each of us is unsure, in our own judgments, about how best to balance these values when they conflict—unsure, to pick a famous example, about whether to pursue a life of politics or of reflection, to pursue the executory or the deliberative virtues. The agreement and repose needed to sustain a stable direct ranking simply can’t be had. This is not all bad: Ineliminable uncertainties about value diffuse and therefore dampen our competition to achieve. The soldier and the artist simply do not compete with each other, and neither competes with the financier.

By contrast, numerical metrics—again including especially GPAs and SAT scores—aggregate across incommensurables to produce a single, complete ranking of merit. Indeed, producing this ranking is part of such metrics’ point—the thing that makes them useful to admissions offices. But now, competition whose natural state is disorganized and diffuse becomes highly organized and narrowly focused. Aspiring businesspeople, doctors, writers, and statespeople all will benefit, in reaching their professional goals, from high SAT scores and GPAs, and, accordingly, they all compete to join the top ranks. The numbers on which admissions offices rely to validate their selections therefore create competition and hierarchy where the incommensurability of value once made rank unintelligible. SATs and GPAs do to human capital what prices earlier did to physical or financial capital—they make it possible to say, all things considered, who has more, who is richest. Unreasoning accumulation and open inequality follow inexorably.

The competition that the numerical metrics create, moreover, aims at foolish and indeed fruitless ambitions. SAT scores and GPAs, once again, do not measure any intelligible excellences, and high scores and averages therefore have no value in themselves. At best, pursuing them wastes effort and attention and almost surely deforms schooling, by diverting effort and attention from the many genuine excellences that education can produce. This is even more vividly true on the side of colleges and universities, with respect to the wasteful and even destructive contortions they put themselves through in pursuit of higher US News rankings.

The numbers-based distortions induced by students’ pursuit of higher test scores and institutions’ pursuit of higher rankings both may be given a natural framing in terms of the distinction between excellence and superiority. Excellence is a threshold concept, not a rank concept. It applies as soon as a certain level of ability or accomplishment is reached, and while it can make sense to say that one person is, in some respect, more excellent than another, this does not eliminate (or even undermine) the other’s excellence. Moreover, excellence is a substantive rather than purely formal ideal. Excellence requires not just capacity or achievement, but rather capacity and achievement realized at something worthwhile. It is a moral error to speak of excellence in corruption, wickedness, or depravity. Superiority, on the other hand, is opposite in both respects. It is a rank—rather than a threshold—concept, and one person’s superior accomplishment undoes rather than just exceeds the superiority of those whom she surpasses. In addition, superiority is purely formal rather than substantive. It makes perfect sense to speak in terms of superiority at activities that are worthless or even harmful.

When the numbers that rule over the processes that match students and schools under human capitalism subject education to domination by a single and profoundly mistaken conception of merit, they depose excellence, installing in its place a merciless quest for superiority. Human capitalism distorts schooling in much the same way that financialization distorts for-profit sectors of the real economy. Once, firms committed to particular products (General Motors to cars, IBM to computers) might view profits as a happy side-effect of running their businesses well. But in finance, whose only product is profit, the distinction between success and profitability becomes literally unintelligible, and financialization therefore subjects the broader economy to a tyranny of profit. Similarly, flourishing schools and universities will view their reputations and status as salutary side-effects of one or another form of academic excellence. But human capitalism shuts schools off from these conceptions of excellence and enslaves them to the pursuit of superiority. Schooling in an age of human capitalism thus becomes subjected to a tyranny of SATs, GPAs, and college rankings.

All these consequences, moreover, are neither accidents nor the result of individual vices: the shallowness of applicants or the vanity of universities. Rather, a social and economic hierarchy based on human capital creates a pitiless competition for access to the meritocratic education that builds human capital. Working- and middle-class children lack the resources to compete in the educational race and so are excluded not just from income and status but from meaningful opportunity. Rich children, meanwhile, are run ragged in a competition to achieve an intrinsically meaningless superiority that devours even those whom it appears to favor. And the colleges and universities that provide training, and administer the competition, are deformed in ways that betray any plausible conceptions of academic excellence. The Varsity Blues scandal exposed this corruption alongside the frauds that conventional responses emphasized. Why would intelligent and otherwise prudent people—one of the culprits was cochair of a major global law firm—pursue such a ham-fisted scheme other than from a desperate fear of losing meritocratic caste? No one escapes the meritocracy trap.

The only way out—for schools as well as for students—involves structural reforms that extend well beyond education, to reach economic and social inequalities writ large. But although reforms cannot end with schools, colleges, and universities, they might begin there. In particular, the familiar hope that making standardized tests less biased and more accurate and making rankings more comprehensive—that is, perfecting meritocracy—might more effectively launder social and economic inequalities without diminishing them is simply a fantasy. Colleges and universities, in particular, cannot redeem their educational souls while retaining their exclusivity. Instead, elite schools must become, simply, less elite.

If it mattered less where people got educated, applicants could pursue different paths for different reasons. And schools and colleges, freed from the burden of allocating life chances, could abandon their craving for superiority and instead pursue scholarly insight, practical innovation, community engagement, and a thousand other incommensurable virtues. Along the way, by freeing themselves from superiority’s jealous grasp, universities might redeem the very idea of excellence.

 

Posted in Family, Meritocracy, Modernity, Schooling, Sociology, Teaching

What Schools Can Do that Families Can’t: Robert Dreeben’s Analysis

In this post, I explore a key issue in understanding the social role that schools play:  Why do we need schools anyway?  For thousands of years, children grew up learning the skills, knowledge, and values they would need in order to be fully functioning adults.  They didn’t need schools to accomplish this.  The family, the tribe, the apprenticeship, and the church were sufficient to provide them with this kind of acculturation.  Keep in mind that education is ancient but universal public schooling is a quite recent invention, which arose about 200 years ago as part of the creation of modernity.

Here I focus on a comparison between family and school as institutions for social learning.  In particular, I examine what social ends schools can accomplish that families can’t.  I’m drawing on a classic analysis by Robert Dreeben in his 1968 book, On What Is Learned in School.  Dreeben is a sociologist in the structural functionalist tradition who was a student of Talcott Parsons.  His book demonstrates the strengths of functionalism in helping us understand schooling as a critically important mechanism for societies to survive in competition with other societies in the modern era.  The section I’m focusing on here is chapter six, “The Contribution of Schooling to the Learning of Norms: Independence, Achievement, Universalism, and Specificity.”   I strongly recommend that you read the original, using the preceding link.  My discussion is merely a commentary on his text.

Dreeben Cover

I’m drawing on a set of slides I used when I taught this chapter in class.

This is structural functionalism at its best:

      • The structure of schooling teaches students values that modern societies require; the structure functions even if that outcome is unintended

He examines the social functions of the school compared with the family

      • Not the explicit learning that goes on in school – the subject matter, the curriculum (English, math, science, social studies)

      • Instead he looks as the social norms you learn in school

He’s not focusing on the explicit teaching that goes on in school – the formal curriculum

      • Instead he focuses on what the structure of the school setting teaches students – vs. what the structure of the family teaches children

      • The emphasis, therefore, is on the differences in social structure of the two settings

      • What can and can’t be learned in each setting?

Families and schools are parallel in several important ways

      • Socialization: they teach the young

        • Both provide the young with skills, knowledge, values, and norms

        • Both use explicit and implicit teaching

      • Selection: they set the young on a particular social trajectory in the social hierarchy

        • Both provide them with social means to attain a particular social position

        • School: via grades, credits and degrees

        • Families: via economic, social, and cultural capital

The difference between family and school boils down to preparing the young for two very different kinds of social relationships

      • Primary relationships, which families model as the relations between parent and child and between siblings

      • Secondary relationships, which schools model as the relations between teacher and student and between students

Each setting prepares children to take on a distinctive kind of relationship

Dreeben argues that schools teach students four norms that are central to the effective functioning of modern societies:  Independence, achievement, universalism, and specificity.  These are central to the kinds of roles we play in public life, which sociologists call secondary roles, roles that are institutionally structured in relation to other secondary roles, such as employee-employer, customer-clerk, bus rider-bus driver, teacher-student.  The norms that define proper behavior in secondary roles differ strikingly from the norms for another set of relationship defined as primary roles.  These are the intimate relationship we have with our closest friends and family members.  One difference is that we play a large number of secondary roles in order to function in complex modern societies but only a small number of primary roles.  Another is that secondary roles are strictly utilitarian, means to practical ends, whereas primary roles are ends in themselves.  A third is that secondary role relationships are narrowly defined; you don’t need or want to know much about the salesperson in the store in order to make your purchase.  Primary relationship are quite diffuse, requiring deeper involvement — friends vs. acquaintances.

As a result, each of the four norms that schools teach, which are essential for maintaining secondary role relationships, correspond to equal and opposite norms that are essential for maintaining primary role relationships.  Modern social life requires expertise at moving back and forth effortlessly between these different kinds of roles and the contrasting norms they require of us.  We have to be good at maintaining our work relations and our personal relations and knowing which norms apply to which setting.

Secondary Roles                      Primary Roles

(Work, public, school)           (Family, friends)

Independence                          Group orientation

Achievement                            Ascription

Universalism                            Particularism

Specificity                                  Diffuseness

Here is what’s involved in each of these contrasting norms:

Independence                            Group orientation

      Self reliance                                Dependence on group

      Individualism                             Group membership

      Individual effort                        Collective effort

      Act on your own                         Need/owe group support

Achievement                               Ascription

      Status based on what you do  Status based on who you are

      Active                                             Passive

      Earned                                           Inherited

                         Meritocracy                                  Aristocracy

Universalism                              Particularism

      Equality within category —       Personal uniqueness — my child

           a 5th grade student

      General rules apply to all        Different rules for us vs. them

      Central to fairness, justice      Central to being special

Specificity                                   Diffuseness

       Narrow relations                       Broad relations

       Extrinsic relations                    Intrinsic relations

       Means to an end                        An end in itself

Think about how the structure of the school differs from the structure of the family and what the consequences of these differences are.

Family vs. School:

Structure of the school (vs. structure of the family)

      • Teacher and student are both achieved roles (ascribed roles)

      • Large number of kids per adult (few)

      • No particularistic ties between teacher and students (blood ties)

      • Teachers deal with the class as a group (families as individuals based on sex and birth order)

      • Teacher and student are universalistic roles, with individuals being interchangeable in these roles (family roles are unique to that family and not interchangeable)

      • Relationship is short term, especially as you move up the grades (relations are lifelong)

      • Teachers and students are subject to objective evaluation (familie use subjective, emotional criteria)

      • Teachers and students both see their roles as means to an end (family relations are supposed to be selfless, ends in themselves)

      • Students are all the same age (in family birth order is central)

  Consider the modes of differentiation and stratification in families vs. schools.

Children in families:

Race, class, ethnicity, and religion are all the same

Age and gender are different

Children in schools:

Age is the same

Race, class, ethnicity, religion, and gender are different

This allows for meritocratic evaluation, fostering the learning of achievement and independence

Questions

Do you agree that characteristics of school as a social structure makes it effective at transmitting secondary social norms, preparing for secondary roles?

Do you agree that characteristics of family as a social structure makes it ineffective at transmitting secondary norms, preparing for secondary roles?

But consider this complication to the story

Are schools, workplaces, public interactions fully in tune with the secondary model?

Are families, friends fully in tune with the primary model?

How do these two intermingle?  Why?

      • Having friends at work and school, makes life nicer – and also makes you work more efficiently

      • Getting students to like you makes you a more effective teacher

      • But the norm for a professional or occupational relationship is secondary – that’s how you define a good teacher, lawyer, worker

      • The norm for primary relations is that they are ends in themselves not means to an end

      • Family members may use each other for personal gain, but that is not considered the right way to behave

Posted in Credentialing, Curriculum, Meritocracy, Sociology, Systems of Schooling

Mary Metz: Real School

This blog post is a tribute to the classic paper by Mary Metz, “Real School.”  In it she shows how schools follow a cultural script that demonstrates all of the characteristics we want to see in a school.  The argument, in line with neo-institutional theory (see this example by Meyer and Rowan), is that schools are organized around meeting our cultural expectations for the form that schools should take more than around producing particular outcomes.  Following the script keeps us reassured that the school we are associated with — as a parent, student, teacher, administrator, taxpayer, political leader, etc. — is indeed a real school.  It follows that the less effective a school is at producing desirable social outcomes — high scores, graduation rates, college attendance, future social position — the most closely we want it to follow the script.  It’s a lousy high school but it still has an advanced placement program, a football team, a debate team, and a senior prom.  So it’s a real high school.

Here’s the citation and a link to a PDF of the original article:

Metz, Mary H. (1990). Real school: A universal drama amid disparate experience. In Douglas E. Mitchell & Margaret E. Goertz (Eds.), Education Politics for the New Century (pp. 75-91). New York: Falmer.

And here’s a summary of some of its key points.

Roots of real school: the need for reassurance

  • We’re willing to setting for formal over substantive equity in schooling

  • The system provides formal equivalence across school settings, to reassure everyone that all kids get the same educational opportunity

  • Even though this is obviously not the case — as evidenced by the way parents are so careful where they send their kids, where they buy a house

  • What’s at stake is institutional legitimacy

  • Teachers, administrators, parents, citizens all want reassurance that their school is a real school

  • If not, then I’m not a real teacher, a real student, so what are we doing here?

This arises from the need for schools to balance conflicting outcomes within the same institution — schools need to provide both access and advantage, both equality and inequality

  • We want it both ways with our schools: we’re all equal, but I’m better than you

  • Both qualities are important for the social functions and public legitimacy of the social system

  • This means that school, on the face of it, needs to give everyone a fair shot

  • But it also means that school, in practice, needs to sort the winners from the losers

  • And winning only has meaning if it appears to be the result of individual merit

  • But who wants to leave this up for chance for their own children?

  • So parents use every tool they’ve got to game the system and get their children a leg up in the competition

  • And upper-middle-class parents have a lot of such tools — cultural capital, social capital, and economic capital

  • Yet they still need the formal equality of schooling as cover for this quest for advantage

So wWhy is it, as Metz shows, that schools that are least effective in producing student learning are the most diligent in doing real school?

  • Teachers and parents in these schools rarely demand the abandonment of real school — a failed model — in favor of something radically different

  • To the contrary, they demand even closer alignment with the real school model

  • They do so because they need to maintain the confidence in the system

  • More successful schools can stay a little farther from the script, because parents are more confident they will produce the right outcomes for their kids

  • Education is a confidence game – in both senses of the word: an effort to maintain confidence and an effort to con the consumer

The magic of school formalism

  • Formalism is central to the system and its effectiveness as a place to provide access and advantage at the same time

  • So you focus on structure and form and process more than on substantive learning

  • Meyer and Rowan‘s formalistic definition of a school:

    • “A school is an accredited institution where a certified teacher teaches a sanctioned curriculum to a matriculated student who then receives an authorized diploma.”

  • Students can make progress and graduate even if they’re not learning much

  • It helps that the quality of schooling is less visible than the quantity

Enjoy.

Real School Front Page

Posted in History of education, Meritocracy, Sociology, Systems of Schooling, Teaching

Pluck vs. Luck

This post is a piece I recently published in AeonHere’s the link to the original.  I wrote this after years of futile efforts to get Stanford students to think critically about how they got to their current location at the top of the meritocracy.  It was nearly impossible to get students to consider that their path to Palo Alto might have been the result of anything but smarts and hard work.  Luck of birth never seemed to be a major factor in the stories they told about how they got here.  I can understand this, since I’ve spent a lifetime patting myself on the back for my own academic accomplishments, feeling sorry for the poor bastards who didn’t have what it took to climb the academic ladder.

But in recent years, I have come to spend a lot of time thinking critically about the nature of the American meritocracy.  I’ve published a few pieces here on the subject, in which I explore the way in which this process of allocating status through academic achievement constitutes a nearly perfect system for reproducing social inequality — protected by a solid cover of legitimacy.  The story it tells to everyone in society, winners and losers alike, is that you got what you deserved.

So I started telling students my own story about how I got to Stanford — in two contrasting versions.  One is a traditional account of climbing the ladder through skill and grit, a story of merit rewarded.  The other is a more realistic account of getting ahead by leveraging family advantage, a story of having the right parents.

See what you think.

Pluck vs. Luck

David F. Labaree

Occupants of the American meritocracy are accustomed to telling stirring stories about their lives. The standard one is a comforting tale about grit in the face of adversity – overcoming obstacles, honing skills, working hard – which then inevitably affords entry to the Promised Land. Once you have established yourself in the upper reaches of the occupational pyramid, this story of virtue rewarded rolls easily off the tongue. It makes you feel good (I got what I deserved) and it reassures others (the system really works).

But you can also tell a different story, which is more about luck than pluck, and whose driving forces are less your own skill and motivation, and more the happy circumstances you emerged from and the accommodating structure you traversed.

As an example, here I’ll tell my own story about my career negotiating the hierarchy in the highly stratified system of higher education in the United States. I ended up in a cushy job as a professor at Stanford University. How did I get there? I tell the story both ways: one about pluck, the other about luck. One has the advantage of making me more comfortable. The other has the advantage of being more true.

I was born to a middle-class family and grew up in Philadelphia in the 1950s. As a skinny, shy kid who wasn’t good at sports, my early life revolved about being a good student. In upper elementary school, I became president of the student council and captain of the safety patrol (an office that conferred a cool red badge that I wore with pride). In high school, I continued to be the model student, eventually getting elected president of the student council (see a pattern here?) and graduating in 1965 near the top of my class. I was accepted at Harvard University with enough advanced-placement credits to skip freshman year (which, fortunately, I didn’t). There I majored in antiwar politics. Those were the days when an activist organisation such as Students for a Democratic Society was a big factor on campuses. I went to two of their annual conventions and wrote inflammatory screeds about Harvard’s elitism (who knew).

In 1970, I graduated with a degree in sociology and no job prospects. What do you do with a sociology degree, anyway? It didn’t help that the job market was in the doldrums. I eventually ended up back in Philadelphia with a job at the Federal Reserve Bank – first in public relations (leading school groups on tours) and then in bank relations (visiting banks around the Third Federal Reserve District). From student radical with a penchant for Marxist sociology, I suddenly became a banker wearing a suit every day and reading The Wall Street Journal. It got me out of the house and into my own apartment but it was not for me. Labarees don’t do finance.

After four years, I quit in disgust, briefly became a reporter at a suburban newspaper, hated that too, and then stumbled by accident into academic work. Looking for any old kind of work in the want ads in my old paper, I spotted an opening at Bucks County Community College, where I applied for three different positions – admissions officer, writing instructor, and sociology instructor. I got hired in the latter role, and the rest is history. I liked the work but realised that I needed a master’s degree to get a full-time job, so I entered the University of Pennsylvania sociology department. Once in the programme, I decided to continue on to get a PhD, supporting myself by teaching at the community college, Trenton State, and at Penn.

In 1981, as I was nearing the end of my dissertation, I started applying for faculty positions. Little did I know that the job market was lousy and that I would be continually applying for positions for the next four years.

As someone who started at the bottom, I can tell you that everything is better at the top

The first year yielded one job offer, at a place so depressing that I decided to stay in Philadelphia and continue teaching as an adjunct. That spring I got a one-year position in sociology at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. In the fall, with the clock ticking, I applied to 60 jobs around the country. This time, my search yielded four interviews, all tenure-track positions – at Yale University, at Georgetown, at the University of Cincinnati and at Widener University.

The only offer I got was the one I didn’t want, Widener – a small, non-selective private school in the Philadelphia suburbs that until the 1960s had been a military college. Three years past degree, I felt I had hit bottom in the meritocracy. The moment I got there, I started applying for jobs while desperately trying to write my way into a better one. I published a couple of journal articles and submitted a book proposal to Yale University Press. They hadn’t hired me but maybe they’d publish me.

Finally, a lifeline came my way. A colleague at the College of Education at Michigan State University encouraged me to apply for a position in history of education and I got the job. In the fall of 1985, I started as an assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Education at MSU. Fifteen years after college and four years after starting to look for faculty positions, my career in higher education finally took a big jump upward.

MSU was a wonderful place to work and to advance an academic career. I taught there for 18 years, moving through the ranks to full professor, and publishing three books and 20 articles and book chapters. Early on, I won two national awards for my first book and a university teaching award, and was later elected president of the History of Education Society and vice-president of the American Educational Research Association.

Then in 2002 came an opportunity to apply for a position in education at one of the world’s great universities, Stanford. It worked out, and I started there as a professor in 2003 in the School of Education, and stayed until retirement in 2018. I served in several administrative roles including associate dean, and was given an endowed chair. How cool.

As someone who started at the bottom of the hierarchy of US higher education, I can tell you that everything is better at the top. Everything: pay, teaching loads, intellectual culture, quality of faculty and students, physical surroundings, staff support, travel funds, perks. Even the weather is better. Making it in the meritocracy is as good as it gets. No matter how hard things go at first, talent will win out. Virtue earns its reward. Life is fair.

Of course, there’s also another story, one that’s less heartening but more realistic. A story that’s more about luck than pluck, and that features structural circumstances more than heroic personal struggle. So let me now tell that version.

Professor Robert M Labaree of Lincoln University in southeast Pennsylvania, the author’s grandfather. Photo courtesy of the author

The short story is that I’m in the family business. In the 1920s, my parents grew up as next-door neighbours on a university campus where their fathers were both professors. It was Lincoln University, a historically black institution in southeast Pennsylvania near the Mason-Dixon line. The students were black, the faculty white – most of the latter, like my grandfathers, were clergymen. The students were well-off financially, coming from the black bourgeoisie, whereas the highly educated faculty lived in the genteel poverty of university housing. It was a kind of cultural missionary setting, but more comfortable than the foreign missions. One grandfather had served as a missionary in Iran, where my father was born; that was hardship duty. But here was a place where upper-middle-class whites could do good and do well at the same time.

Both grandfathers were Presbyterian ministers, each descended from long lines of Presbyterian ministers. The Presbyterian clergy developed a well-earned reputation over the years of having modest middle-class economic capital and large stores of social and cultural capital. Relatively poor in money, they were rich in social authority and higher learning. In this tradition, education is everything. In part because of that, some ended up in US higher education, where in the 19th century most of the faculty were clergy (because they were well-educated men and worked for peanuts). My grandfather’s grandfather, Benjamin Labaree, was president of Middlebury College in the 1840s and ’50s. Two of my father’s cousins were professors; my brother is a professor. It’s the family business.

Rev Benjamin Labaree, who was president of Middlebury College, 1840-1866, and the author’s great-great-grandfather. Photo courtesy of the author

Like many retirees, I recently started to dabble in genealogy. Using Ancestry.com, I’ve traced back 10 or 12 generations on both sides of the family, some back to the 1400s, finding ancestors in the US, Scotland, England and France. They are all relentlessly upper-middle-class – mostly ministers, but also some physicians and other professionals. Not a peasant in the bunch, and no one in business. I’m to the manor born (well, really the manse). The most distant Labaree I’ve found is Jacques Laborie, born in 1668 in the village of Cardaillac in France. He served as a surgeon in the army of Louis XIV and then became ordained as a Calvinist minister in Zurich before Louis in 1685 expelled the reformed Protestants (Huguenots) from France. He moved to England, where he married another Huguenot, and then immigrated to Connecticut. Among his descendants were at least four generations of Presbyterian ministers, including two college professors. This is a good start for someone like me, seeking to climb the hierarchy of higher education – like being born on third base. But how did it work out in practice for my career?

I was the model Harvard student – a white, upper-middle-class male from an elite school

My parents both attended elite colleges, Princeton University and Wilson College (on ministerial scholarships), and they invested heavily in their children’s education. They sent us to a private high school and private colleges. It was a sacrifice to do this, but they thought it was worth it. Compared with our next-door neighbours, we lived modestly – driving an old station wagon instead of a new Cadillac – but we took pride in our cultural superiority. Labarees didn’t work in trade. Having blown their money on schooling and lived too long, my parents died broke. They were neither the first nor the last victims of the meritocracy, who gave their all so that their children could succeed.

This background gave me a huge edge in cultural and social capital. In my high school’s small and high-quality classrooms, I got a great education and learned how to write. The school traditionally sent its top five students every year to Princeton but I decided on Harvard instead. At the time, I was the model Harvard student – a white, upper-middle-class male from an elite school. No females and almost no minorities.

At Harvard, I distinguished myself in political activity rather than scholarship. I avoided seminars and honours programmes, where it was harder to hide and standards were higher. After the first year, I almost never attended discussion sections, and skipped the majority of the lectures as well, muddling through by doing the reading, and writing a good-enough paper or exam. I phoned it in. When I graduated, I had an underwhelming manuscript, with a 2.5 grade-point average (B-/C+). Not exactly an ideal candidate for graduate study, one would think.

And then there was that job at the bank, which got me out of the house and kept me fed and clothed until I finally recognised my family calling by going to grad school. After beating the bushes looking for work up and down the west coast, how did I get this job? Turned out that my father used to play in a string quartet with a guy who later became the vice-president for personnel at the Federal Reserve Bank. My father called, the friend said come down for an interview. I did and I got the job.

When I finally decided to pursue grad school, I took the Graduate Record Examinations and scored high. Great. The trouble is that an applicant with high scores and low grades is problematic, since this combination suggests high ability and bad attitude. But somehow I got into an elite graduate programme (though Princeton turned me down). Why? Because I went to Harvard, so who cares about the grades? It’s a brand that opens doors. Take my application to teach at the community college. Why hire someone with no graduate degree and a mediocre undergraduate transcript to teach college students? It turns out that the department chair who hired me also went to Harvard. Members of the club take care of each other.

If you have the right academic credentials, you get the benefit of the doubt. The meritocracy is quite forgiving toward its own. You get plenty of second and third chances where others would not. Picture if I had applied to Penn with the same grades and scores but with a degree from West Chester (state) University instead of Harvard. Would I really have had a chance? You can blow off your studies without consequence if you do it at the right school. Would I have been hired to teach at the community college with an off-brand BA? I think not.

And let’s reconsider my experience at Widener. For me – an upper-middle-class professor with two Ivy League degrees and generations of cultural capital – these students were a world apart. Of course, so were the community-college students I taught earlier, but they were taking courses on weekends while holding a job. That felt more like teaching night school than teaching college. At Widener, however, they were full-time students at a place that called itself a university, but to me this wasn’t a real university where I could be a real professor. Looking around the campus with the eye of a born-and-bred snob, I decided quickly that these were not my people. Most were the first in their families to be going to college and did not have the benefit of a strong high-school education.

In order to make it in academe, you need friends in high places. I had them

A student complained to me one day after she got back her exam that she’d received a worse grade than her friend who didn’t study nearly as hard. That’s not fair, she said. I shrugged it off at the time. Her answer to the essay exam question was simply not as good. But looking back, I realised that I was grading my students on skills I wasn’t teaching them. I assigned multiple readings and then gave take-home exams, which required students to weave together a synthesis of these readings in an essay that responded to a broad analytical question. That’s the kind of exam I was used to, but it required a set of analytical and writing skills that I assumed rather than provided. You can do well on a multiple-choice exam if you study the appropriate textbook chapters; the more time you invest, the higher the grade. That might not be a great way to learn, but it’s a system that rewards effort. My exams, however, rewarded discursive fluency and verbal glibness over diligent study. Instead of trying to figure out how to give these students the cultural capital they needed, I chose to move on to a place where students already had these skills. Much more comfortable.

Oh yes, and what about that first book, the one that won awards, gained me tenure, and launched my career? Well, my advisor at Penn, Michael Katz, had published a book with an editor at Praeger, Gladys Topkis, who then ended up at Yale University Press. With his endorsement, I sent her a proposal for a book based on my dissertation. She gave me a contract. When I submitted the manuscript, a reviewer recommended against publication, but she convinced the editorial board to approve it anyway. Without my advisor, no editor. And without the editor, no book, no awards, no tenure, and no career. It’s as simple as that. In order to make it in academe, you need friends in high places. I had them.

All of this, plus two more books at Yale, helped me make the move up to Stanford. Never would have happened otherwise. By then, on paper I began to look like a golden boy, checking all the right boxes for an elite institution. And when I announced that I was making the move to Stanford in the spring of 2003, before I even assumed the role, things started changing in my life. Suddenly, it seemed, I got a lot smarter. People wanted me to come give a lecture, join an editorial board, contribute to a book, chair a committee. An old friend, a professor in Sweden, invited me to become a visiting professor in his university. Slightly embarrassed, he admitted that this was because of my new label as a Stanford professor. Swedes know only a few universities in the US, he said, and Stanford is one of them. Like others who find a spot near the top of the meritocracy, I was quite willing to accept this honour, without worrying too much about whether it was justified. Like the pay and perks, it just seemed exactly what I deserved. Special people get special benefits; it only makes sense.

And speaking of special benefits, it certainly didn’t hurt that I am a white male – a category that dominates the professoriate, especially at the upper levels. Among full-time faculty members in US degree-granting institutions, 72 per cent of assistant professors and 81 per cent of full professors are white; meanwhile, 47 per cent of assistants and 66 per cent of professors are male. At the elite level, the numbers are even more skewed. At Stanford, whites make up 54 per cent of tenure-line assistant professors but 82 per cent of professors; under-represented minorities account for only 8 per cent of assistants and 5 per cent of professors. Meanwhile, males constitute 60 per cent of assistants and 78 per cent of professors. In US higher education, white males still rule.

Oh, and what about my endowed chair? Well, it turns out that when the holder of the chair retires, the honour moves on to someone else. I inherited the title in 2017 and held it for a year and a half before I retired and it passed on to the next person. What came with the title? Nothing substantial, no additional salary or research funds. Except I did get one material benefit from this experience, which I was allowed to keep when I gave up the title. It’s an uncomfortable, black, wooden armchair bearing the school seal. Mine came with a brass plaque on the back proclaiming: ‘Professor David Labaree, The Lee L Jacks Professor in Education’.

Now, as I fade into retirement, still enjoying the glow from my emeritus status at a brand-name university, it all feels right. I’ve got money to live on, a great support community, and status galore. I get to display my badges of merit for all to see – the Stanford logo on my jacket, and the Jacks emeritus title in my email signature. What’s not to like? The question about whether I deserve it or not fades into the background, crowded out by all the benefits. Enjoy. The sun’s always shining at the summit of the meritocracy.

Is there a moral to be drawn from these two stories of life in the meritocracy? The most obvious one is that this life is not fair. The fix is in. Children of parents who have already succeeded in the meritocracy have a big advantage over other children whose parents have not. They know how the game is played, and they have the cultural capital, the connections and the money to increase their children’s chances for success in this game. They know that the key is doing well at school, since it’s the acquisition of degrees that determines what jobs you get and the life you live. They also know that it’s not just a matter of being a good student but of attending the right school – one that fosters academic achievement and, even more important, occupies an elevated position in the status hierarchy of educational institutions. Brand names open doors. This allows highly educated, upper-middle-class families to game the meritocratic system and to hoard a disproportionate share of the advantages it offers.

In fact, the only thing that’s less fair than the meritocracy is the system it displaced, in which people’s futures were determined strictly by the lottery of birth. Lords begat lords, and peasants begat peasants. In contrast, the meritocracy is sufficiently open that some children of the lower classes can prove themselves in school and win a place higher up the scale. The probability of doing so is markedly lower than the chances of success enjoyed by the offspring of the credentialed elite, but the possibility of upward mobility is nonetheless real. And this possibility is part of what motivates privileged parents to work so frantically to pull every string and milk every opportunity for their children. Through the jousting grounds of schooling, smart poor kids can, at times, displace dumb rich kids. The result is a system of status attainment that provides advantages for some while at the same time spreading fear for their children’s future across families of all social classes. In the end, the only thing that the meritocracy equalises is anxiety.

Posted in Higher Education, History of education, Meritocracy, Uncategorized

US Higher Education and Inequality: How the Solution Became the Problem

This post is a paper I wrote last summer and presented at the University of Oslo in August.  It’s a patchwork quilt of three previously published pieces around a topic I’ve been focused on a lot lately:  the role of US higher education — for better and for worse — in creating the new American aristocracy of merit.

In it I explore the way that systems of formal schooling both opened up opportunity for people to get ahead by individual merit and created the most effective structure ever devised for reproducing social inequality.  By defining merit as the accumulation of academic credentials and by constructing a radically stratified and extraordinarily opaque hierarchy of educational institutions for granting these credentials, the system grants an enormous advantage to the children of those who have already negotiated the system most effectively.

The previous generation of academic winners learned its secrets and decoded its inner logic.  They found out that it’s the merit badges that matter, not the amount of useful learning you acquire along the way.  So they coach their children in the art of gaming the system.  The result is that these children not only gain a huge advantage at winning the rewards of the meritocracy but also acquire a degree of legitimacy for these rewards that no previous system of inherited privilege ever attained.  They triumphed in a meritocratic competition, so they fully earned the power, money, and position that they derived from it.  Gotta love a system that can pull that off.

Here’s a PDF of the paper.

 

U.S. Higher Education and Inequality:

How the Solution Became the Problem

by

David F. Labaree

Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education, Emeritus

Stanford University

Email: dlabaree@stanford.edu

Web: https://dlabaree.people.stanford.edu

Twitter: @Dlabaree

Blog: https:/

/davidlabaree.com/

GSE Logo

Lecture delivered at University of Oslo

August 14, 2019

 

One of the glories of the emergence of modernity is that it offered the possibility and even the ideal that social position could be earned rather than inherited.  Instead of being destined to become a king or a peasant by dictate of paternity, for the first time in history individuals had the opportunity to attain their roles in society on the basis of merit.  And in this new world, public education became both the avenue for opportunity and the arbiter of merit.  But one of the anomalies of modernity is that school-based meritocracy, while increasing the fluidity of status attainment, has had little effect on the degree of inequality in modern societies.

In this paper, I explore how the structure of schooling helped bring about this outcome in the United States, with special focus on the evolution of higher education in the twentieth century.  The core issue driving the evolution of this structure is that the possibility for social mobility works at both the top and the bottom of the social hierarchy, with one group seeing the chance of rising up and the other facing the threat of falling down.  As a result, the former sees school as the way for their children to gain access to higher position while the latter sees it as the way for their children to preserve the social position they were born with.  Under pressure from both sides, the structure of schooling needs to find a way to accommodate these two contradictory aims.  In practice the system can accomplish this by allowing children from families at the bottom and the top to both increase their educational attainment beyond the level of their parents.  In theory this means that both groups can gain academic credentials that allow them to qualify for higher level occupational roles than the previous generation.  They can therefore both move up in parallel, gaining upward mobility without reducing the social distance between them.  Thus you end up with more opportunity without more equality.

Theoretically, it would be possible for the system to reduce or eliminate the degree to which elites manage to preserve their advantage through education simply by imposing a ceiling on the educational attainment allowed for their children.  That way, when the bottom group rises they get closer to the top group.  As a matter of practice, that option is not available in the U.S.  As the most liberal of liberal democracies, the U.S. sees any such limits on the choices of the upper group as a gross violation of individual liberty.  The result is a peculiar dynamic that has governed the evolution of the structure of American education over the years.  The pattern is this.  The out-group exerts political pressure in order to gain greater educational credentials for their children while the in-group responds by increasing the credentials of their own children.  The result is that both groups move up in educational qualifications at the same time.  Schooling goes up but social gaps remain the same.  It’s an elevator effect.  Every time the floor rises, so does the ceiling.

In the last 200 years of the history of schooling in the United States, the dynamic has played out like this.  At the starting point, one group has access to a level of education that is denied to another group.  The outsiders exert pressure to gain access to this level, which democratic leaders eventually feel compelled to grant.  But the insiders feel threatened by the loss of social advantage that greater access would bring, so they press to preserve that advantage.  How does the system accomplish this?  Through two simple mechanisms.  First, at the level where access is expanding, it stratifies schooling into curricular tracks or streams.  This means that the newcomers fill the lower tracks while the old-timers occupy the upper tracks.  Second, for the previously advantaged group it expands access to schooling at the next higher level.  So the system expands access to one level of schooling while simultaneously stratifying that level and opening up the next level.

This process has gone through three cycles in the history of U.S. schooling.  When the common school movement created a system of universal elementary schooling in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, it also created a selective public high school at the top of the system.  The purpose of the latter was to draw upper-class children from private schools into the public system by offering access to the high school only to graduates of the public grammar schools.  Without the elite high school as inducement, public schooling would have been left the domain for paupers. Then at the end of the nineteenth century, elementary grades filled up and demand increased for wider access to high school, so the system opened the doors to this institution.  But at the same it introduced curriculum tracks and set off a surge of college enrollments by the former high school students.  And when high schools themselves filled by the middle of the twentieth century, the system opened access to higher education by creating a range of new nonselective colleges and universities to absorb the influx.  This preserved the exclusivity of the older institutions, whose graduates in large numbers then started pursuing postgraduate degrees.

Result: A Very Stratified System of Higher Education

By the middle of the twentieth century, higher education was the zone of advantage for any American trying to get ahead or stay ahead.  And as a result of the process by which the tertiary system managed to incorporate both functions, it became extraordinarily stratified.  This was a system that emerged without a plan, based not on government fiat but the competing interests of educational consumers seeking to use it to their own advantage.  A market-oriented system of higher education such as this one has a special dynamic that leads to a high degree of stratification.  Each educational enterprise competes with the others to establish a position in the market that will allow it to draw students, generate a comfortable surplus, and maintain this situation over time.  The problem is that, given the lack of effective state limits on the establishment and expansion of colleges, these schools find themselves in a buyer’s market.  Individual buyers may want one kind of program over another, which gives colleges an incentive to differentiate the market horizontally to accommodate these various demands.  At the same time, however, buyers want a college diploma that will help them get ahead socially.  This means that consumers don’t just want a college education that is different; they want one that is better – better at providing access to good jobs.  In response to this consumer demand, the U.S. has developed a multi-tiered hierarchy of higher education, ranging from open-access institutions at the bottom to highly exclusive institutions at the top, with each of the upper tier institutions offering graduates a degree that provides invidious distinction over graduates from schools in the lower tiers.

This stratified structure of higher education arose in the nineteenth century in a dynamic market system, where the institutional actors had to operate according to four basic rules.  Rule One:  Age trumps youth.  It’s no accident that the oldest American colleges are overrepresented in the top tier.  Of the top 20 U.S. universities,[1] 19 were founded before 1900 and 7 before 1776, even though more than half of all American universities were founded in the twentieth century.  Before competitors had entered the field, the oldest schools had already established a pattern of training the country’s leaders, locked up access to the wealthiest families, accumulated substantial endowments, and hired the most capable faculty.

Rule Two:  The strongest rewards go to those at the top of the system.  This means that every college below the top has a strong incentive to move up the ladder, and that top colleges have a strong incentive to preserve their advantage.  Even though it is very difficult for lower-level schools to move up, this doesn’t keep them from trying.  Despite long odds, the possible payoff is big enough that everyone stays focused on the tier above.  A few major success stories allow institutions to keep their hopes alive.  University presidents lie awake at night dreaming of replicating the route to the top followed by social climbers like Berkeley, Hopkins, Chicago, and Stanford.

Rule Three:  It pays to imitate your betters.  As the research university emerged as the model for the top tier in American higher education in the twentieth century, it became the ideal toward which all other schools sought to move.  To get ahead you needed to offer a full array of undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs, selective admissions and professors who publish, a football stadium and Gothic architecture.  (David Riesman called this structure of imitation “the academic procession.”)[2]  Of course, given the advantages enjoyed by the top tier, imitation has rarely produced the desired results.  But it’s the only game in town.  Even if you don’t move up in the rankings, you at least help reassure your school’s various constituencies that they are associated with something that looks like and feels like a real university.

Rule Four:  It’s best to expand the system by creating new colleges rather than increasing enrollments at existing colleges.  Periodically new waves of educational consumers push for access to higher education.  Initially, existing schools expanded to meet the demand, which meant that as late as 1900 Harvard was the largest U.S. university, public or private.[3]  But beyond this point in the growth process, it was not in the interest of existing institutions to provide wider access.  Concerned about protecting their institutional advantage, they had no desire to sully their hard-won distinction by admitting the unwashed.  Better to have this kind of thing done by additional colleges created for that purpose.  The new colleges emerged, then, as a clearly designated lower tier in the system, defined as such by both their newness and their accessibility.

Think about how these rules have shaped the historical process that produced the present stratified structure of higher education.  This structure has four tiers.  In line with Rule One, these tiers from top to bottom emerged in roughly chronological order.  The Ivy League colleges emerged in the colonial period, followed by a series of flagship state colleges in the early and mid-nineteenth century.  These institutions, along with a few social climbers that emerged later, grew to form the core of the elite research universities that make up the top tier of the system.  Schools in this tier are the most influential, prestigious, well-funded, exclusive, research-productive, and graduate-oriented – in the U.S. and in the world.

The second tier emerged from the land grant colleges that began appearing in the mid to late nineteenth century.  They were created to fill a need not met by existing institutions, expanding access for a broader array of students and offering programs with practical application in areas like agriculture and engineering.  They were often distinguished from the flagship research university by the word “state” in their title (as with University of Michigan vs. Michigan State University) or the label “A & M” (for Agricultural and Mechanical, as with University of Texas vs. Texas A & M).  But, in line with Rules Two and Three, they responded to consumer demand by quickly evolving into full service colleges and universities; and in the twentieth century they adopted the form and function of the research university, albeit in a more modest manner.

The third tier arose from the normal schools, established in the late nineteenth century to prepare teachers.  Like the land grant schools that preceded them, these narrowly vocational institutions evolved quickly under pressure from consumers, who wanted them to model themselves after the schools in the top tiers by offering a more valuable set of credentials that would provide access to a wider array of social opportunities.  Under these market pressures, normal schools evolved into teachers colleges, general-purpose state colleges, and finally, by the 1960s, comprehensive regional state universities.

The fourth tier emerged in part from the junior colleges that first arose in the early twentieth century and eventually evolved into an extensive system of community colleges.  Like the land grant college and normal school, these institutions offered access to a new set of students at a lower level of the system.  Unlike their predecessors, for the most part they have not been allowed by state governments to imitate the university model, remaining primarily as two-year schools.  But through the transfer option, many students use them as a more accessible route into institutions in the upper tiers.

What This Means for Educational Consumers

This highly stratified system is very difficult for consumers to navigate.  Instead of allocating access to the top level of the system using the mechanism employed by most of the rest of the world – a state-administered university matriculation exam – the highly decentralized American system allocates access by means of informal mechanisms that in comparison seem anarchic.  In the absence of one access route, there are many; and in the absence of clear rules for prospective students, there are multiple and conflicting rules of thumb.  Also, the rules of thumb vary radically according to which tier of the system you are seeking to enter.

First, let’s look at the admissions process for families (primarily the upper-middle class) who are trying to get their children entrée to the elite category of highly selective liberal arts colleges and research universities.  They have to take into account the wide array of factors that enter into the complex and opaque process that American colleges use to select students at this level:  quality of high school; quality of a student’s program of study; high school grades; test scores in the SAT or ACT college aptitude tests; interests and passions expressed in an application essay; parents’ alumni status; whether the student needs financial aid; athletic skills; service activities; diversity factors such as race, ethnicity, class, national origin, sex, and sexual orientation; and extracurricular contributions a student might make to the college community.  There is no centralized review process; instead every college carries out its own admissions review and employs its own criteria.

This open and indeterminate process provides a huge advantage for upper-middle-class families.  If you are a parent who is a college graduate and who works at a professional or managerial job, where the payoff of going to a good college is readily apparent, you have the cultural and social capital to negotiate this system effectively and read its coded messages.  For you, going to college is not the issue; it’s a matter of which college your children can get into that would provide them with the greatest competitive advantage in the workplace.  You want for them the college that might turn them down rather than the one that would welcome them with open arms.  So you enroll your children in test prep; hire a college advisor; plan out a strategic plan for high school course-taking and extracurriculars; craft a service resume that makes them look appropriately public-spirited; take them on the obligatory college tour; and come up with just the right mix of applications to the stretch schools, the safety schools, and those in between.  And all this pays off handsomely: 77 percent of children from families in the top quintile by income gain a bachelor’s degree.[4]

If you are a parent farther down the class scale, who didn’t attend college and whose own work environment is not well stocked with college graduates, you have a lot more trouble negotiating the system.  The odds are not good:  for students from the fourth income quintile, only 17 percent earn a BA, and for the lowest quintile the rate is only 9 percent.[5]  Under these circumstances, having your child go to a college, any college, is a big deal; and one college is hard to distinguish from another.  But you are faced by a system that offers an extraordinary diversity of choices for prospective students:  public, not-for-profit, or for-profit; secular or religious; two-year or four-year; college or university; teaching or research oriented; massive or tiny student body; vocational or liberal; division 1, 2, or 3 intercollegiate athletics, or no sports at all; party school or nerd haven; high rank or low rank; full-time or part-time enrollment; urban or pastoral; gritty or serene; residential, commuter, or “suitcase college” (where students go home on weekends).  In this complex setting both consumers and providers somehow have to make choices that are in their own best interest.  Families from the upper-middle class are experts at negotiating this system, trimming the complexity down to a few essentials:  a four-year institution that is highly selective and preferably private (not-for-profit).  Everything else is optional.

If you’re a working-class family, however – lacking deep knowledge of the system and without access to the wide array of support systems that money can buy – you are more likely to take the system at face value.  Having your children go to a community college is the most obvious and attractive option.  It’s close to home, inexpensive, and easy to get into.  It’s where your children’s friends will be going, it allows them to work and go to school part time, and it doesn’t seem as forbiddingly alien as the state university (much less the Ivies).  You don’t need anything to gain admission except a high school diploma or GED.  No tests, counselors, tours, or resume-burnishing is required.  Of you could try the next step up, the local comprehensive state university.  To apply for admission, all you need is a high school transcript.  You might get turned down, but the odds are in your favor.  The cost is higher but can usually be paid with federal grants and loans.  An alternative is a for-profit institution, which is extremely accessible, flexible, and often online.  It’s not cheap, but federal grants and loans can pay the cost.  What you don’t have any way of knowing is that the most accessible colleges at the bottom of the system are also the ones where students are least likely to graduate.  (Only 29 percent of students entering two-year colleges earn an associate degree in three years;[6] only 39 percent earn a degree from a two-year or four-year institution in six years.[7])  You also may not be aware that the economic payoff for these colleges is lower; or that the colleges higher up the system may not only provide stronger support toward graduation and but might even be less expensive because of greater scholarship funding.

In this way, the complexity and opacity of this market-based and informally-structured system helps reinforce the social advantages of those at the top of the social ladder and limit the opportunities for those at the bottom.  It’s a system that rewards the insider knowledge of old hands and punishes newcomers.  To work it effectively, you need reject the fiction that a college is a college is a college and learn how seek advantage in the system’s upper tiers.

On the other hand, the system’s fluidity is real.  The absence of state-sanctioned and formally structured tracks means that the barriers between the system’s tiers are permeable.  Your children’s future is not predetermined by their high school curriculum or their score on the matriculation exam.  They can apply to any college they want and see what happens.  Of course, if their grades and scores are not great, their chances of admission to upper level institutions are poor.  But their chances of getting into a teaching-oriented state university are pretty good, and their chances of getting into a community college are virtually assured.  And if they take the latter option, as is most often the case for children from socially disadvantaged families, there is a real (if modest) possibility that they might be able to prove their academic chops, earn an AA degree, and transfer to a university, even a research university.  The probabilities of moving up in the system are low:  most community college students never earn an AA degree; and transfers have a harder time succeeding in the university than students who enroll there as freshmen.  But the possibilities are nonetheless genuine.

American higher education offers something for everyone.  It helps those at the bottom to get ahead and those at the top to stay ahead.  It provides socially useful educational services for every ability level and every consumer preference.  This gives it an astonishingly broad base of political support across the entire population, since everyone needs it and everyone can potentially benefit from it.  And this kind of legitimacy is not possible if the opportunity the system offers to the lower classes is a simple fraud.  First generation college students, even if they struggled in high school, can attend community college, transfer to San Jose State, and end up working at Apple.  It’s not very likely, but it assuredly is possible.  True, the more advantages you bring to the system – cultural capital, connections, family wealth – the higher the probability that you will succeed in it.  But even if you are lacking in these attributes, there is still an outside chance that you just might make it through the system and emerge with a good middle class job.

This helps explain how the system gets away with preserving social advantage for those at the top without stirring a revolt from those at the bottom.  Students from working-class and lower-class families are much less likely to be admitted to the upper reaches of the higher education system that provides the greatest social rewards; but the opportunity to attend some form of college is high, and attending a college at the lower levels of the system may provide access to a good job.  The combination of high access to the lower levels of the system and high attrition on the way to attaining a bachelor’s degree creates a situation where the system gets credit for openness and the student bears the burden for failing to capitalize on it.  The system gave you a chance but you just couldn’t make the grade.  The ready-made explanations for personal failure accumulate quickly as students try to move through the system.  You didn’t study hard enough, you didn’t get good grades in high school, you didn’t get good test scores, so you couldn’t get into a selective college.  Instead you went to a community college, where you got distracted from your studies by work, family, and friends, and you didn’t have the necessary academic ability; so you failed to complete your AA degree.  Or maybe you did complete the degree and transferred to a university, but you had trouble competing with students who were more able and better prepared than you.  Along with the majority of students who don’t make it all the way to a BA, you bear the burden for your failure – a conclusion that is reinforced by the occasional but highly visible successes of a few of your peers.  The system is well defended against charges of unfairness.

So we can understand why people at the bottom don’t cry foul.  It gave you a chance.  And there is one more reason for keeping up your hope that education will pay off for you.  A degree from an institution in a lower tier may pay lower benefits, but for some purposes one degree really is as good as another.  Often the question in getting a job or a promotion is not whether you have a classy credential but whether you have whatever credential is listed as the minimum requirement in the job description.  Bureaucracies operate on a level where form often matters more than substance.  As long as you can check off the box confirming that you have a bachelor’s degree, the BA from University of Phoenix and the BA from University of Pennsylvania can serve the same function, by allowing you to be considered for the job.  And if, say, you’re a public school teacher, an MA from Capella University, under the district contract, is as effective as one from Stanford University, because either will qualify you for a $5,000 bump in pay.

At the same time, however, we can see why the system generates so much anxiety among students who are trying to use the system to move up the social ladder for the good life.  It’s really the only game in town for getting a good job in twenty-first century America.  Without higher education, you are closed off from the white collar jobs that provide the most security and pay.  Yes, you could try to start a business, or you could try to work your way up the ladder in an organization without a college degree; but the first approach is highly risky and the second is highly unlikely, since most jobs come with minimum education requirements regardless of experience.  So you have to put all of your hopes in the higher-ed basket while knowing – because of your own difficult experiences in high school and because of what you see happening with family and friends – that your chances for success are not good.  You either you choose to pursue higher ed against the odds or you simply give up.  It’s a situation fraught with anxiety.

What is less obvious, however, is why the American system of higher education – which is so clearly skewed in favor of people at the top of the social order – fosters so much anxiety in them.  Upper-middle-class families in the U.S. are obsessed with education and especially with getting their children into the right college.  Why?  They live in the communities that have the best public schools; their children have cultural and social skills that schools value and reward; and they can afford the direct cost and opportunity cost of sending their high school grads to a residential college, even one of the pricey privates.  So why are there only a few colleges that seem to matter to this group?  Why does it matter so much to have your child not only get into the University of California but into Berkeley or UCLA?  What’s wrong with having them attend Santa Cruz or even one of the Cal State campuses?  And why the overwhelming passion for pursuing admission to Harvard or Yale?

The urgency behind all such frantic concern about admission to the most elite level of the system is this:  As parents of privilege, you can pass on your wealth to your children, but you can’t give them a profession.  Education is built into the core of modern societies, where occupations are no longer inherited but more or less earned.  If you’re a successful doctor or lawyer, you can provide a lot of advantages for your children; but in order for them to gain a position such as yours, they must succeed in school, get into a good college, and then into a good graduate school.  Unless they own the company, even business executives can’t pass on position to their children, and even then it’s increasingly rare that they would actually do so.  (Like most shareholders, they would profit more by having the company led by a competent executive than by the boss’s son.)  Under these circumstances of modern life, providing social advantage to your children means providing them with educational advantage.  Parents who have been through the process of climbing the educational hierarchy in order to gain prominent position in the occupational hierarchy know full well what it takes to make the grade.

They also know something else:  When you’re at the top of the social system, there is little opportunity to rise higher but plenty of opportunity to fall farther down.  Consider data on intergenerational mobility in the U.S.  For children of parents in the top quintile by household income, 60 percent end up at least one quintile lower than their parents and 37 fall at least two quintiles.[8]  That’s a substantial decline in social position.  So there’s good reason for these parents to fear downward mobility for their children and to use all their powers to marshal educational resources to head it off.  The problem is this:  Even though your own children have a wealth of advantages in negotiating the educational system, there are still enough bright and ambitious students from the lower classes who manage to make it through the educational gauntlet to pose them a serious threat.  So you need to make sure that your children attend the best schools, get into the high reading group and the program for the gifted, take plenty of advanced placement classes, and then get into a highly selective college and graduate school.  Leave nothing to chance, since some of your heirs are likely to be less talented and ambitious than those children who prove themselves against all odds by climbing the educational ladder.  When the higher education system opened up access after World War II, it made competition for the top tier of the system sharply higher, and the degree of competitiveness continued to increase as the proportion of students going to college grew to a sizeable majority.  As Jerome Karabel has noted in his study of elite college admissions, the American system of higher education does not equalize opportunity but it does equalize anxiety.[9]  It makes families at all levels of American society nervous about their ability to negotiate the system effectively, because it provides the only highway to the good life.

The American Meritocracy

The American system of education is formally meritocratic, but one of its social effects is to naturalize privilege.  This starts when a student’s academic merit is so central and so pervasive in schooling that it embeds itself within the individual person.  You start saying things like:  I’m smart.  I’m dumb.  I’m a good student.  I’m a bad student.  I’m good at reading but bad at math.  I’m lousy at sports.  The construction of merit is coextensive with the entire experience of growing up, and therefore it comes to constitute the emergent you.  It no longer seems to be something imposed by a teacher or a school but instead comes to be an essential part of your identity.  It’s now less what you do and increasingly who you are.  In this way, the systemic construction of merit begins to disappear and what’s left is a permanent trait of the individual.  You are your grade and your grade is your destiny.

The problem, however – as an enormous amount of research shows – is that the formal measures of merit that schools use are subject to powerful influence from a student’s social origins.  No matter how you measure merit, it affects your score.  It shapes your educational attainment.  It also shows up in measures that rank educational institutions by quality and selectivity.  Across the board, your parents’ social class has an enormous impact on the level of merit you are likely to acquire in school.  Students with higher social position end up accumulating a disproportionately large number of academic merit badges.

The correlations between socioeconomic status and school measures of merit are strong and consistent, and the causation is easy to determine.  Being born well has an enormously positive impact on the education merit you acquire across your life.  Let us count the ways.  Economic capital is one obvious factor.  Wealthy communities can support better schools. Social capital is another factor.  Families from the upper middle classes have a much broader network of relationships with the larger society than those form the working class, which provides a big advantage for their schooling prospects.  For them, the educational system is not foreign territory but feels like home.

Cultural capital is a third factor, and the most important of all.  School is a place that teaches students the cognitive skills, cultural norms, and forms of knowledge that are required for competent performance in positions of power.  Schools demonstrate a strong disposition toward these capacities over others:  mental over manual skills, theoretical over practical knowledge, decontextualized over contextualized perspectives, mind over body, Gesellschaft over Gemeinschaft.  Parents in the upper middle class are already highly skilled in these cultural capacities, which they deploy in their professional and managerial work on a daily basis.  Their children have grown up in the world of cultural capital.  It’s a language they learn to speak at home.  For working-class children, school is an introduction to a foreign culture and a new language, which unaccountably other students seem to already know.  They’re playing catchup from day one.  Also, it turns out that schools are better at rewarding cultural capital than they are at teaching it.  So kids from the upper middle class can glide through school with little effort while others continually struggle to keep up.  The longer they remain in school, the larger the achievement gap between the two groups.

In the wonderful world of academic merit, therefore, the fix is in.  Upper income students have a built-in advantage in acquiring the grades, credits, and degrees that constitute the primary prizes of the school meritocracy.  But – and this is the true magic of the educational process – the merits that these students accumulate at school come in a purified academic form that is independent of their social origins.  They may have entered schooling as people of privilege, but they leave it as people of merit.  They’re good students.  They’re smart.  They’re well educated.  As a result, they’re totally deserving of special access to the best jobs.  They arrived with inherited privilege but they leave with earned privilege.  So now they fully deserve what they get with their new educational credentials.

In this way, the merit structure of schooling performs a kind of alchemy.  It turns class position into academic merit.  It turns ascribed status into achieved status. You may have gotten into Harvard by growing up in a rich neighborhood with great schools and by being a legacy.  But when you graduate, you bear the label of a person of merit, whose future accomplishments arise alone from your superior abilities.  You’ve been given a second nature.

Consequences of Naturalized Privilege: The New Aristocracy

The process by which schools naturalize academic merit brings major consequences to the larger society.  The most important of these is that it legitimizes social inequality.  People who were born on third base get credit for hitting a triple, and people who have to start in the batter’s box face the real possibility of striking out.  According to the educational system, divergent social outcomes are the result of differences in individual merit, so, one way or the other, people get what they deserve.  The fact that a fraction of students from the lower classes manage against the odds to prove themselves in school and move up the social scale only adds further credibility to the existence of a real meritocracy.

In the United States in the last 40 years, we have come to see the broader implications of this system of status attainment through institutional merit.  It has created a new kind of aristocracy.  This is not Jefferson’s natural aristocracy, grounded in public accomplishments, but a caste of meritocratic privilege, grounded in the formalized and naturalized merit signaled by educational credentials.  As with aristocracies of old, the new meritocracy is a system of rule by your betters – no longer defined as those who are better born or more accomplished but now as those who are better educated.  Michael Young saw this coming back in 1958, as he predicted in his fable, The Rise of the Meritocracy.[10]  But now we can see that it has truly taken hold.

The core expertise of this new aristocracy is skill in working the system.  You have to know how to play the game of educational merit-getting and pass this on to your children.  The secret is in knowing that the achievements that get awarded merit points through the process of schooling are not substantive but formal.  Schooling is not about learning the subject matter; it’s about getting good grades, accumulating course credits, and collecting the diploma on the way out the door.  Degrees pay off, not what you learned in school or even the number of years of schooling you have acquired.  What you need to know is what’s going to be on the test and nothing else.  So you need to study strategically and spend of lot of effort working the refs.  Give teacher what she wants and be sure to get on her good side.  Give the college admissions officers the things they are looking for in your application.  Pump up your test scores with coaching and learning how to game the questions.

Members of the new aristocracy are particularly aggressive about carrying out a strategy known as opportunity hoarding.  There is no academic advantage too trivial to pursue, and the number of advantages you accumulate can never be enough.  In order to get your children into the right selective college you need send them to the right school, get them into the gifted program in elementary school and the right track in high school, hire a tutor, carry out test prep, do the college tour, pursue prizes, develop a well-rounded resume for the student (sport, student leadership, musical instrument, service), pull strings as a legacy and a donor, and on and on and on.

As we saw earlier, such behavior by upper-middle-class parents is not a crazy as it seems.  The problem with being at the top is that there’s nowhere to go but down.  The system is just meritocratic enough to keep the most privileged families on edge, worried about having their child bested by a smart poor kid.   Again, as Karabel put it, the only thing U.S. education equalizes is anxiety.

As with earlier aristocracies, the new aristocrats of merit cluster together in the same communities, where the schools are like no other.  Their children attend the same elite colleges, where they meet their future mates and then transmit their combined cultural, social, and economic capital in concentrated form to their children, a process sociologists call assortative mating.  And one consequence of this increase concentration of educational resources is that the achievement gap between low and high income students has been rising; Sean Reardon’s study shows the gap growing 40 percent in the last quarter of the twentieth century.  This is how educational and social inequality grows larger over time.

By assuming the form of meritocracy, schools have come to play a central role in defining the character of modern society.  In the process they have served to increase social opportunity while also increasing social inequality.  At the same time, they have established a solid educational basis for the legitimacy of this new inequality, and they have fostered the development of a new aristocracy of educational merit whose economic power, social privilege, and cultural cohesion would be the envy of the high nobility in early modern England or France.  Now, as then, the aristocracy assumes its outsized social role as a matter of natural right.

 

References

Community College Research Center. (2015). Community College FAQs. Teachers College, Columbia University. http://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/Community-College-FAQs.html (accessed 8-3-15).

Geiger, Roger L. (2004). To Advance Knowledge: The Growth of American research Universities, 1900-1940. New Brunswick: Transaction.

Karabel, Jerome. (2005). The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. New York: Mariner Books.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2014). Digest of Education Statistics, 2013. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office.

Pell Institute and PennAHEAD. (2015). Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States (2015 revised edition). Philadelphia: The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education and the University of Pennsylvania Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy (PennAHEAD). http://www.pellinstitute.org/publications-Indicators_of_Higher_Education_Equity_in_the_United_States_45_Year_Report.shtml (accessed 8-10-15).

Pew Charitable Trusts Economic Mobility Project. (2012). Pursuing the American Dream: Economic Mobility Across Generations. Washington, DC: Pew Charitable Trusts. http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/reports/0001/01/01/pursuing-the-american-dream (accessed 8-10-15).

Riesman, David.  (1958).  The Academic Procession.  In Constraint and variety in American education.  Garden City, NY:  Doubleday.

U.S. News and World Report. (2015). National Universities Rankings.  http://colleges.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-colleges/rankings/national-universities (accessed 4-28-15).

Young, Michael D. (1958). The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870-2023.  New York:  Random House.

 

[1] U.S. News (2015).

[2] Riesman, (1958).

[3] Geiger (2004), 270.

[4] Pell (2015), p. 31.

[5] Pell (2015), p. 31.

[6] NCES (2014), table 326.20.

[7] CCRC (2015).

[8] Pew (2012), figure 3.

[9] Karabel (2005), p. 547.

[10] Young (1958).

Posted in Higher Education, Meritocracy, Uncategorized

Daniel Markovits on “The Meritocracy Trap”

In this post, which I just wrote, I look at the arguments in the new book by Daniel Markovits.  It crystallizes a lot of the issues in the current debate about meritocracy and advances the argument in ways I hadn’t considered before.  This is not a review of the book but a teaser to get you to read it for yourself.  In it I single out some of his key points and give you some of my favorite quotes from the book.  Enjoy.

Moskovits Cover

Daniel Markovits on The Meritocracy Trap

In the last year or two, the media have been filled with critiques of the American meritocracy (e.g., here, here, and here).  It’s about time this issue got the critical attention it deserves, since the standard account has long been that the only problem with the meritocracy is that it’s not meritocratic enough.  Thus the Varsity Blues college admissions soap opera that has been playing in the press for months now, another case of rich people buying privileged access to credentials they haven’t earned the hard way.  That’s an old story of jumping the line and cutting in front of the truly worthy.

But in his new book, The Meritocracy Trap, Daniel Markovits makes a more complex, more interesting, and ultimately more damning critique.  The problem with meritocracy, he ways, lies at its very core and not just in its slipshod implementation.  It’s a destructive force in modern society, which puts people in the lower 99 percent at a severe disadvantage in the pursuit of social mobility and a good life.  But – and this is the less familiar part – it is also damaging to the people in the top group who gain the most financial and social benefits from it.  It’s a trap for both groups, and both would be better off without it.

In this post, I want to walk through key parts of the book’s argument and present some of my favorite quotes.  Markovits, a professor at Yale Law School, is a very effective writer and the story he tells in not only largely compelling but it’s also compulsively quotable.  I hope this teaser will convince you to read the book, which is available in the usual places and also in pirated editions online.

Here’s how he sets up the argument:

Common usage often conflates meritocracy with equality of opportunity. But although meritocracy was embraced as the handmaiden of equality of opportunity, and did open up the elite in its early years, it now more nearly stifles than fosters social mobility. The avenues that once carried people from modest circumstances into the American elite are narrowing dramatically. Middle-class families cannot afford the elaborate schooling that rich families buy, and ordinary schools lag farther and farther behind elite ones, commanding fewer resources and delivering inferior educations. Even as top universities emphasize achievement rather than breeding, they run admissions competitions that students from middle-class backgrounds cannot win, and their student bodies skew dramatically toward wealth. Meritocratic education now predominantly serves an elite caste rather than the general public.

Meritocracy similarly transforms jobs to favor the super-educated graduates that elite universities produce, so that work extends and compounds inequalities produced in school. Competence and an honest work ethic no longer assure a good job. Middle-class workers, without elite degrees, face discrimination all across a labor market that increasingly privileges elaborate education and extravagant training.

The meritocracy thus works at two levels, a hyper-intense winner-take-all competition to get the very best education in an extremely stratified system of schooling coupled with a similarly intense competition in the elite sector of the workforce for the positions at the very top with the most extraordinary financial and social rewards.

This system obviously gives a huge advantage to students who bring the cultural, social, and economic capital that comes from being the children of those who are already in the elite sector.  That, as I said, is an old story; no surprise there.  But he also shows the price paid by the group at the top.  As he puts it,

the rich and the rest are entangled in a single, shared, and mutually destructive economic and social logic. Their seemingly opposite burdens are in fact two symptoms of a shared meritocratic disease. Meritocratic elites acquire their caste through processes that ruthlessly exclude most Americans and, at the same time, mercilessly assault those who do go through them. The powerfully felt but unexplained frustrations that mar both classes—unprecedented resentment among the middle class and inscrutable anxiety among the elite—are eddies in a shared stream, drawing their energies from a single current.

            Markovits notes that “For virtually all of human history, income and industry have charted opposite courses.”  The rich were idle, living off the land and off the labor of others.  The poor were the workhorses of the economy.  But today,

High society has reversed course. Now it valorizes industry and despises leisure. As every rich person knows, when an acquaintance asks “How are you?” the correct answer is “So busy.” The old leisure class would have thought this a humiliating admission. The working rich boast that they are in demand.

The result is that, in a dramatic historical reversal, meritocrats at the top of the workforce now work longer hours than the middle or working classes.

In 1940, a typical worker in the bottom 60 percent worked nearly four (or 10 percent) more weekly hours than a typical worker in the top 1 percent. By 2010, the low-income worker devoted roughly twelve (or 30 percent) fewer hours to work than the high-income worker. Taken together, these trends shift the balance of ordinary to elite labor by nearly sixteen hours—or two regulation workdays—per week.

What’s going on here is that in the new meritocracy, top positions go to people who prove their worth not only by accumulating the most highly credentialed skills in school but by demonstrating the greatest dedication to the job.  The days of bankers’ hours and white-shoe law firms, with genteel professionals working at a relaxed aristocratic rate, are gone.  Take the case of lawyers, which Markovits knows best:

In 1962 (when elite lawyers earned a third of what they do today), the American Bar Association could confidently declare that “there are . . . approximately 1300 fee-earning hours per year” available to the normal lawyer. Today, by contrast, a major law firm pronounces with equal confidence that a quota of 2,400 billable hours “if properly managed” is “not unreasonable,” which is a euphemism for “necessary for having a hope of making partner.” Billing 2,400 hours requires working from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m., six days a week, without vacation or sick days, every week of the year. Graduates of elite law schools join law firms that commonly require associates and even partners to work sixty-, eighty-, and even hundred-hour weeks.

            The issue is that the meritocrats are claiming the top rewards not as owners of property but as workers using their own human capital.  “Unlike land or factories, human capital can produce income—at least using current technologies—only by being mixed with its owners’ own contemporaneous labor.”  In order to win the competition, they need to exploit their own labor.

People who are required to measure up from preschool through retirement become submerged in the effort. They become constituted by their achievements, so that eliteness goes from being something that a person enjoys to being everything that he is. In a mature meritocracy, schools and jobs dominate elite life so immersively that they leave no self over apart from status. An investment banker, enrolled as a two-year-old in the Episcopal School and then passed on to Dalton, Princeton, Morgan Stanley, Harvard Business School, and finally to Goldman Sachs (where he spends his income on sending his children to the schools that he once attended), becomes this résumé, in the minds of others and even in his own imagination.

As a result,

Meritocratic inequality might free the rich in consumption, but it enslaves them in production….  A person who lives like this places himself, quite literally, at the disposal of others—he uses himself up….  The elite, acting now as rentiers of their own human capital, exploit themselves, becoming not just victims but also agents of their own alienation.

            Of course, it’s hard to feel sorry for the people who win this competition, since their rewards are so over the top.

David Rockefeller received a salary of about $1.6 million (in 2015 dollars) when he became chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank in 1969, which amounted to roughly fifty times a typical bank teller’s income. Last year Jamie Dimon, who runs JPMorgan Chase today, received a total compensation of $29.5 million, which is over a thousand times as much as today’s banks pay typical tellers.

So no one says, “Poor Jamie Dimon.”  But one fundamental consequence of the long work hours of the new elite is that it helps justify their high rewards.  Not only are they better educated than you are, they also work harder than you do.  So how are you supposed to cry foul about where you ended up in life?  By not simply cashing in on their credentials but also by exploiting their own human capital, they provide the meritocracy with iron-clad legitimacy.

To make matters worse, meritocracy—precisely because it justifies economic inequalities and disguises class—denies ordinary Americans any high-minded language through which to explain and articulate the harms and wrongs of their increasing…. They become “victims without a language of victimhood.”

Markovits also connects the rise of meritocracy and the anxieties in foments to the politics of the Trump era.

Meritocracy is therefore far from innocent in the recent rise of nativism and populism. Instead, nativism and populism represent a backlash against meritocratic inequality brought on by advanced meritocracy. Nativism and populism express the same ideological and psychological forces behind the epidemic of addiction, overdose, and suicide that has lowered life expectancy in the white working and middle class.

The contrast with Obama is instructive: “Obama—a superordinate product of elite education—embodied meritocracy’s triumph. Trump—‘a blue-collar billionaire’ who announces ‘I love the poorly educated’ and openly opposes the meritocratic elite—exploits meritocracy’s enduring discontents.”  As he observes, “False prophets gain a foothold…because deeply discontented people care—often most and always first—about being heard and not just being helped. They will cling to the only ship that acknowledges the storm.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Credentialing, Higher Education, History, Meritocracy

Schooling the Meritocracy: How Schools Came to Democratize Merit, Formalize Achievement, and Naturalize Privilege

 

This a new piece I recently wrote, based on a paper I presented last fall at the ISCHE conference in Berlin.  It’s part of a larger project that focuses on the construction of the American meritocracy, which is to say the new American aristocracy of credentials.

Schooling the Meritocracy:

How Schools Came to Democratize Merit, Formalize Achievement, and Naturalize Privilege

David F. Labaree

 

Merit is much in the news these days.  Controversy swirls around the central role that education plays in establishing who has the most merit and thus who gets the best job.  Parents are suing Harvard, for purportedly admitting students based on ethnicity rather than academic achievement.  Federal prosecutors are indicting wealthy parents for trying to bribe their children’s way into the most selective colleges.  At the core of these debates is a concern about fairness.  To what extent does the social structure allow people to get what they deserve, based on individual merit rather than social power and privilege?  There’s nothing new about our obsession with establishing merit.  The ancient Greeks and Romans were as concerned with this issue as much as we are.  What is new, however, is that all the attention now is focused on schools as the great merit dispensers.

Modern systems of public schooling have transformed the concept of merit.  The premodern form of this quality was what Joseph Kett calls essential merit.  This represented a person’s public accomplishments, which were seen as a measure of character.  Such merit was hard won through good works and had to be defended vigorously, even if that meant engaging in duels.  The new kind of merit, which arose in the mid nineteenth century after the emergence of universal public schooling in the U.S., was what Kett calls institutional merit.  This you earned by attending school and advancing through the levels of academic attainment.  It became your personal property, which could not be challenged by others and which granted you privileges in accordance with the level of merit you acquired.

Here I examine three consequences of this shift from essential to institutional merit in the American setting.  First, this change democratized merit by making it, at least theoretically, accessible to anyone and not just the gentry, who in the premodern period had prime access to this reputational good.  Second, it formalized the idea of merit by turning it from a series of publicly visible and substantive accomplishments into the accumulation of the forms that schooling had to offer – grades, credits, and degrees.  Third, following from the first two, it served the social function of naturalizing the privileges of birth by transposing them into academic accomplishments.  The well born, through the medium of schooling, acquired a second nature that transformed ascribed status into achieved status.

 

Essential Merit

 

From the very start, the country’s Founding Fathers were obsessed with essential merit.  To twenty-first century ears, the way they used the term sounds like what we might call character or honor or reputation.  Individuals enacted this kind of merit through public performances, and it referred not just to achievements in general but especially those that were considered most admirable for public figures.  This put a premium on taking on roles of public service more than private accomplishment and on contributing to the public good.  Such merit might come from demonstrating courage on the battlefield, sacrifice for the community in a position of public leadership, scientific or literary eminence.  Think Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and Franklin.  It extended well beyond simple self-aggrandizement, although it often spurred that among its most ardent suitors.  It was grounded in depth of achievement, but it also relied heavily on symbolism to underscore its virtue.

Merit was both an enactment and a display.  The most accomplished practitioner of essential merit in the revolutionary period was George Washington.  From his earliest days he sought to craft the iconic persona that has persisted to the present day.  His copybook in school was filled with 110 rules of civility that should govern public behavior.  He constructed a resume of public service that led inevitably from an officer in the colonial militia, to a representative to the continental congress, to commander in chief of the revolutionary army, and then to president.  A tall man in an era of short men, he would tower over a room of ordinary people, and he liked to demonstrate his physical strength and his prowess as an accomplished horseman.  This was a man with a strong sense of his reputation and of how to maintain it.  And he scored the ultimate triumph of essential merit in his last performance in public life, when he chose to step down from the presidency after two terms and return to Mount Vernon – Cincinnatus laying down his awesome powers and going back to the farm.

This kind of merit is what Jefferson meant when he referred to a “natural aristocracy,” arising in the fertile fields of the new world that were uncorrupted by the inheritance of office.  It represents the kinds of traits that made aristocracy a viable form of governance for so many years:  educating men of privilege to take on positions of public leadership, imbued with noblesse oblige, and armed with the skills to be effective in the role.  Merit was a powerful motivator for the Founding Fathers, a spur to emulation for the benefit of the community, a self-generating dynamic for a hyper-accomplishment.  And it was a key source of their broad legitimacy as public leaders.

But essential merit also had its problems.  Although it left room for self-made men to demonstrate their merit – like Franklin and Hamilton – it was largely open to men of leisure, born into the gentry, supported by a plantation full of slaves, and free to serve the public without having to worry about making a living; think Washington, Jefferson, and Madison.  When politics began the transition in the 1820s from the Federalist to the Jacksonian era, the air of aristocracy fit uncomfortably into the emerging democratic ethos that Tocqueville so expertly captured in Democracy in America.

Another problem was that essential merit brought with it unruly competition.   How much essential merit can crowd into a room before a fight breaks out?  How can everyone be a leader?  What happens if you don’t get the respect you think you earned?  One response, quite common at the time, was to engage in a duel.  If your reputation was maligned by someone and that person refused to retract the slur, then your honor compelled you to defend your reputation with your life.  Alexander Hamilton was but one casualty of this lethal side effect of essential merit.  Benedict Arnold is another case in point.  An accomplished military officer and Washington protégé, Arnold was doing everything right on the battlefield to demonstrate his merit.  But when he sought appointment as a major general, politics blocked his path.  This was a slight too much for him to bear.  Instead of a duel (who would he challenge, his mentor Washington?), he opted for treason, plotting to pass along to the British his command of the fort at West Point.  So the dynamic behind essential merit was a powerful driver for behavior that was both socially functional and socially destructive.

 

The Rise of Institutional Merit

 

By the second quarter of the nineteenth century, a new form of merit was arising in the new republic.  In contrast to the high-flown notion of essential merit, grounded in high accomplishment in public life and defended with your life, the new merit was singularly pedestrian.  It mean grades on a report card at school.  Hardly the stuff of stirring biographies.  These grades were originally labeled as measures of merit and demerit in academic work, recording what you did well and what you did badly.  Ironically, ground zero for this new system was Benedict Arnold’s old fort at West Point, which was now the location of the U.S. Military Academy.  The sum of your merits and demerits constituted your academic worth.  Soon the emerging common school system adopted the same mode of evaluation.

The sheer banality of the new merit offered real advantages.  Unlike its predecessor, it did not signal membership in an exclusive club accessible primarily to the well-born but instead arose from a system that governed an entire population within a school.  As a result, it was well suited to a more democratic political culture.  Also, it provided a stimulus sufficiently strong to promote productive competition among students for academic standing, but these marks on a report card were not really worth fighting over.

So institutional merit emerged as a highly functional construct for meeting the organizational needs of the new systems of public schooling that arose in the middle of nineteenth century America.  What started out as a mechanism for motivating students in a classroom grew into a model for structuring an entire system of education.  Once the principle of ranking by individual achievement was established, it developed into a way of ranking groups of students within schools and then groups of schools with school systems.  The first innovation, as schools became larger and more heterogeneous in both age and ability, was to organize groups of students into homogeneous classrooms with others of the same age and ability.  If you performed with sufficient merit in one grade, you would be promoted with your peers at the end of the year into the next grade up the ladder.  If your merit was not up to standard, you would be held back to repeat the grade.  This allowed teachers to pitch instruction toward a group of students who were at roughly the same level of achievement and development.  It also created a more level playing field that allowed teachers to compare and rank the relative performance of students within the class, which they couldn’t do in a one-room schoolhouse with a wide array of ages and abilities.  So the invention of the grade also led to the invention of the metric that defines some students as above grade-level and others as below.  Graded schooling was thus the foundation of the modern meritocracy.

The next step in the development of institutional merit was the erection of a graded system of schooling.  Students would start out in an elementary school for the lower grades, then gain promotion to a grammar school, and (by the end of the nineteenth century) move up to a high school for the final grades.  Entry at one level was dependent on successful completion of the level below.  A clear hierarchy of schooling emerged based on the new merit metric.  And it didn’t stop there.  High school graduation became the criterion for entry into college, and the completion of college became the requirement for entry into graduate school.  A single graded structure guided student progress through each individual school and across the entire hierarchy of schooling, serving as a rationalized and incremental ladder of meritocratic attainment leading from first grade through the most elevated levels of the system.

Consider some of the consequences of the emergence of this finely tuned machinery for arranging students by institutional merit.  When you have a measure of what average progress should look like – annual promotion to the next grade, and periodic promotion to the school at the next level – then you also have a clear measure of failure.  There were three ways for students to demonstrate failure within the system:  to be held back from promotion to the next grade; to be denied the diploma that demonstrated completion of particular school level; to leave the system altogether as a particular point in the graded hierarchy.  Thus emerged the chronic problems of the new system – retardation and elimination.

A parallel challenge to the legitimacy of the merit structure occurred at the level of the school.  By the early twentieth century, level of school became increasingly important in determining access to the best jobs.  As a particular level of schooling began to fill up, as happened to the high school in the first half of the twentieth century, then that level of diploma became less able to provide invidious distinction.  For a high school graduate, this meant that the perceived quality of the school became an important factor in determining the relative merit of your degree compared with other high school graduates.  When college enrollments took off in the mid twentieth century and this level of the system emerged as the new zone of universal education, the value of a college degree likewise became dependent on the imputed merit of the institution granting it.  The result is a two-layered hierarchy of merit in the American educational system.  One was the formal graded system from first grade to graduate school.  Another was the informal ranking of institutions at the same formal level.  Both became critical in determining graduates’ level of institutional merit and their position in the queue for the best jobs.  Consider some of the consequences of the dominance of this new form of merit.

Democratizing Merit

As we saw, essential merit had a bias toward privilege.  The founding fathers who displayed the most merit were to the manor born.  They were free to exercise public service because of birth and wealth.  Yes, it was possible as well for an outsider to demonstrate essential merit, but it wasn’t easy.  Benjamin Franklin was sui generis, and even he acted less as a leader and more as a sage and diplomat.  Alexander Hamilton fought his way to the top, but he never lost his outsider status and ended up dying to defend his honor, which was hard-won but never fully secure.

What gives essential merit face validity is that it is based on what you have actually accomplished.  Your merit is your accomplishments.  That’s hard to beat as a basis for respect, but it’s also hard to attain.  Washington could prove himself as a military officer because his gentry status automatically qualified him to become an officer in the first place.  Jefferson became a political figure because that’s what men of his status did with themselves and his election would be assured.  As a result, what made this kind of merit so compelling is what also made it so difficult for anyone but the gentry to demonstrate.

So the move toward institutional merit radically opened up the possibility of attaining it.  It’s a system that applied to everyone – not just the people with special access but everyone in the common school classroom.  All students in the class could demonstrate their worth and earn the appropriate merits that measured that worth.  And everyone was measured on the same scale.  If essential merit was the measure of the member of the natural aristocracy, institutional merit was the measure of the citizen in a democracy.  You’ve got to love that part about it.

Another characteristic of institutional merit also made it distinctly democratic.  What it measured was neither intrinsically important nor deeply admirable.  It didn’t measure your valor in battle or your willingness to sacrifice for the public good; instead it reflected how many right answers you got on a weekly spelling test.  No big deal.

But what makes this measure of merit so powerful for the average person was its implication.  It measured a trivial accomplishment in the confined academic world of the classroom, but it implied a bright future.  If essential merit measured your real accomplishment in the world, institutional merit offered a prediction of your future accomplishment.  It said, look out for this guy – he’s going to be somebody.  This is a major benefit that derives from the new measure.  Measuring how well you did a job is relatively easy, but predicting in advance how well you will do that job is a very big deal.

Does institutional merit really predict future accomplishment?  Do academic grades, credits, and degrees tell us how people will perform on the job?  Human capital theorists say yes: the skills acquired in school translate into greater productivity in the workforce.  Credentialing theorists say no:  the workforce rewards degrees by demanding them as prerequisites for getting a job, but this doesn’t demonstrate that what is learned in school helps a person in doing the job.  I lean toward the latter group, but for our purposes this debate doesn’t really matter.  As long as the job market treats academic merit as a predictor of job performance, then this form of merit serves as such.  Whether academic learning is useful on the job is irrelevant as long as the measures of academic merit are used to allocate people to jobs.  And a system that offers everyone in a community access to schools that will award them tokens of institutional merit gives everyone a chance to gain any social position.  That’s a very democratic measure indeed.

Formalizing Merit

Part of what makes institutional merit so democratic is that the measure itself is so abstract.  What it’s measuring is not concrete accomplishment – winning a battle or passing a law – but generic accomplishment on a standardized and decontextualized scale.  It’s a score from A to F or 1 to 100 or 0 to 4.  All of these scales are in use in American schools, but which you use doesn’t matter.  They’re all interchangeable.  All they tell us is how high or low an individual was rated on some academic task.  Then these individual scores are averaged together across a heterogeneous array of such tasks to compute a composite score that tells us – what?  The score says that overall, at the end of the class, you met academic expectations (for that class in that grade) at a high, medium, or low level, or that you failed to meet the minimum expectation at all.  And, if compared to the grades that fellow students received in the same class, it shows where your performance ranked with that of your peers.

It’s the sheer abstraction of this measure of merit that gives it so much power.  A verbal description of a student’s performance in the class would be a much richer way of understanding what she learned there:  In her biology class, Joanie demonstrated a strong understanding of heredity and photosynthesis but she had some trouble with the vascular system.  The problem is that this doesn’t tell you how she compares with her classmates or whether she will qualify to become a banker.  What helps with the latter is that she received a grade of B+ (3.3 on a 4.0 scale) and the class average was B.  The grade tells you much less but it means a lot more for her and her future.  Especially when it is combined with all of her other grades in classes across her whole career in high school, culminating in her final grade point average and a diploma.  It says, she’ll get into college, but it won’t be very selective one.  She’ll end up in a middle class job, but she won’t be a top manager.  In terms of her future, this is what really matters, not her mastery of photosynthesis.

In this way, institutional merit is part of the broad process of rationalization that arose with modernity.  It filters out all of the noise that comes from context and content and qualitative judgments and comes up with a quantitative measure that locates the individual as a point on a normal curve representing everyone in the cohort.  It shows where you rank and predicts where you’re headed.  It becomes a central part of the machinery of disciplinary power.

Naturalizing Privilege

Once merit became democratized and formalized, it also became naturalized.  The process of naturalization works like this.  Your merit is so central and so pervasive in a system of universal schooling that it embeds itself within the individual person.  You start saying things like:  I’m smart.  I’m dumb.  I’m a good student.  I’m a bad student.  I’m good at reading but bad at math.  I’m lousy at sports.  The construction of merit is coextensive with the entire experience of growing up, and therefore it comes to constitute the emergent you.  It no longer seems to be something imposed by a teacher or a school but instead comes to be an essential part of your identity.  It’s now less what you do and increasingly who you are.  In this way, the systemic construction of merit begins to disappear and what’s left is a permanent trait of the individual.  You are your grade and your grade is your destiny.

The problem, however – as an enormous amount of research shows – is that the formal measures of merit that schools use are subject to powerful influence from a student’s social origins.  No matter how your measure merit, it affects your score.  It shapes your educational attainment.  It also shows up in measures that rank educational institutions by quality and selectivity.  Across the board, your parents’ social class has an enormous impact on the level of merit you are likely to acquire in school.  Students with higher social position end up accumulating a disproportionately large number of academic merit badges.

The correlations between socioeconomic status and school measures of merit are strong and consistent, and the causation is easy to determine.  Being born well has an enormously positive impact on the education merit you acquire across your life.  Let us count the ways.  Economic capital is one obvious factor.  Wealthy communities can support better schools. Social capital is another factor.  Families from the upper middle classes have a much broader network of relationships with the larger society than those form the working class, which provides a big advantage for their schooling prospects.  For them, the educational system is not foreign territory but feels like home.

Cultural capital is a third factor, and the most important of all.  School is a place that teaches students the cognitive skills, cultural norms, and forms of knowledge that are required for competent performance in positions of power.  Schools demonstrate a strong disposition toward these capacities over others:  mental over manual skills, theoretical over practical knowledge, decontextualized over contextualized perspectives, mind over body, Gesellschaft over Gemeinschaft.  Parents in the upper middle class are already highly skilled in these cultural capacities, which they deploy in their professional and managerial work on a daily basis.  Their children have grown up in the world of cultural capital.  It’s a language they learn to speak at home.  For working-class children, school is an introduction to a foreign culture and a new language, which unaccountably other students seem to already know.  They’re playing catchup from day one.  Also, it turns out that schools are better at rewarding cultural capital than they are at teaching it.  So kids from the upper middle class can glide through school with little effort while others continually struggle to keep up.  The longer they remain in school, the larger the achievement gap between the two groups.

So, in the wonderful world of academic merit, the fix is in.  Upper income students have a built-in advantage in acquiring the grades, credits, and degrees that constitute the primary prizes of the school meritocracy.  But – and this is the true magic of the educational process – the merits that these students accumulate at school come in a purified academic form that is independent of their social origins.  They may have entered schooling as people of privilege, but they leave it as people of merit.  They’re good students.  They’re smart.  They’re well educated.  As a result, they’re totally deserving of special access to the best jobs.  They arrived with inherited privilege but they leave with earned privilege.  So now they fully deserve what they get with their new educational credentials.

In this way, the merit structure of schooling performs a kind of alchemy.  It turns class position into academic merit.  It turns ascribed status into achieved status. You may have gotten into Harvard by growing up in a rich neighborhood with great schools and by being a legacy.  But when you graduate, you bear the label of a person of merit, whose future accomplishments arise alone from your superior abilities.  You’ve been given a second nature.

Consequences of Naturalized Privilege: The New Aristocracy

The process by which schools naturalize academic merit brings major consequences to the larger society.  The most important of these is that it legitimizes social inequality.  People who were born on third base get credit for hitting a triple, and people who have to start in the batter’s box face the real possibility of striking out.  According to the educational system, divergent social outcomes are the result of differences in individual merit, so, one way or the other, people get what they deserve.  The fact that a fraction of students from the lower classes manage against the odds to prove themselves in school and move up the social scale only adds further credibility to the existence of a real meritocracy.

In the United States in the last 40 years, we have come to see the broader implications of this system of status attainment through institutional merit.  It has created a new kind of aristocracy.  This is not Jefferson’s natural aristocracy, grounded in public accomplishments, but a caste of meritocratic privilege, grounded in the formalized and naturalized merit signaled by educational credentials.  As with aristocracies of old, the new meritocracy is a system of rule by your betters – no longer defined as those who are better born or more accomplished but now as those who are better educated.  Michael Young saw this coming back in 1958, as he predicted in his fable, The Rise of the Meritocracy.  But now we can see that it has truly taken hold.

The core expertise of this new aristocracy is skill in working the system.  You have to know how to play the game of educational merit-getting and pass this on to your children.  The secret is in knowing that the achievements that get awarded merit points through the process of schooling are not substantive but formal.  Schooling is not about learning the subject matter; it’s about getting good grades, accumulating course credits, and collecting the diploma on the way out the door.  Degrees pay off, not what you learned in school or even the number of years of schooling you have acquired.  What you need to know is what’s going to be on the test and nothing else.  So you need to study strategically and spend of lot of effort working the refs.  Give teacher what she wants and be sure to get on her good side.  Give the college admissions officers the things they are looking for in your application.  Pump up your test scores with coaching and learning how to game the questions.

Members of the new aristocracy are particularly aggressive about carrying out a strategy known as opportunity hoarding.  There is no academic advantage too trivial to pursue, and the number of advantages you accumulate can never be enough.  In order to get your children into the right selective college you need send them to the right school, get them into the gifted program in elementary school and the right track in high school, hire a tutor, carry out test prep, do the college tour, pursue prizes, develop a well-rounded resume for the student (sport, student leadership, musical instrument, service), pull strings as a legacy and a donor, and on and on and on.

Such behavior by upper-middle-class parents is not a crazy as it seems.  The problem with being at the top is that there’s nowhere to go but down.  If you look at studies of intergenerational mobility in the US, the top quintile of families have a big advantage, with more than 40 percent of children ending up in the same quintile as their parents, twice the rate that would occur by chance.  But that still means that 60 percent are going to be downwardly mobile.  The system is just meritocratic enough to keep the most privileged families on edge, worried about having their child bested by a smart poor kid.   As Jerry Karabel puts it in The Chosen, the only thing U.S. education equalizes is anxiety.

As with earlier aristocracies, the new aristocrats of merit cluster together in the same communities, where the schools are like no other.  Their children attend the same elite colleges, where they meet their future mates and then transmit their combined cultural, social, and economic capital in concentrated form to their children, a process sociologists call assortative mating.  And one consequence of this increase concentration of educational resources is that the achievement gap between low and high income students has been rising; Sean Reardon’s study shows the gap growing 40 percent in the last quarter of the twentieth century.  This is how educational and social inequality grows larger over time.

 

By democratizing, formalizing, and naturalizing merit, schools have played a central role in defining the character of modern society.  In the process they have served to increase social opportunity while also increasing social inequality.  At the same time, they have established a solid educational basis for the legitimacy of this new inequality, and they have fostered the development of a new aristocracy of educational merit whose economic power, social privilege, and cultural cohesion would be the envy of the high nobility in early modern England or France.  Now, as then, the aristocracy assumes its outsized social role as a matter of natural right.

 

Posted in Credentialing, Higher Education, Meritocracy

Michael Lewis: Don’t Eat Fortune’s Cookie

In the last year or so, I’ve been reading and writing about the American meritocracy, and I’m going to be posting some of these pieces here from time to time.  But today I want to post a wonderful statement on the subject by Michael Lewis, which I somehow had missed when it first came out.  It’s his address at the Princeton commencement in 2012 called, “Don’t Eat Fortune’s Cookie.”  The theme for the new Princeton grads is simple and powerful:  You shouldn’t assume you deserve to be where you are today.

Princeton University’s 2012 Baccalaureate Remarks

June 3, 2012 4:17 p.m.

Don’t Eat Fortune’s Cookie
Michael Lewis
June 3, 2012 — As Prepared

(NOTE: The video of Lewis’ speech as delivered is available on the Princeton YouTube channel.)

Thank you. President Tilghman. Trustees and Friends. Parents of the Class of 2012. Above all, Members of the Princeton Class of 2012. Give yourself a round of applause. The next time you look around a church and see everyone dressed in black it’ll be awkward to cheer. Enjoy the moment.

Thirty years ago I sat where you sat. I must have listened to some older person share his life experience. But I don’t remember a word of it. I can’t even tell you who spoke. What I do remember, vividly, is graduation. I’m told you’re meant to be excited, perhaps even relieved, and maybe all of you are. I wasn’t. I was totally outraged. Here I’d gone and given them four of the best years of my life and this is how they thanked me for it. By kicking me out.

At that moment I was sure of only one thing: I was of no possible economic value to the outside world. I’d majored in art history, for a start. Even then this was regarded as an act of insanity. I was almost certainly less prepared for the marketplace than most of you. Yet somehow I have wound up rich and famous. Well, sort of. I’m going to explain, briefly, how that happened. I want you to understand just how mysterious careers can be, before you go out and have one yourself.

I graduated from Princeton without ever having published a word of anything, anywhere. I didn’t write for the Prince, or for anyone else. But at Princeton, studying art history, I felt the first twinge of literary ambition. It happened while working on my senior thesis. My adviser was a truly gifted professor, an archaeologist named William Childs. The thesis tried to explain how the Italian sculptor Donatello used Greek and Roman sculpture — which is actually totally beside the point, but I’ve always wanted to tell someone. God knows what Professor Childs actually thought of it, but he helped me to become engrossed. More than engrossed: obsessed. When I handed it in I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life: to write senior theses. Or, to put it differently: to write books.

Then I went to my thesis defense. It was just a few yards from here, in McCormick Hall. I listened and waited for Professor Childs to say how well written my thesis was. He didn’t. And so after about 45 minutes I finally said, “So. What did you think of the writing?”

“Put it this way” he said. “Never try to make a living at it.”

And I didn’t — not really. I did what everyone does who has no idea what to do with themselves: I went to graduate school. I wrote at nights, without much effect, mainly because I hadn’t the first clue what I should write about. One night I was invited to a dinner, where I sat next to the wife of a big shot at a giant Wall Street investment bank, called Salomon Brothers. She more or less forced her husband to give me a job. I knew next to nothing about Salomon Brothers. But Salomon Brothers happened to be where Wall Street was being reinvented—into the place we have all come to know and love. When I got there I was assigned, almost arbitrarily, to the very best job in which to observe the growing madness: they turned me into the house expert on derivatives. A year and a half later Salomon Brothers was handing me a check for hundreds of thousands of dollars to give advice about derivatives to professional investors.

Now I had something to write about: Salomon Brothers. Wall Street had become so unhinged that it was paying recent Princeton graduates who knew nothing about money small fortunes to pretend to be experts about money. I’d stumbled into my next senior thesis.

I called up my father. I told him I was going to quit this job that now promised me millions of dollars to write a book for an advance of 40 grand. There was a long pause on the other end of the line. “You might just want to think about that,” he said.

“Why?”

“Stay at Salomon Brothers 10 years, make your fortune, and then write your books,” he said.

I didn’t need to think about it. I knew what intellectual passion felt like — because I’d felt it here, at Princeton — and I wanted to feel it again. I was 26 years old. Had I waited until I was 36, I would never have done it. I would have forgotten the feeling.

The book I wrote was called “Liar’s Poker.”  It sold a million copies. I was 28 years old. I had a career, a little fame, a small fortune and a new life narrative. All of a sudden people were telling me I was born to be a writer. This was absurd. Even I could see there was another, truer narrative, with luck as its theme. What were the odds of being seated at that dinner next to that Salomon Brothers lady? Of landing inside the best Wall Street firm from which to write the story of an age? Of landing in the seat with the best view of the business? Of having parents who didn’t disinherit me but instead sighed and said “do it if you must?” Of having had that sense of must kindled inside me by a professor of art history at Princeton? Of having been let into Princeton in the first place?

This isn’t just false humility. It’s false humility with a point. My case illustrates how success is always rationalized. People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck — especially successful people. As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was somehow inevitable. They don’t want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives. There is a reason for this: the world does not want to acknowledge it either.

I wrote a book about this, called “Moneyball.” It was ostensibly about baseball but was in fact about something else. There are poor teams and rich teams in professional baseball, and they spend radically different sums of money on their players. When I wrote my book the richest team in professional baseball, the New York Yankees, was then spending about $120 million on its 25 players. The poorest team, the Oakland A’s, was spending about $30 million. And yet the Oakland team was winning as many games as the Yankees — and more than all the other richer teams.

This isn’t supposed to happen. In theory, the rich teams should buy the best players and win all the time. But the Oakland team had figured something out: the rich teams didn’t really understand who the best baseball players were. The players were misvalued. And the biggest single reason they were misvalued was that the experts did not pay sufficient attention to the role of luck in baseball success. Players got given credit for things they did that depended on the performance of others: pitchers got paid for winning games, hitters got paid for knocking in runners on base. Players got blamed and credited for events beyond their control. Where balls that got hit happened to land on the field, for example.

Forget baseball, forget sports. Here you had these corporate employees, paid millions of dollars a year. They were doing exactly the same job that people in their business had been doing forever.  In front of millions of people, who evaluate their every move. They had statistics attached to everything they did. And yet they were misvalued — because the wider world was blind to their luck.

This had been going on for a century. Right under all of our noses. And no one noticed — until it paid a poor team so well to notice that they could not afford not to notice. And you have to ask: if a professional athlete paid millions of dollars can be misvalued who can’t be? If the supposedly pure meritocracy of professional sports can’t distinguish between lucky and good, who can?

The “Moneyball” story has practical implications. If you use better data, you can find better values; there are always market inefficiencies to exploit, and so on. But it has a broader and less practical message: don’t be deceived by life’s outcomes. Life’s outcomes, while not entirely random, have a huge amount of luck baked into them. Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck — and with  luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your Gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.

I make this point because — along with this speech — it is something that will be easy for you to forget.

I now live in Berkeley, California. A few years ago, just a few blocks from my home, a pair of researchers in the Cal psychology department staged an experiment. They began by grabbing students, as lab rats. Then they broke the students into teams, segregated by sex. Three men, or three women, per team. Then they put these teams of three into a room, and arbitrarily assigned one of the three to act as leader. Then they gave them some complicated moral problem to solve: say what should be done about academic cheating, or how to regulate drinking on campus.

Exactly 30 minutes into the problem-solving the researchers interrupted each group. They entered the room bearing a plate of cookies. Four cookies. The team consisted of three people, but there were these four cookies. Every team member obviously got one cookie, but that left a fourth cookie, just sitting there. It should have been awkward. But it wasn’t. With incredible consistency the person arbitrarily appointed leader of the group grabbed the fourth cookie, and ate it. Not only ate it, but ate it with gusto: lips smacking, mouth open, drool at the corners of their mouths. In the end all that was left of the extra cookie were crumbs on the leader’s shirt.

This leader had performed no special task. He had no special virtue. He’d been chosen at random, 30 minutes earlier. His status was nothing but luck. But it still left him with the sense that the cookie should be his.

This experiment helps to explain Wall Street bonuses and CEO pay, and I’m sure lots of other human behavior. But it also is relevant to new graduates of Princeton University. In a general sort of way you have been appointed the leader of the group. Your appointment may not be entirely arbitrary. But you must sense its arbitrary aspect: you are the lucky few. Lucky in your parents, lucky in your country, lucky that a place like Princeton exists that can take in lucky people, introduce them to other lucky people, and increase their chances of becoming even luckier. Lucky that you live in the richest society the world has ever seen, in a time when no one actually expects you to sacrifice your interests to anything.

All of you have been faced with the extra cookie. All of you will be faced with many more of them. In time you will find it easy to assume that you deserve the extra cookie. For all I know, you may. But you’ll be happier, and the world will be better off, if you at least pretend that you don’t.

Never forget: In the nation’s service. In the service of all nations.

Thank you.

And good luck.