Meritocracy ensures the proper functioning of our systems and institutions. Throughout history, various civilizations have concluded that merit-based systems best contribute to the flourishing of a society. Both the imperial and post-Mao Chinese states, as well as the United States, are clear examples.
It is difficult to dispute that these nations both rose to prominence because of rooting their internal hierarchies in objective criteria. The present American trend of denigrating the value of meritocratic systems on equity grounds is deeply troubling for this reason. Nowhere is this trend clearer than in higher education.
The attacks on meritocracy in higher education come from multiple directions. Universities throughout the country are discontinuing the use of school entrance exams like the SAT because they are “racist.” The National Educational Association, the largest teachers union in the country, even peddles this argument.
One Harvard University professor has written an entire book explaining how meritocracy is a myth that needs to be reconsidered. Other college professors go so far as to call meritocracy an example of white supremacy. For someone consuming the predominant narrative, it seems that merit is a stumbling block for creating an optimal system of higher education.
And yet, nearly all the evidence points to the contrary. The No. 1 predictor of academic success in college is having achieved good grades in high school. Merit-based admission systems are more likely than holistic systems to admit underprivileged students. In the professional world, meritocratic fields like the military have the highest potential for minority advancement.
What is the catch? How can professors, activists, and universities argue convincingly that meritocracy harms students or advances white supremacy?
The short answer is, they cannot. Higher education has unfairly demonized meritocracy.
Historically, American universities have been devoted to high standards of academic achievement. Harvard University built its reputation as the most prestigious university in the world largely thanks to its extremely rigorous standards.
The values inculcated in the university bleed into society. It is no surprise that at the same time when universities pivoted toward using admissions tests in the 1950s (thus increasing the amount of meritocracy in the admissions process), America also saw its greatest leaps and bounds in terms of scientific and material development.
Prior to then, admissions to most of the prestigious educational institutions depended upon social class and legacy status. The adoption of objective standards such as college entrance exams changed this, and a culture of meritocracy and advancement based upon talent and effort accompanied widespread achievement.
What drives the backlash against meritocracy? I write in my new book “An Inconvenient Minority,” that Asian Americans “were able to disproportionately build wealth because of their acquired skills that are considered valuable in today’s economy; in short, by their merit.”
The argument for calling the SAT racist hinges on the fact that black and Hispanic Americans have much lower average scores than the national average. The unspoken flipside of that argument is that Asian American’s average scores are significantly above the national average, beating even whites.
Despite making up only 6% of the U.S. population, Asian Americans account for a whopping 60% of top scores. Whites, despite making up more than half of the country’s population, only account for 33%.
Historical privilege cannot explain why Asians outscore every race to such an extreme degree. Many Asian Americans today are first or second generation descendants of immigrants.
The Chinese Exclusion Act famously banned Chinese laborers from immigrating to the United States, and in many states it was illegal for Asian immigrants to own land all the way up until the 1960s. Most Asian Americans do not have historical wealth, privilege, or societal connections to draw upon.
But Asian Americans do have a cultural tendency to highly value meritocracy. In China, students’ entire academic and professional career depends upon how well they score on the gaokao, a standardized college entrance exam.
Asian immigrant parents in America recognize the importance of working to secure a good education, and thus encourage (or require) their children to study significantly more than children from other races. This is reflected in the data.
Asian American high school students study almost two hours per day on average, while white students study only for one hour, according to a 2017 Brookings Institution study. Black students only study for about 30 minutes on average.
Is it any surprise, then, that Asian American students outscore their peers? Of course, an unwavering commitment to meritocratic achievement and academic rigor would lead to better test scores.
These facts cause fear and resentment in the ruling-class elite. At a school like Harvard University where 36% of students are legacy admissions, studious Asian American applicants threaten to take away their access to the main pipeline to the upper class.
Stories of celebrities trying to buy their kids admission spots are a dime a dozen. Purely meritocratic admissions threaten the ability of the ruling class to reproduce itself in subsequent generations.
Instead of addressing it head-on by encouraging their children to study more or work harder (as Asian American parents disproportionately do), they utilize their social capital and media influence to convince everybody else that meritocracy is harmful.
But the Asian American story should bring hope and confidence in the value of hard work. Many of today’s Asian American students that did get into Ivy League universities are the children of refugees and immigrants. For many of them, their parents came to America only a few decades ago with no money, connections, or English language skills.
But those same parents knew that their children could have a better fate. They knew that raising their children to value hard work, study diligently, and commit themselves to achieving difficult goals would ultimately lead to them climbing to the top of American society.
Rather than decry meritocracy as a source of racial inequality, we should recognize the unique power that it has to develop both individuals and institutions to their greatest capacity. The best way to guarantee a future for underprivileged students is to promise them that if they work hard, they can improve their lives.
The greatest way to develop life-changing technologies and ideas is to make sure that the best and brightest are given access to institutions that support their growth. And the path forward to make our institutions of higher education the best they can be is to ground them firmly in meritocratic principles.
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