Review: Meritocracy is a Myth
In the 18th century, French revolutionaries violently overturned centuries of feudal privileges by declaring that all men should be equal and that all careers should be open to talent. The inhabitants of today’s capitalist elite who frequent the World Economic Forum, argues The Economist’s Adrian Wooldridge, are turning back the clock. The new type of aristocracy is equally non-inclusive, let alone apologetic.
“The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World” by Wooldridge argues that raw intelligence is the defining quality of the modern era, straddling East and West, and fueled by belief meritocratic that the brightest should reach the top. Yet this seemingly reasonable system has a flaw. A growing proportion of the great fortunes are in the hands of people with superior brains or higher degrees, who use their wealth and power to enroll their children in the best schools in the world.
The richest man in the world, Amazon.com (AMZN.O) founder Jeff Bezos graduated summa cum laude from Princeton. Six of the seven great Russian oligarchs of the 1990s obtained degrees in mathematics, physics or finance. Prime Ministers Boris Johnson and David Cameron are both from Britain’s best-known public school, Eton College.
Fair enough. Yet, as a first-rate education becomes the essential condition for a better job, the rich can buy educational privileges for their children. Managers, lawyers and bankers then take their success, and that of their offspring, as clear proof of their intellectual superiority. Wooldridge fears that a new aristocracy will do what aristocracies do – pass their privileges on to their children – but in a meritocratic and educational guise that makes it harder for the poor to mourn their plight.
The statistics are daunting. With the exception of a brief period of success in the post-war years, universal education appears to have failed in its mission of fostering advancement regardless of social background. Britain, which continues to cling to a dual system of free public schools and expensive public schools, is one example. Eton or Rugby, whose annual fees easily exceed $ 30,000, host only 7% of the country’s student population. These students get half of the places available at top UK universities in Oxford and Cambridge.
This is reproduced elsewhere. In the United States, 38 elite colleges now have more students from the richest 1% of the population than from the poorest 60%. At Harvard, the average parental income is $ 450,000. China, where 2.5 million citizens in the 17th century passed a demanding national exam to become an Imperial Mandarin, maintains this approach with the rigorous “gaokao” university entrance test passed by more than 10 million. students every year. However, village children or students whose parents cannot afford additional tutoring are less likely.
Some form of school testing to select the brightest is advised. At the tertiary level, things at least changed from 1837, when the future 10th Earl of Wemyss was only asked about his father’s health during his successful interview for a place at Christ Church College, Oxford. But given the financial ability to give the offspring access to schools that can make entry to Oxbridge much more likely, it’s naive to think that everything has changed.
The incessant rise of intellectual elites, to the detriment of the less well-off or less educated population, has had tangible consequences. The election of former US President Donald Trump, Brexit and the rise of populist movements in Europe are in part a revolt of those left behind. In Italy, the ruling Five Star Movement has successfully campaigned against the “competent” leaders it blamed for the country’s economic stagnation. Wooldridge says a cultural revolt against a cognitive elite “smart pants” has overtaken other types of class resentment. The closure by French President Emmanuel Macron of the National School of Administration, which has trained generations of French presidents and ministers, is one example: it was in part a response to the months-long protests of the anti-movement movement. elite of “yellow vests”.
Most of Wooldridge’s book is about diagnosing this problem. But he does make some helpful suggestions on how to rebalance the system. British public schools, he argues, should massively increase the number of scholarships they offer. Despite the charitable status and the tax benefits that go with it, only 1% of their students paid all their fees in 2019. Half of their places should instead go to bright students who cannot afford to pay. costs, argues the author.
Some of Singapore’s ideas may also be worth pilfering. The country is asking bright students to pay back state scholarships for study abroad by taking public office before becoming millionaires. It also selects teachers in the top third of each class, to ensure high standards.
Meritocracy as a system may not be fixable, as it by definition creates those who not only lose but think it is their fault. To maintain its ubiquity, governments will need to either tax inheritances or find a way to make education a less elitist club.
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– “The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World” by Adrian Wooldridge was published by Allen Lane on June 3rd.
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