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27 March 2019updated 08 Sep 2021 6:32am

How meritocracy caused the college admissions scandal

As Rousseau foresaw, the idea that some have climbed to the top through their own merit is an aristocratic ideology, not a democratic one.

By Michael Locke McLendon

Meritocracy may be the most cherished American ideal. To many people, the country epitomises a version of freedom based on the belief that anyone can climb to the top of the socioeconomic ladder through hard work and the development of their talents.

Since the mid-twentieth century, America’s colleges and universities have become a central part of this narrative. Educational success, the narrative runs, translates into economic prosperity. The recent college admissions scandal, in which the wealthy and famous schemed their way into top universities by bribing athletic coaches and cheating on entrance exams, has thus been interpreted as a frontal assault on meritocracy and the idea of America. We are all rightly disgusted.

While people have frequently repeated this interpretation since the scandal broke, it is wrong in important respects. Meritocracy is not a casualty of the admissions scandal. Instead, meritocracy is best understood as its root cause.

To understand this it is worth turning to the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his celebrated Discourse on the Foundations of Inequality Among Men, Rousseau argues that inequality engenders a potentially noxious passion termed “amour-propre”. Amour-propre literally translates as self-love, though it is often characterised as a combination of honour, desire for glory and vanity. Humans want to be admired and publicly esteemed, and they have existential desires that lead them to ask what their value is as a person.

One’s amour-propre is often realised through interpersonal comparisons of ability and fortune. People learn of their self-worth by competing with their neighbours at socially relevant activities. Roussseau accordingly conceives of social living as a never-ending competition for esteem in which everyone tries to be seen as the smartest, most athletic and most physically attractive.

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Today, this usually means earning a STEM degree at an Ivy League university and making millions in Silicon Valley or becoming a hot-shot lawyer on Wall Street. Those who manage such feats are deemed society’s best and brightest – and hence truly deserving of the lion’s share of societal rewards.

Many of Rousseau’s predecessors and peers believed amour-propre was a socially valuable passion because it encouraged competition. Properly channeled, it could cure poverty through increasing economic growth, promote cultural and technological achievements, and even encourage patriotism and moral virtue.

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Although Rousseau appreciated the power of ego and selfishness, he was more impressed by its potential to do harm. In fact, he believed that when combined with excessive inequality, amour-propre corrupted one’s personality. Specifically, he feared that the poor and those on the lower end of the ladder would become envious and jealous of their more successful neighbors.

But more worrisome for Rousseau are those deemed to be winners in the competition for esteem. They tend to develop ugly personalities, becoming arrogant and contemptuous of those beneath them. They define themselves by their talents and revel in their innate superiority.

Eventually, Rousseau thought the talented and wealthy would become obsessed with their superiority to the point that they would be cruel and take pleasure in dominating the lower classes by denying them the resources necessary for a good life or even destroying their livelihoods.

In the aforementioned discourse, Rousseau writes that “a handful of rich and powerful men… value things only to the extent that others are deprived of them” and accuses them of being “ravenous wolves” who try to turn their less fortunate neighbors into slaves that exist only to serve their needs. For Rousseau, what makes these folks so dangerous is their merit; the knowledge that they actually deserve social status is responsible for their arrogance and cruelty.

This perspective makes the behavior of the parents in the current college admissions scandal easy to understand. After climbing to the top of the social ladder through their own merit, parents develop an arrogant entitlement to everything society has to offer. They insist upon special treatment denied to everyone else—fancier cars, more exquisite vacations, better health care, and, of course, finer education. Buying their children a place at USC and Yale is yet one more luxury item they demand for being part of a truly deserving elite. 

After all, it is not like their children needed to attend these schools to maintain their standard of living; they could comfortably live off their parents’ largesse for decades. What is more, several of the children had little interest in education, or learning from leading scholars in the world. One was most excited about attending football games. And the entire admissions scandal seems to be motivated by little more than the idea that the wealthy are the best of the best, and hence merit the best society has to offer.

So what should we do about our meritocracy problem?

First, we need to understand that meritocracy is a classical aristocratic ideology, not a democratic one. Despite its relationship with equal opportunity, meritocracy is fundamentally about rewarding the most talented and skillful. If we are to honor democratic equality, then we must stop defining people primarily by their achievements and financial successes.

Ivy League students and the like should be reminded that they are not that special. While they should be congratulated on their hard work, they should also know that tens of thousands are just as deserving as they, and could easily have taken their slot if they had access to elite private schools or were handed a SAT prep book when they were 10.

Second, there is a great demand for world-class education. While only a sliver of the population can go to Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and so on, we can return to building more financially accessible, world-class state institutions that do not have admissions rates comparable to the Ivy League. In the 1970s, UC Berkeley admitted roughly two thirds of its applicants. There is no reason why we as a nation cannot invest in the construction of another round of great state universities to make that a reality again. 

Of course, one might ask, how can we afford to pay for these campuses? Well, I recently read about some people who seem to have lots of money lying around. It could be put to better use.

Michael Locke McLendon is professor and chair of the political science department at California State University, Los Angeles. He is the author of The Psychology of Inequality.

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland. Aaron is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the Higher School of Economics. He tweets @ajwendland.