ack in February, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Program for Public Discourse convened a forum on “Meritocracy in Higher Education.” The event was hosted by Sarah Treul, a political scientist at UNC, and featured the New York Times opinion columnist Ross Douthat, the anthropologist Caitlin Zaloom, the philosopher Anastasia Berg, and the writer Thomas Chatterton Williams, the latter three of whom had written about meritocracy for The Chronicle Review a few months earlier.
This discussion took place before Covid-19 changed everything. But the topics — the definition of meritocracy, the role of universities in a just society, the composition of socioeconomic class, and the real purpose of education — are as relevant as ever. As we figure out what to make of our university system in the wake of this unprecedented crisis, this conversation offers an urgent and intelligent guide.
Sarah Treul: When I think of the meritocratic ideal — that social and economic rewards, rather than family status, should track achievement — it’s very much in alignment with the American dream, working hard, and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. But here, with the exception of Thomas, all of you seem to be against meritocracy, which is an increasingly popular opinion in American culture.