by J. Pharoah Doss, For New Pittsburgh Courier
In 1958, sociologist Michael Dunlop Young wrote a dystopian book called The Rise of Meritocracy. Young depicted a future where merit, defined as intellectual talent and achievement, will be the central organizing principle of society. Merit will replace previous divisions of social class, creating a world where the merited power-holding elite will oppress a less merited underclass.
The book popularized the term “meritocracy,” but the term was supposed to be negative.
As time went on, those who wanted a society based on performance and achievement adopted the word “meritocracy” and promoted it as a traditional value, while those who wanted a more equal society were against “meritocracy” because they thought it led to inequality.
In 2001, it disappointed Michael Dunlop Young that the term “meritocracy” entered the English language with no negative connotation. Young said, “It makes good sense to appoint individual people to their jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others.”
It’s important to note that Michael Dunlop Young believed that merit-based advancement was good, and he distinguished that concept from the oppressive merited power-holding elite he depicted in his book. But the opponents of “meritocracy” make no distinction and have declared war on all forms of merit.
In 2015, Harvard law professor Lani Guinier wrote a book called The Tyranny of the Meritocracy. Guinier proposed redefining merit. She wanted the term to focus on collaboration instead of hyper-competition that rewards the wealthy. In 2019, Yale Law Professor Daniel Markovits wrote a book called The Meritocracy Trap. Markovits argued that “meritocracy” was a modern-day aristocracy responsible not just for rising economic inequality but also for political dysfunction.
People who disagree with these thinkers say that any alternative to “meritocracy” will make mediocrity the norm and excellence irrelevant.
A recent battle in the war on merit took place at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax, Virginia, when a large group of students were not told until late fall that the National Merit Scholarship Corporation named them “commended students.”
What is a “commended student”?
Each year, 1.5 million students compete in the National Merit Scholarship Program by taking a standardized test. 50,000 of the highest scoring students qualified for recognition, but only the top scorers get to compete for a Merit Scholarship Award. Another 34,000 students qualified as “commended students.” The “commended students” don’t qualify to compete for Merit Scholarships but their scores make them eligible for other awards. Unfortunately, all the students who applied for college early could not mark their “commended student” status on their applications.
Parents of these students want the school administrators fired, but Fairfax County Public Schools called the delay a “one-time human error” and denied claims that Thomas Jefferson officials intentionally kept information from 261 “commended students.”
The problem is the parents don’t believe it was a one-time error.
Arsa Q. Nomani, a contributor to City Journal, wrote “For years, two administrators at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology have been withholding notifications of National Merit Awards from the school’s families, most of them Asian, thus denying students the right to use those awards to boost their college admission prospects and earn scholarships.”
Nomani explained, “This episode has emerged amid the school district’s new strategy of ‘equal outcomes for every student, without exception’.” In other words, if all of the students aren’t “commended” it violates their no exception policy. Nomani also mentioned that school administrators implemented an “equitable grading” policy that eliminates zeros, gives students a grade of 50 percent for just showing up, and assigns a cryptic code of “NTI” for assignments not turned in.
Nomani called the district’s new strategy a race to the bottom.
Except it’s not a race, it’s the slow rise of American mediocrity.