The Decline of Meritocracy in Education

November 10, 2019

 

Earlier this year in March, fifty individuals were charged with criminal conspiracy to illegally influence undergraduate student admissions at a number of elite American universities known as “Operation Varsity Blues.” Named after the 1999 coming of age film, the case investigates a series of bribes that allowed fraudulent standardized tests and false athletic admissions to occur. Apart from the high profile status of some of these individuals, including movie stars Lori Laughlin and Felicity Huffman, perhaps the most striking aspect of the case was the clear decline of meritocracy in the United States. Rather than entering these schools based on merit, through a combination of academic performance and test scores, students used advantageous resources around them to get into these elite universities. Though this represents an extreme case of privilege, it shows that elites still possess significant power over the educational system.

 

In order to understand the value that meritocracy has in the education system in the United States, one has to understand how its value has changed throughout history. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams sparred over how meritocracy functioned during the early days of the republic. Jefferson believed that a natural aristocracy existed among the general population, and it was important “to educate and cultivate them for leadership and public service.” Adams too believed the natural aristocracy to be inevitable, but extremely dangerous. As a result, he introduced the classical constitutional model to prevent the proliferation of this aristocracy(1). Jefferson emerged victorious in this debate, as people believed that the aristocratic groups would be a benign influence on the development of the country. Though post-revolutionary America certainly rejected anything that resembled hereditary, aristocratic rule, it cannot be denied that an aristocratic group maintained power in the United States, creating an abundance of leaders who possessed the values of merit. 

 

However, the question remains as to what quantifies merit. For an early Republican America, people who possessed experience, along with “skills, knowledge, character, wisdom, and civic virtue,” held a place in this meritocracy (2). While those qualities have persisted throughout the years, other educational requirements hoisted leaders to the top of the social and political ladder. Their qualifications evolved from “mastering Latin and Greek, to having the right ‘character’ and proper social background, to high test scores and grades.” As society transformed during industrialization and wartime in the 20th century, the values that the public wanted in their leaders shifted. It was the introduction of the G.I. Bill of Rights in 1944, which “guaranteed war veterans tuition and a living allowance” that vastly increased the demand for a college education (3). World War II, the stimulus for the bill, provided a turning point for the value of education and, specifically, the value of standardized testing in the college admissions process. Consequently, the qualifications for jobs ranging from medicine to law to accounting began to include a college degree, which, in turn, required people to take these standardized tests and create a marker for their academic progress (4). 

 

It is with the institution of these tests that the value of meritocracy has decreased. As strategies for taking tests, such as the Scholastic Achievement Test (SAT), have emerged, wealthy individuals possess an enormous advantage due to their access to key resources. Critics have argued that standardized tests “do not measure abilities that are important for learning, such as motivation, imagination, and intellectual curiosity, and that the tests are biased against women, minorities, and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds.” They also fail to consider a student’s holistic academic performance and often provide lower predictive values as compared to class rank or grades (5). Though these standardized tests determine a student’s chances of getting into colleges, they allow for more inequities to shine through. The socioeconomic background of a student often determines the quality of primary education they receive, which can affect the amount of help they have in taking these tests. Students who have access to a greater variety of resources have the ability to score higher. 

 

In his article in defense of these aptitude tests, Steven Pinker highlights how test scores can “predict a vast range of intellectual, practical, and artistic accomplishments” (6). He argues that they provide a standard measurement of aptitude among students of the same age that determine their likelihood of success in college. However, students who belong to elite groups often possess more access to tools that give them a greater chance of success is the highly selective college process, such as expensive private tutoring classes. In this way, the United States has found itself in an education aristocracy where the elites have created an exclusionary process. Elites who possess “a unity and cohesion of consciousness and action,” because of their common backgrounds, have a greater hold on power (7). This idea of elite closure has tremendous implications on the people who eventually become leaders. If they all derive from similar backgrounds, they have little knowledge of the problems that minorities and those of lower socioeconomic background face and, thus, have less motivation to help them.

 

Operation Varsity Blues constitutes a rather small portion of the elite, but still serves as a reminder that the meritocracy in education has diminished into an aristocracy of elites. Little change can occur without education reform that equalizes the playing field and makes fair access to a college education a priority for all. 

 

 

  1. McClay, Wilfred M. "A distant elite: how meritocracy went wrong." The Hedgehog Review, vol. 18, no. 2, 2016, p. 36+. Gale Academic Onefile, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A458268320/AONE?u=bost84371&sid=AONE&xid=8291a30e. Accessed 15 Oct. 2019.

  2. McClay, Wilfred M. "A distant elite: how meritocracy went wrong." The Hedgehog Review, vol. 18, no. 2, 2016, p. 36+. Gale Academic Onefile, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A458268320/AONE?u=bost84371&sid=AONE&xid=8291a30e. Accessed 15 Oct. 2019.

  3. Alon, Sigal, and Marta Tienda. “Diversity, Opportunity, and the Shifting Meritocracy in Higher Education.” American Sociological Review, vol. 72, no. 4, 2007, pp. 487–511. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25472476.

  4. Bell, Daniel. On Meritocracy and Equality. Publisher Not Identified, 1972.

  5. Alon, Sigal, and Marta Tienda. “Diversity, Opportunity, and the Shifting Meritocracy in Higher Education.” American Sociological Review, vol. 72, no. 4, 2007, pp. 487–511. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25472476.

  6. McClay, Wilfred M. "A distant elite: how meritocracy went wrong." The Hedgehog Review, vol. 18, no. 2, 2016, p. 36+. Gale Academic Onefile, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A458268320/AONE?u=bost84371&sid=AONE&xid=8291a30e. Accessed 15 Oct. 2019.

  7. Reeves, Aaron, et al. “The Decline and Persistence of the Old Boy: Private Schools and Elite Recruitment 1897 to 2016.” American Sociological Review, vol. 82, no. 6, Dec. 2017, pp. 1139–1166, doi:10.1177/0003122417735742.

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