The Myth of American Meritocracy

The Myth of American Meritocracy, by Ron Unz.

Just before the Labor Day weekend, a front page New York Times story broke the news of the largest cheating scandal in Harvard University history, in which nearly half the students taking a Government course on the role of Congress had plagiarized or otherwise illegally collaborated on their final exam. Each year, Harvard admits just 1600 freshmen while almost 125 Harvard students now face possible suspension over this single incident. A Harvard dean described the situation as “unprecedented.”

But should we really be so surprised at this behavior among the students at America’s most prestigious academic institution? In the last generation or two, the funnel of opportunity in American society has drastically narrowed, with a greater and greater proportion of our financial, media, business, and political elites being drawn from a relatively small number of our leading universities, together with their professional schools.

The rise of a Henry Ford, from farm boy mechanic to world business tycoon, seems virtually impossible today, as even America’s most successful college dropouts such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg often turn out to be extremely well-connected former Harvard students. Indeed, the early success of Facebook was largely due to the powerful imprimatur it enjoyed from its exclusive availability first only at Harvard and later restricted to just the Ivy League. …

Meanwhile, there has been an astonishing concentration of wealth at the top, with America’s richest 1 percent now possessing nearly as much net wealth as the bottom 95 percent. This situation, sometimes described as a “winner take all society,” leaves families desperate to maximize the chances that their children will reach the winners’ circle, rather than risk failure and poverty or even merely a spot in the rapidly deteriorating middle class. And the best single means of becoming such an economic winner is to gain admission to a top university, which provides an easy ticket to the wealth of Wall Street or similar venues, whose leading firms increasingly restrict their hiring to graduates of the Ivy League or a tiny handful of other top colleges. …

Given such massive social and economic value now concentrated in a Harvard or Yale degree, the tiny handful of elite admissions gatekeepers enjoy enormous, almost unprecedented power to shape the leadership of our society by allocating their supply of thick envelopes. Even billionaires, media barons, and U.S. Senators may weigh their words and actions more carefully as their children approach college age. …

Entry into the US elite is by ideology more than academic achievement. Students with cultural markers indicating right wing or Christian politics (such as being a military cadet, or joining Future Farmers of America or a Christian organization) are often rejected despite outstanding academic achievement.

Our imagination is given substance by The Gatekeepers, a fascinating and very disturbing inside look at the admissions system of Wesleyan, an elite liberal arts college in Middleton, Conn. The author was Jacques Steinberg, a veteran National Education Correspondent at the New York Times, and now its editor focusing on college admissions issues. Although Wesleyan definitely ranks a notch or so below the Ivies in selectivity, Steinberg strongly suggests that the admissions decision-making process is very similar, and while his 2002 book described the selection of the Fall 2000 entering class, his afterword to the 2012 edition states that the overall process has remained largely unchanged down to the present day. Whether or not Steinberg himself recognizes it, the most striking fact — which would surely shock students almost anywhere else in the Developed World — is the enormous focus on ideology and ethnic background compared to academic achievement or evidence of intellectual ability, as well as the powerful role of “connections” and clout.

How the rulers of the Western world are selected.