Saturday, February 9, 2013

The System That Dare Not Speak Its Name

I'm not sure I'm going to make it all the way through Chris Hayes's Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (Crown, 2012).  I know I said I was going to read it, but I got sixty pages into it yesterday and got so dispirited that I didn't want to go on.  I think he's mapped out his assumptions by the point I've reached, and they are what's wrong with the book.  Put simply -- and Hayes is not a complex thinker -- he believes that the United States is a meritocracy: that our rulers are people who showed that they were qualified to run a complex society and its institutions.  He keeps referring to our elites as "the meritocracy," begging repeatedly the question that they actually have merit.

This emerges very clearly in the second chapter, "Meritocracy and Its Discontents."  Hayes begins:
Whether we think about it much or not, we all believe in meritocracy. It is embedded in our very language: to call an organization, a business, or an institution “meritocratic” is to pay it a high compliment.  On the portion of its website devoted to recruiting talent, Goldman Sachs tells potential recruits that “Goldman Sachs is a meritocracy.” It’s the first sentence [31].
I presume that by that first sentence Hayes means that "we" all believe a meritocracy is an ideal to be worked toward.  If so, he may be right, as when he wrote a few pages earlier that meritocracy "is an ideal with roots that reach back to the early years of the Republic" (21), that people should achieve wealth and status through disciplined hard work, not have them assigned by accident of birth.  Or, as he also puts it, "In a meritocracy, people are judged not on the color of their skin, but on the content of their character. This crucial distinction between the contingent and essential features – between skin color and intelligence – appeals to some of our most profound moral intuitions about justice and desert" (51).

He goes on to offer what he considers a "compelling" argument, that meritocracy is not "necessarily fair, but rather that it is efficient. By identifying the best and brightest and putting them through resource-intensive schooling and training, we produce a set of elites well equipped to dispatch their duties with aplomb. By conferring the most power on those equipped to wield it, the meritocracy produces a better society for us all. In rewarding effort and smarts, we incentivize both."  He goes on to concede that "meritocracy in practice is something different.  The most fundamental problem with meritocracy is how difficult it is to maintain it in its pure and noble form" (52-3).  Before you can "maintain" a meritocracy, however, you have to achieve it.  Hayes only assumes that it has been achieved (for a few bright shining years in the Sixties, I gather), and this is not something that can be assumed; you need to provide an argument and evidence, which he doesn't do.

Instead he begins with a case study, the Hunter College High School in New York City, of which he is an alumnus.  (Along with many other well-known people, including Florence Howe, who wrote about her experience there in her memoir A Life in Motion.)  Rather flustered, Hayes describes how Justin Howard, a graduating senior at Hunter, delivered a commencement address in 2010 that challenged many of the school's pretensions.

Hunter, Hayes explains,
embodies the meritocratic ideal as much as any institution in the country.  It is public and open to students from all five boroughs of New York City, but highly selective.  Each year, between 3,000 and 4,000 students citywide score high enough on their fifth-grade standardized tests to even qualify to take Hunter's entrance exam in the sixth grade.  Only 185 are offered admission ...

Hunter is routinely ranked one of the best high schools in the nation.  In 2003, Worth named it the highest-ranking public feeder school, and Newsweek, in a 2008 evaluation of high schools, named it one of eighteen "public elites."  In 2007, the Wall Street Journal identified Hunter as sending a higher percentage of its graduates to the nation's top colleges than all but one of its public peers.  That year, nearly 15 percent of the graduating class received admission to one of eight elite universities that the Journal used for its analysis.  The school boasts an illustrious group of alumni, from famed Civil Rights activist and actress Ruby Dee, to writers Cynthia Ozick and Audre Lorde, to Tony Award winners Robert Lopez (composer and lyricist, The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (composer and lyricist, In the Heights), to West Wing writer and producer Eli Attie, to Supreme Court justice Elana Kagan [32].
Where do I begin?  Well, first and I hope most obviously, Hayes takes standardized tests very seriously: he seems to think that they actually measure merit.  In reality they measure ability to choose correct answers from multiple-choice options under intense time pressure in a competitive environment.  Marking in bubbles on an answer sheet -- neatly, neatly, don't get outside the bubble! -- while the clock ticks is indeed a skill of some kind (I did quite well at it myself in the day), but I'm not sure it is equivalent to "merit."  Hayes is sure it is.  He considers the SAT, for example, "an objective measure of the 'merit' of the applicant" so that "the nebulous subjectivity of the admissions procedure would be eliminated in favor of an equal, accessible, and objective metric" (37).  There is quite a large literature which explains why this isn't so, but Hayes seems not to be aware of it.  Well, nobody's perfect.  (For now I'll refer the reader to two articles by Alfie Kohn, available online, and to his book The Case Against Standardized Testing [Heinemann, 2000].)

Notice that the famous alumni Hayes names are not, in fact "crats," however much merit they have, except for Justice Kagan.  Poets, composers, writers: they contribute to our society, no doubt, but they don't rule it.  This is a problem that runs throughout his discussion.  Not only is he confused about what merit is, he consistently ignores the "-cracy" in meritocracy.  He's far from alone in doing so, of course.

Hayes also seems to want to impress the reader by how selective Hunter is.  Thousands apply, but only a few, the best! get in.  The best!  If only a few are let in, they must be really good, right?  And it proves that the school is good, right?*  He's so attached to this idea that he misunderstands Justin Howard's critique of the Hunter system -- or rather, of the system that produced Hunter, the system Chris Hayes mistakes for meritocracy.  Howard's entire speech is available online; I'll mainly stick to the portions Hayes quotes.  "I feel guilty," Hudson said,
... because I don't deserve any of this.  And neither do any of you.  We received an outstanding education at no charge based solely on a test we took when we were eleven-year-olds, or four-year-olds.  We received superior teachers and additional resources based on our status as "gifted," while kids who naturally needed those resources much more than us wallowed in the mire of a broken system.  And now, we stand on the precipice of our lives, in control of our lives, based purely and simply on luck and circumstance.  If you truly believe that the demographics of Hunter represent the distribution of intelligence in this city, then you must believe that the Upper West Side, Bayside, and Flushing, are intrinsically more intelligent than the South Bronx, Bedford-Stuyvestant, and Washington Heights, and I refuse to accept that [quoted by Hayes, 33].
Hayes reports that the "parents in the crowd were, not surprisingly, a bit taken aback.  The teachers offered a standing ovation.  Jennifer J. Raab, the president of Hunter College and herself a graduate of Hunter College, stayed seated" (34).  Hayes himself is indignant: "Unlike elite colleges ... entrance to Hunter rests on a single 'objective' measure: one three-hour test.  If you clear the bar, you're in; if not, you're not.  There are no legacy admissions, and there are no strings to pull for the well connected.  If [NYC Mayor] Michael Bloomberg's daughter took the test and didn't pass, she wouldn't get in.  There are only a handful of institutions left in the country about which that can be said" (34).

But Hayes is missing the point, partly I think because Howard didn't make it clearly enough.  I think he'd have preferred to miss it anyhow.  In one sense, I disagree with Howard: I think he and his fellow students do deserve the "outstanding education at no charge" that they received at Hunter.  But every other child in New York City, and indeed in the US and around the world deserves an outstanding education at no charge.  Not the same education, mind you, but an outstanding education that would bring out and nurture the capacities each child has.  Most children in New York don't get anything like that unless their capabilities match those valued by elite universities, which Hayes, begging the question, assumes to be merit.  This is the source of Howard's survivor's guilt, and Hayes misses it entirely.

Only 185 children are offered admission to Hunter each year.  That seems an arbitrary number, but I suppose it's the capacity of the school.  There is no reason why there couldn't be other good schools in the city, each admitting another 185 of those who've scored high on the entrance exam; even those who take the test in the first place have already been selected from the mass of students by the preliminary test they took in fifth grade.  There are other elite schools in New York, of course, like the Bronx High School of Science attended by Samuel R. Delany.  I imagine there could be even more, if there were the will to spend the money to establish them.

It's good that such schools exist, but there also need to be good schools for all the other children.  There aren't, and that's the root of Justin Howard's guilt and anguish.  This is especially true because we can't know in advance what any given child is capable of, though the testing industry and many educational "professionals" are built on the premise that we can.  Michael E. Young satirized this belief in the 1950s in his The Rise of the Meritocracy, which Chris Hayes has read but whose satire he can't quite grasp.  Young mocked the pretense of psychometricians to be able to identify children's potential at ever earlier ages.  Though it's well established that there is no measure, "objective" or otherwise, that can really do this, Hayes, like other believers in meritocracy, wants to believe that there is, or could be.  And one of the core features of meritocracy as an ideology is that those who rise in the hierarchy must be willing to accept the values of the rulers and leave behind the lesser, lower orders from which they came.  The values of the rulers must be meritorious, because they are the rulers' values and the rulers wouldn't be rulers if they didn't have merit, right?

"Hunter's approach to education rests on two fundamental premises," Hayes declares in his apologia.
First, kids are not created equal.  Some are much smarter than others.  And second, the hierarchy of brains is entirely distinct from the social hierarchies of race, wealth, and privilege.  That was the idea, anyway.  But over the last decade, as inequality in New York has skyrocketed and competition for elite education has reached a fever pitch, Hunter's single entrance exam has proven to be a flimsy barrier to protect the school's meritocratic garden from the incursions of the world outside its walls [35-6].
Hayes makes several blunders here.  First, different is not the same as unequal.  That people are not equally intelligent does not mean they are or should be unequal in terms of rights; Hayes's allusion to the opening of the Declaration of Independence shows that he either doesn't understand the difference (more likely, I suppose) or that he's deliberately blurring it (in which case he isn't as smart as he likes to think).  Second, there is not really a "hierarchy of brains" distinct from the "social hierarchies of race, wealth of privilege," especially since (as Hayes uncomfortably admits) the two are intimately connected, even intertwined where Hunter is concerned.  The percentage of black students entering Hunter dropped from 12 percent in 1995 to 3 percent in 2009, he reports on page 36.  Have black New Yorkers gotten 75% dumber in 14 years?  I doubt it very much, and even Hayes can't quite bring himself to say so.  (No doubt because of the "open-minded, self-assured cosmopolitanism that is the guiding ethos of the current American ruling class," that he says he "absorbed" at Hunter [35].)  Hunter isn't responsible for the growing economic inequality, with all its destructive consequences, of the world outside its walls -- or is it?  After all, its graduates are disproportionately represented among the elites who are responsible for the increase in inequality.  It appears likely that something important wasn't covered in that outstanding education they received.

I don't find that surprising.  Hunter isn't an alternative approach to education, it's a portal that admitted a few people who wouldn't have gotten past the old aristocratic sorting methods of the elite schools.  Hunter was founded at a time when the prevailing sorting methods were frankly racist and sexist; basing admission solely on test results was a good start, but it was only a start.  Its aim is to assimilate its students into the values of the ruling elites.  Remember that it was very intelligent, highly-educated products of the system represented by Hunter -- the "best and brightest" -- who invaded Vietnam and devastated Southeast Asia in the name of anti-Communism.  Just as George W. Bush's staff 'fixed the intelligence' to justify the US invasion of Iraq, the Pentagon Papers revealed that the Eisenhower administration fixed the intelligence, despite the absence of supporting evidence, to prove that Ho Chi Minh was a Kremlin agent; Kennedy's men bought this fabrication and ran with it as if it were a game of touch football.  Of course, very few of them died as a result of their brilliance.  (Most of the casualties, American or Vietnamese, didn't merit an elite education.)

Ursula K. Le Guin put it neatly in words she invented for the philosopher Odo in her novel The Dispossessed, originally published in 1974 (reprinted by Perennial, 2003, p. 358):
For we each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was ever piled in the tombs of dead kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger.  Have we not eaten while another starved?  Will you punish us for that?  Will you reward us for the virtue of starving while others ate?  No man earns punishment, no man earns reward. Free your mind of the idea of deserving, the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think.
These words leapt out at me when I first read them decades ago, because I'd recently encountered the same idea in Walter Kaufmann's Without Guilt and Justice, where he attacked "the idea of deserving" at length.  I don't expect Chris Hayes to have read either of these books, of course.  But he needn't have read them to have encountered some enlightening alternative views of ability, education, and social justice.

Hayes alludes a couple of times to the metaphor of the cream rising to the top.  So does the scum, but he prefers not to think about that.  In either case it is a metaphor which has dubious relevance to education or the running of a society.  He eventually claims that at Hunter, "over time the mechanisms of meritocracy have broken down. With the rise of a sophisticated and expensive test-preparation industry, the means of selecting entrants to Hunter has grown less independent of the social and economic hierarchies in New York City at large. The pyramid of merit has come to mirror the pyramid of wealth and cultural capital" (54).  This is all wrong.  There is no pyramid of merit, not even figuratively.  The "mechanisms of meritocracy" were never in place.  Perhaps Hayes believes that Hunter's entrance exam could be revised so as to weed out the kids who've been prepped for it, leaving only the truly, innately excellent -- but there is no reason to think so.  Hunter isn't to blame.  The fault lies with the system Hayes mistakenly buys into, no doubt because he has benefited from it: the hierarchy of wealth and power that justifies itself by declaring itself a meritocracy.  The merit involved can only be instrumental, the ability to carry out efficiently tasks whose value isn't open to question.  Should we invade this or that country?  Don't ask: the only question is whether we can do it efficiently.  I think Hayes is obscurely and uneasily aware of this, but isn't ready to challenge the values of the society that raised him up and gave him a platform to write books like this one.

Speaking of which, it looks like the next chapter will focus largely on professional baseball's doping scandals.  The ability to play baseball well is a merit easier to measure than the ability to govern a country well and wisely, but baseball players don't rule the country either.  I have to remind myself that what concerns Hayes is that our elites have let us down.  Say it ain't so, Joe!  I'm going to have to steel myself to keep reading.

* P.S.  On rereading this it occurred to me that while it was obvious to me that Chris Hayes was wrong to assume that Hunter's extreme selectivity was evidence of its merit, and of its students, it might not be obvious to everyone else.  Sarcastic rhetorical questions, while fun, aren't an argument.

So: suppose that Hunter still only admitted 185 new students each year, but did so purely on the basis of a lottery, a random drawing.  It would still be very selective, but no one would claim that this proved the "merit" of the 185.  Or suppose that admission was based on the ranking of the students' parents among New York City's wealthiest families.  (Or its poorest, if you like.)  There are probably people who'd argue that the richest have demonstrated their merit and their children have demonstrated theirs by choosing good parents to be born to, but I don't think Hayes would be one of them.  Selectivity by itself doesn't prove much; consider the negative associations of the word "exclusive," as in "exclusive country club."

Hayes claims (or assumes -- after all, he passed it, so it must be good!) that Hunter's entrance examination is an "objective measure" of the students' aptitude for the Hunter experience, but I doubt it: could it be any better than IQ tests or the College Board examinations, both of which are seriously flawed as measures of intelligence, intellectual ability, or scholastic aptitude?  If so, Hunter should share it with the world.  But here I'm only really concerned with his evident belief that selectivity is a good in itself.