That seems to be the emerging bipartisan consensus. “On the evidence we have, the meritocratic ideal ends up being just as undemocratic as the old emphasis on inheritance and tradition,” writes New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. “Our supposedly meritocratic system is nothing but a long con,” declares Alanna Schubach, a college-admissions coach, in Jacobin. “Merit itself has become a counterfeit virtue, a false idol,” argues Daniel Markovits, a professor of law at Yale University, in a new book, The Meritocracy Trap (Penguin Press). “And meritocracy — formerly benevolent and just — has become what it was invented to combat. A mechanism for the concentration and dynastic transmission of wealth and privilege across generations.”
An attack on meritocracy is invariably an attack on higher education, where meritocrats get sorted and credentialed. So the turn against meritocracy prompts big questions. Has meritocracy in fact failed? Is it time for universities to rethink the definition of merit, and, more broadly, higher education’s role in American life? Are meritocracy’s critics too sweeping in their indictment? Is it still — flaws and all — the fairest way to organize society? If we do away with it, what comes next?
We put these questions to 10 scholars and administrators from across the academy. Here are their responses.