Politics & Policy

How to Fix American Meritocracy

On the campus of Yale University (Reuters photo: Shannon Stapleton)
A focus on practical, systemic solutions will be more successful than efforts to change intangible societal attitudes.

Pillorying David Brooks has become something of a national pastime these days. At a moment when bitter partisanship infects all things, making fun of Brooks’s twice-weekly exhortations on the decline of moral virtue and whatever else the kids are doing these days may be one of the few communal experiences we have left.

The widespread mockery of Brooks’s latest column thus makes a kind of sense. On the back page of Tuesday’s New York Times, Brooks wrote of the way the “educated class” — others have called it the “somewheres,” or, more banally, “the elite” — uses complex codes of social interaction to govern its membership. We may focus on restrictive residential-zoning laws or the gauntlet of college admissions as barriers that close off this exclusive club, but the softer social mechanisms Brooks has in mind function in much the same way, and to much the same effect. Brooks being Brooks, he chooses a particularly bizarre anecdote to illustrate his case, focusing on a non-college-educated friend of his who was unfamiliar with the byzantine names of various Italian meats and cheeses at a lunch; he writes of how he saw her “face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named ‘Padrino’ and ‘Pomodoro.’”

As soft a target as Brooks makes himself, in this case his column is underpinned by two good points. The first is that economic regulations meant to keep the lower class away from upper-class bastions are a substantial, if not primary, driver of American inequality. (Zoning is an emblematic culprit here, but so too is our system of locally determined school districts, which does a very good job of both making access to high-quality schooling expensive and preserving the value of property purchased in wealthy districts.) The second is that social cues are important in the life of the educated class, whether you like it or not.

Just how important are they, though? As it happens, I attend Yale University, where Brooks teaches. His classes — not just his own enormously selective seminar, but also the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy, which accepts 40 of the most promising Yale juniors to be trained in the way of statesmanship before they ship off to McKinsey or Kissinger Associates and embark on successful careers in government — are among the most prestigious in the university.

In this rarefied atmosphere, social cues do matter quite a bit. I don’t mean the intimate knowledge of Lululemon styles or the names of cured meats in various Italian dialects that Brooks identifies; I mean a certain genteel smoothness, a comfort speaking on equal terms with men and women who have accomplished far more than you are ever likely to, and an unmistakable ability to pass off a comment containing very little substance as something of deep profundity.

But in other respects, Brooks’s narrative is less recognizable. Indeed, his argument often seems to miss the forest for the trees, mistaking the ultra-elite world of named professorships and high-end consulting companies for the one inhabited by the educated class as a whole. Even within the elite university, the argument frays at its edges. The Yale of the blue-blooded Anglicans is now but a distant memory, and though monuments to those more nepotistic days remain — the windowless tombs of Skull and Bones and similar secret societies, which Brooks bizarrely views as a model for American society writ large to emulate, are the most prominent examples — the school is now a relatively meritocratic place. Even the secret societies themselves attest to this, as the “tap lines” through which selections were once determined have atrophied and a more holistic approach to the apportioning of power and prestige has begun to take its place.

Getting poor kids into our top universities is a more pressing matter than effecting abstract changes in our cultural attitudes.

At the ultra-elite American university, the best people, by and large, tend to rise to the top. Yes, they might not ascend to the highest rung of the social ladder, on which wealth and ostentatious largesse still play an outsize role. But as far as academic accomplishment goes, the ones receiving the plaudits at graduation are generally the best in their field, the most deserving of recognition for the work they have done. Yes, many of these are the sons of lawyers or the daughters of architects, raised in Greenwich or Bethesda or Brookline. But heartily sprinkled in their midst are those who have come from lower-middle-class immigrant families in California, or from the farms of the Nebraska prairie.

How could we unlock the full potential of the American meritocratic machine? Not by changing the attitudes the educated class has toward the products it buys or the way members of other classes talk. Those shifts would have some effect, but it would be minimal and confined to the elite itself, rather than society as a whole. It would be more useful to do exactly what Brooks suggests in the earlier portions of his column: relax zoning laws so that more low- and middle-income people can have access to the economic and cultural amenities of wealthy neighborhoods, while rethinking our model of public primary and secondary education so that more children might be able to receive well-funded, quality educations. We can lessen the importance of social cues and cultural smugness within the educated class all we want. But until we address the underlying causes of American stratification — and recognize that those causes are consciously political in origin — our efforts are likely to be for naught. Getting poor kids into our top universities is a more pressing matter than effecting abstract changes in our cultural attitudes.

This isn’t to say that cultural capital broadly speaking has no importance at all, or that those imbued with it from a young age are entirely without an advantage. Elite universities place a high premium on this sort of knowledge; once the freshman sets foot on campus, time is of the essence and competition for spots in the most prestigious programs and social groups is fierce. There is an immense importance to knowing from the outset what you want to do and precisely how to do it. The magic that seems to surround the immensely accomplished at Yale is often nothing more than a long-established goal and a determination to reach it. For students from upper-class families, this is relatively simple: Having been raised in a certain milieu by a family and culture whose values and priorities match those of the elite university, they have a clear goal and a clear path to reaching it. For lower-class students, whose lives are often less firmly directed toward the dual pillars of finance and consulting, the challenge of forging a place at the university while also determining one’s future course can be daunting.

We have not yet fulfilled the ideal of Kingman Brewster, Yale’s greatest president, the man who did more than any other to create the modern meritocracy. It is not a system without flaws, nor is it a system in which those at the top are naturally inclined to yield to those below. But it is a stronger one than we typically give it credit for. If we want to improve it — and we should — we must focus on addressing the hard realities of our politics and economics rather than the amorphous deficiencies of our culture.

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