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George Will

George F.Will: Meritocracy & college admissions

| Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018, 9:00 p.m.
People walk near Memorial Church on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.  (AP Photo | Steven Senne)
People walk near Memorial Church on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. (AP Photo | Steven Senne)

WASHINGTON

Chemist James Conant was deeply involved in World War I research on poison gas and World War II's atomic-bomb development. His most disruptive act, however, may have come when he helped put Harvard University, and the nation, on the path toward a meritocracy by advocating adoption of the SAT.

As his granddaughter explains in her new biography, “Man of the Hour: James B. Conant, Warrior Scientist,” the Harvard at which he, from a middle-class family, matriculated in 1910 was a place of insufferable snobbery and mediocrity. He became Harvard's president in 1933 at age 40, hoping standardized tests for admissions would mitigate the large degree to which enrollments reflected transmission of family advantages. Ninety-two years after the SAT was first offered, it seems to have only slightly modified the advantages transmitted.

The Brookings Institution's Richard V. Reeves says in The Chronicle of Higher Education's Review that colleges and universities are “perpetuating class divisions across generations” as America develops what The Economist calls a “hereditary meritocracy.” It is, however, difficult to see how something like this can be avoided. Or why it should be.

Also in the Review, the University of Oklahoma's Wilfred M. McClay decries higher ed's “dysfunctional devotion to meritocracy,” which, “while highly democratic in its intentions, has turned out to be colossally undemocratic in its results” because of “the steep decline of opportunity for those Americans who must live outside the magic circle of meritocratic validation.” Yet students from the bottom 60 percent of households ranked by earnings are 17 and 15 percent, respectively, of students at the public University of Michigan and University of Virginia; at Yale and Princeton, 16 and 14 percent, respectively.

In “A Theory of Justice,” John Rawls argued that “inequalities of birth and natural endowment are undeserved.” So, social benefits from such endowments are justified only if the fortunate's prospering also improves the less fortunate's lot. Rawls' “natural” endowments included advantages resulting from nurturing families. But as sociologist Daniel Bell warned in 1972, “There can never be a pure meritocracy because high-status parents will invariably seek to pass on their positions, either through ... influence or ... the cultural advantages their children inevitably possess.”

Impersonal meritocracy using ostensibly objective standards can feel ruthless and be embittering: Those who do not flourish are scientifically stigmatized. And as information's acquisition and manipulation become increasingly important, information's benefits accrue disproportionately to those already favored by aptitudes, both natural and acquired through family nurturing and education.

We actually want the gifted and accomplished to ascend, and do not want to discourage families from trying to transmit advantages to children. The challenge is to ameliorate meritocracy's severity by, among other things, nuanced admissions policies at colleges and universities that seek to supplement some students' meager family advantages.

George F. Will is a columnist for Newsweek and The Washington Post.

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