The failed fantasy of pure meritocracy

From a post on a New York Times blog specifically about college admissions:

My daughter is a senior from a public school with a class size of 589. She has a 4.0 GPA with mostly advanced and AP classes, except required classes. She has an SAT of 2,250, ACT 36. So she is a National Merit finalist, President Scholar candidate, and a winner of MI Southeast Conference All Academy Award (only five students in her school win). She is a cellist in symphony orchestra and a varsity crew member on the rowing team.

Yet she was rejected by four Ivy schools and put on the waiting list for the University of Chicago. What went wrong? Her counselor was stunned by her rejection. What should she do to get off the waiting list?

Answer:Your daughter sounds like a terrific scholar, musician, and athlete. The world of selective college admissions is so hyper-competitive that trying to read the tea leaves about why decisions were rendered is almost impossible…

One feels sorry for the daughter, she is such a quantitatively perfect person. Her SAT score is higher than most graduate students’ monthly incomes. She has perfect grades. She has perfect stats. She has more honors and decoratations than a military veteran. She comes from a public school, so she isn’t too marked by obvious badges of class status. She appears, at least to her parent, as a completely flawless unit ready for insertion into what was, evidently, expected to be a flawlessly meritocratic system.

Such was the strength of the expectation, that perfect preparation equals perfect success, that its failure provokes a moment of stunned incomprehension. “What went wrong?” On one level, this question is rhetorical, even performative: the parent already knows what went wrong: their daughter didn’t get in where she was supposed to. The very question what went wrong? presupposes an assumption that the daughter could not possibly have been rejected, projects an image of a world that functions automatically, a giant sorting system in which the best reliably get what they deserve.

The system is fake, to state the obvious. For one thing, because the qualities that make one a perfect student are themselves not evenly distributed from equal starting points; rather they’re a function of family background, class status, home town, gender, race… The response to her letter read in part: “Gender does play a role and it is simply more competitive for young women at most places these days.” I wasn’t aware of that but I guess it’s not surprising, given statistics that more women than men are going to college.

But these kinds of systematic biases are relatively minor flaws in the meritocracy compared to its real problem, which is that sometimes it just doesn’t produce the reliable result one expected, sometimes it doesn’t pick people who seem to be the best, sometimes its results are shocking, random, arbitrary. This arbitrariness is understood by the people making the choices between applicants, I think, but is viscerally felt much more by the system’s rejects.

One feels sorry for the daughter, or at least for her parent, whose fantasies of vicarious success seem to be developed to a high degree. It doesn’t seem to occur to people like these to long for a world where higher education wasn’t organized as a massive meritocracy, where the education was more even in quality across different institutions, where a few overvalued elite institutions (and I should know, having gone to two of them now) get more credit than they deserve. There seems to be no chance of a political analysis of class reproduction occurring in this situation. Ultimately, it’s not just the daughter’s rejection that’s shatteringly arbitrary, it’s the whole system of higher education that comes to appear like a castle in the clouds, a fantasy world of success more longed for than understood.

14 thoughts on “The failed fantasy of pure meritocracy

  1. I think it’s important to note that not only do girls attend institutions of higher education in higher numbers, they tend to outperform their male counterparts in every subject. The competition from other women is much, much higher.

    And no, higher education isn’t a meritocracy. Of course it isn’t. But what ever is?

    1. Well, of course pure meritocracies are few and far between. But what makes it a topic worth discussing is simply that the fantasy of there being perfect meritocracies is one which plays a major, real role in a lot of people’s lives and worldviews. Such as the letter discussed here! Also, I don’t doubt that there are systemic gender differences in scholastic performance, but the gap may not be so very wide at the elite schools. Worth further investigation. Of course, there isn’t necessarily a lot of competition once one is IN college — especially in non-quantitative subjects, they don’t tend to grade on a curve.

  2. Eli,
    Sorry we weren’t able to get togehter while you were in town.
    I think meritocracy as myth within and surrounding higher education is subject worth a lot of scrutiny.
    take care,

  3. hi lauren, yeah, good question. To be perfectly honest, at first I had just typed “mother” without thinking, but then I noticed that there were actually no overt cues to the letter-writer’s gender so I inserted some last-second qualifications without really dwelling on it. So if I have to guess about my unconscious assumptions… it could just have been a metonymic thing where I wrote “mother” because the letter is so full of references to “daughter” and “she”… or maybe because I assumed that it’s usually mothers who are the big advocates for their children in school. And I don’t know how this matters. But do you have any further thoughts?

  4. I did–the shallow part of my response goes to our off-site conversations about the place of casual misogyny (loose, inexplicit, unthought-through presumptive skepticism toward women) in educational contexts.

    I had actually read the letter you cite as by a father, not a mother, so I was surprised when you wrote that, and I thought immediately that your disgust resonated with conventional responses to demands and ambitions that come from women. Fathers are big upward mobility freaks too, you know. Anyway, one of the normative ideologemes of the (heteronormative) family is the desire to have generation Y do better than generation X: it’s a sign of the previous generation’s success that they provided a launching pad for the next one’s ascent. All that’s gone now, and lots of these articles about haywire in admission standards from preschool on are manifestations of despair that it’s hard to know what to do to get in line to add up to something more than what’s already there. Now people are desperately fighting against their children’s downward mobility, and they know it, and it feels tragic.

    So the gender thought is not my main thought–it wasn’t even a thought, really. My main thought was about your last sentence, about higher education as ” a fantasy world of success more longed for than understood.”

    I actually think they do understand something about it. It’s not about education. It’s about credentials and networking for the next generation of managers. It still matters a lot economically *that* one goes to college; and what happens later still sorts out laterally, insofar as many people establish networks that carry them through the next decade or two, if they’ve had an elite education, or joined fraternities, etc.

    What they don’t understand, I think, is that their daughter was establishing not superiority but the minima for elite academic institutions. Getting admitted now is like getting a job as faculty. To get in the door you need a vita like what she has. But then there’s still the fantasy of the “je ne sais quoi” of excellence that people are still supposed to radiate. That part was neglected by the parents. They just thought that a long vita equalled a high result. They didn’t know that that was just the price of the ticket.

  5. Hi Lauren, a couple of very belated extra comments on this:
    1) I changed the post so that it just says “parent” instead of mother. On reflection it seemed needlessly problematic to make claims about the gender and, anyway, irrelevant to the argument.
    2) I think my tacit notion of “understanding” was like phenomenologically rich acquaintance with a situation, the sense in which you can’t easily understand something you haven’t experienced. The sense in which, to be more concrete, college applicants can’t understand college without going there. But as you’re tacitly pointing out, that’s not the most useful theory of knowledge to use in analyzing these kinds of class aspirations, which can run on a distanced, abstracted kind of instrumental knowledge (go to college -> getting credentials -> jobs) and don’t necessarily depend on rich experiential acquaintance with the everyday life of college education.

    Seems like there’s room here for interesting further reflections on what kinds of epistemologies are invoked in making college choices and on how these epistemologies may not always reliably lead to good ends. But of course, from a quasi-economistic perspective, it’s not cheap to acquire the phenomenologically rich knowledge of first-hand acquaintance with a college, and the opportunity costs of this knowledge may well outweigh its benefits in making college choices. Which is why kids end up in the weird epistemological compromise of the college visit, a fleeting but nonetheless experientially rich situation. The campus tour is of course boring and crass when analyzed from the POV of commodification of higher learning — it’s so obviously a mystified packaging ritual, after all. (There’s an ethnographic study out there on this topic, unsurprisingly.) But perhaps the campus visit is much more interesting if thought of as an epistemologically significant event in the life of an applicant, since it embodies an interesting resort to the data of first-hand experience. To borrow your phrasing above, it’s as if the applicants on their tours were in search not only of the statistically superior college but also of the je ne sais quoi of the incalculable college experience. Of course, the typical capitalist irony here is that this ephemeral, incalculable, seemingly qualitative *experience* is something for which students have to pay a very calculable and definite sum of money…

  6. Sure, we feel bad for the young woman and her parents because they didn’t get what they expected, and arguably, earned. Nobody thinks that every college admissions decision is correct.

    My response is:
    Give colleges, and the students that attend them, the chance to prove that people have been underestimating them. Right now people go on reputation, to a large extent, because they lack better information. With better information, employers will choose better workers, colleges will choose better students, and students better colleges.

    What exactly, is your policy prescription?

  7. Hi Mike, good to hear from you. Still want to discuss Bousquet in more detail. Anyway, look, personally I don’t feel sorry for this student because she didn’t get what she wanted, and I don’t think the admissions decision in question was necessarily “wrong” from the admissions POV. As other commenters have pointed out, her qualifications, good though they were, may not actually have been sufficient for admission to the really elite universities, with their outlandishly lavish admissions expectations.

    But anyway, what I feel sorry for is simply that she and/or her parents were so completely captive to a fantasy in which her quantitative test scores were supposed to so reliably determine her future. I think people over-invest in the idea that everything can be calculated and ranked. I feel bad for such people. They invariably discover that ostensibly meritocratic processes fail to be completely quantitative and predictable. You know what I mean? That was my point in the original post: to point out that a completely rational system of human classification is impossible, and to observe the absurdity of people getting upset when they find this out first hand.

    My policy prescription, I guess, is to abolish all forms of unilinear college ranking and all forms of unilinear ranking of high school students. Let there be a real plurality of evaluation systems; that might preclude people from getting so upset about the breakdowns in any one of them.

  8. Hi Eli,

    I’m confident someone has already sent a link to this article to you, but in case no one did (because we all assume someone else forwarded it) and in case your being in France has slowed down your intake of American media, here’s an article on college tours that seems relevant to the comments of this post:

    I’ve just discovered your blog and am enjoying catching up on your posts.

  9. Hi Brian,

    Yeah, thanks for the link! I hadn’t seen that, but it deserves a look. There are some amazing trends in college consulting firms these days — the campus tour consultants, the admissions consultants, the university branding/visual identity consultants, the consultants who do institutional research, etc. I posted a little bit about this here:

    thanks for coming by the blog. jealous to see that you are a freelance writer! that sounds fun.


  10. Hi,

    Thank you for a very inspiring blog. These admission systems seem like an interesting thing to look into, since I myself come from a different system. In Finland, like in many other countries, universities are publicly funded and for most subjects (1), you get in only by doing well in an entrance exam. In anthropology, this usually means an exam on an anthropology (text)book or two.

    1 In some cases, like, say, mathemathics, physics and engineering you get a substantial bonus from your matriculation examination grade of that subject. In many others, the bonus is much smaller.

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