About 25 years ago, I spent a memorable afternoon in London with Michael Young, the author of the strange 1958 dystopian novel in the form of a dissertation called The Rise of the Meritocracy, which introduced that term into the English language. In the United States, for years, people have liked to insist that wherever they work or go to school is a meritocracy, meaning, roughly, that they understand it as an open competition in which the most deserving succeed. Americans assume meritocracy to be an unalloyed good; the term implies a contrast to some past system or an era when success went instead to lazy inheritors, timeservers, or adept players of office politics.
Young, however, wanted not to celebrate meritocracy but to warn the world against it. He had the detached air of someone who has quietly noticed everything, and a sense of humor so bone-dry that most people missed it. By the time I met him, he was Baron Young of Dartington—an oft-noted irony. But intellectually, he was a creature of the post–World War II British Labour Party, in which he served as an important adviser on education, and of the impoverished East End, where he did his sociological research. He had been involved in the great expansion of the state-run school system after the war, which was an aspect of the broader socialist project aimed at creating structured mass opportunity for the first time in British history. It was in keeping with the tenor of the time that this effort relied on administering intelligence tests to masses of 11-year-olds, who were then each directed into what was, essentially, a blue-collar or a white-collar educational track and who would, when they were a few years older, take another set of exams that would anoint a small cohort as bound for higher education.