Meritocracy is worth defending - WSJ

There was once a college in New York that people called the “Harvard of the Proletariat”. Many of its graduates were poor or the childre...


There was once a college in New York that people called the “Harvard of the Proletariat”. Many of its graduates were poor or the children of working-class immigrants, but they went on to become doctors, lawyers and prominent academics. Nine alumni went on to receive Nobel Prizes.

In 1970, the school watered down its admission standards and began admitting anyone who graduated from high school. “The result has been a simultaneous boom in student numbers and a collapse in academic standards,” writes Adrian Wooldridge in his new book, “The Aristocracy of Talent”. Within a decade, “two out of three students entering college needed remedial education in the three ‘R’s. Dropout rates have increased. Talented scholars have left. Protests and occupations have become commonplace. In 1994, a task force concluded that the college was “on a downward spiral”. Five years later, the policy of opening admissions was declared a failure and finally reversed.

Mr. Wooldridge’s book is a broad defense of meritocracy — judging people by their abilities — and where we come from. He presents City College of New York as a warning to the United States, where the war over standards has escalated in recent years. Last month, Oregon ended its requirement that students must master reading and math to graduate from high school. Two of the country’s most prestigious schools, Boston Latin Academy and Thomas Jefferson High School in Virginia, have cut their admission tests to achieve better racial balance. The mayor of New York is engaged in a multi-year battle to end testing at elite schools in the Big Apple.

It is true that a lot of criticism of meritocracy comes from the left. “The use of standardized tests to measure skills and intelligence is one of the most effective racist policies ever designed to degrade black minds and legally exclude black bodies,” writes Ibram X. Kendi. But Mr Wooldridge also cites conservative populists who are equally troubled by meritocratic systems. “50 years ago, the SAT pulled a lot of smart people out of every small town in America and funneled them into a few elite institutions, where they married, had children, and moved on. in an even smaller number of elite neighborhoods, “argues Tucker Carlson.” But the problem with meritocracy [is that it] unleashes all the empathy in your company.

Meritocracies were not designed to degrade and exclude. Rather, the objectives were to replace a system heavily based on favoritism and nepotism, to treat people as individuals rather than members of groups, and to distribute opportunities according to their abilities and talents. “For millennia, most societies have been organized on principles very opposed to meritocracy,” writes Wooldridge. “People have inherited their positions in fixed social orders. The world was ruled by royal dynasties. The plum works were bought and sold as furniture. Nepotism was a way of life. Upward mobility was discouraged and sometimes prohibited.

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