Universities and Meritocracy

We take it for granted that people are free to use their abilities as they choose, and as a result, society as a whole benefits from their work and innovations. Progress depends on this. Today our lives are vastly better than those of our distant ancestors because individuals were free to try new ideas.

For most of human history, however, there was little or no freedom for people to advance through work and innovation. Our societies were arranged in strict hierarchies where individual accomplishment wasn’t encouraged. Everyone had a place and was expected to do just as his forebears had done. The family was what mattered, not the individual. A few families ruled by right—the aristocracy—and other families fit into slots in the social order.

There was no mobility and no change. Over tens of thousands of years, human life improved hardly at all due to rule by aristocracy. Merit was irrelevant.

That began to change about 600 years ago, as aristocracy was supplanted by meritocracy.  British author Adrian Wooldridge explores this tremendous development in his book The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World. While the book is not primarily about higher education, those institutions played an important role in the rise of meritocracy and, sadly, are now playing a role in its decline.

Wooldridge gets much right in the book, but also gets some things quite wrong. Let’s begin with the central term: meritocracy.

The literal meaning of the word would be “rule by people with the most merit,” but that’s not really accurate. In a free, liberal (in the true meaning of that word) society, people with great merit will prosper the most, but that isn’t the same as ruling over others. A liberal society permits individuals to succeed on their merits, but that success depends on the choices of people to deal with them. As soon as consumers decide to spend their money on new and better ideas, a “meritocrat” must either come up with something different or see his wealth begin eroding.

Just as “capitalism” was a term devised by its enemies, so with “meritocracy.” As Wooldridge explains, the word entered the language with a book by British leftist Michael Young in 1958. Young disliked the effects he saw of encouraging everyone to rise based on their mental capabilities. He thought that British meritocracy was undermining the working class by draining it of leaders who would bring about the nation’s complete transformation into socialism.

Since Young, a number of other intellectuals have argued against “meritocracy,” which is actually an argument against liberalism. Philosophers like John Rawls and Michael Sandel (both at Harvard) find meritocracy to be unfair and demand that government rearrange society so that “society’s rewards” are more equally distributed. What the anti-meritocrats don’t understand are the disastrous long-run consequences of retreating from a free society to one controlled by intellectuals like themselves.

Wooldridge worries that the attacks on merit from left-wing “progressives” and right-wing populists will go too far, killing off the incentives that are vital for continuing social and economic advance.  But he also worries that meritocracy is itself trending toward the stasis of old, writing, “The meritocratic elite is in danger of hardening into an aristocracy which passes on its privileges by investing heavily in education and which, because of its sustained success, looks down on the rest of society.”

I think that latter fear is overblown, and will return to it later.

What role does, or should, education play in meritocracy?

In aristocracies, Wooldridge observes, education was only for a very few. Plato famously advocated a society ruled by a trained elite. The masses were not to be educated; they were supposed to obey the “philosopher kings” who ruled over them. Plato’s assumption was that society would be optimally ruled by finding and educating “the best and brightest.” His system was never tried in ancient Greece, but we have come rather close to it in modern America.

From Plato’s time until the beginning of the Enlightenment, life changed very little under the rigid social order. Education was restricted to a tiny fraction of the population and the prevailing attitude toward innovation was expressed by English jurist Sir Edward Coke: “Hold all new ways and innovation suspicious.” The aristocracy liked things just as they were and opposed widespread education since it might make the poor discontented.

Today we have a meritocracy that’s defined principally by academic credentials rather than by actual accomplishments.

Despite that mindset of the rulers, smart people slowly began to profit from the use of their minds. The Jews were important in breaking down the feudal order. They had a natural reverence for education not found among Europe’s Christians and while they were excluded from the “world of degrees” in the universities of the time, they devoted themselves to practical skills in commerce. Those skills were crucial to economic development in the places where Jews were tolerated, first in Holland and later England, France, and other countries.

Merit was starting to play a bigger role in human affairs. Individual brains were being rewarded; who your ancestors were was fading in importance. A revolution in social philosophy occurred. No longer were people who made things and traded for a profit looked down upon. Wooldridge notes that the Protestant Reformation was a catalyst, both by encouraging literacy among the people and by removing the old stigmas against work and personal success.

As liberalism spread, so did prosperity brought about by the Industrial Revolution. But if you think that formal education had much to do with that, you’d be mistaken. Wooldridge notes that the great inventors and entrepreneurs of the day were “uneducated” men who happened to be good at figuring things out.

Nor did formal education play much of a role in the great economic growth in America. People of merit came to the fore mostly without much formal schooling and certainly no college study, men like Elijah McCoy, inventor of an automatic oiling mechanism for steam engines (source of the expression “the real McCoy”). For a long time after the creation of the land-grant universities across America and the establishment of business-oriented institutions like the Wharton School and Harvard Business School, most companies, Wooldridge reports, preferred to hire high school graduates and train them as needed internally.

What he doesn’t say is that many business leaders disdained college education, thinking that it ruined young men for hard work. (On that, see Edward C. Kirkland’s Dream and Thought in the Business Community.) American meritocracy was a spectacular success due to the country’s commitment to liberty, not due to any concerted effort at finding talent and “investing” in it through college education.

There were, however, people in Britain and the U.S. who thought that government needed to play an active role in finding and training the sharpest minds. In Britain, even the laissez-faire champion Richard Cobden wanted government intervention in education to maximize the nation’s strength, while the fervent socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb wanted the same thing in order to lead it into their egalitarian utopia. They disagreed with Cobden on economic central planning, but both favored educational central planning.

In the U.S., Thomas Jefferson thought that government needed to find and educate the “natural aristocracy” and the University of Virginia was such a move. (John Adams disagreed, arguing that the wisest and most talented would rise without any assistance; but with it, they’d become a force against liberty.) Later, many political leaders, from Woodrow Wilson to Lyndon Johnson and up to the present, would press for widespread “investment” in higher education and for policies that would entrust the educated elite with power to figure out the solutions to national problems.

Wooldridge has sympathy for this idea that government should find and train the smartest people. He writes, e.g., that John Maynard Keynes “invented a way of saving the economy from depression.” In truth, Keynes did nothing of the sort, but Britain, America, and other nations have repeatedly made the mistake of allowing statist intellectuals a free hand in directing public policy. Highly intelligent people often have blind spots, especially for their own limitations.

Today we have a meritocracy that’s defined principally by academic credentials rather than by actual accomplishments. Wooldridge documents the increasing opposition to meritocracy, which has both right-wing (populist) and left-wing (egalitarian) components. The former consists of conservatives who aren’t against rewarding people based on merit, but don’t like being ruled over and treated with contempt by those with degrees from elite colleges. The more serious danger comes from the left, led by intellectuals who argue that the traits people have for “merit” aren’t deserved. It was just luck that Bill Gates, for instance, inherited the genes he did. Government should ensure that those who weren’t so lucky get to share in the success of the meritocrats. Wooldridge rightly sees that as a harmful move.

He also worries that our meritocrats are solidifying their position in society by trying to guarantee that their children will get their advantages. They do so by getting them into elite universities, even if the kids don’t have nearly the required level of academic ability. That was the big point of the “Varsity Blues” scandal, which blew the whistle on schemes and scams to get children of wealthy parents into top schools by any means necessary.

Wooldridge assumes that this will work to protect rich families from ever falling, but he’s mistaken in his belief that elite college credentials will ensure success for the kids. America is still highly competitive and people are ultimately hired and paid based on their abilities, not on their academic credentials. On the other hand, people who don’t have such credentials can and do succeed, a point made by Frank Bruni in his book Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be which I reviewed here.

Summing up, higher education is neither so important to our future success, nor so much of a threat to it as Wooldridge thinks.

George Leef is director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.