Dear Commons Community,
Aziz Rana, a professor of law at Cornell University, has an essay in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education, entitled, Meritocracy in Obama’s Gilded Age. It examines the meritocracy issue in elite private universities and concludes that it is “troubling” in theory and practice. Here is an excerpt:
“The Obama administration’s vision of social mobility in America is bound up with a story about higher education. According to this story, elite colleges and universities are engines of American opportunity. They select the most talented and hardworking people, from across all backgrounds, and provide them with the training to achieve even the most “impossibly big dreams,” as Michelle Obama would say. There is truth to this account. Indeed, Barack Obama’s lived experience speaks to the possibility of meritocratic achievement. He is the multiracial child of a single mother from a middle-class background, who through skill and determination made it to top universities and eventually rose to the highest echelon of political power.
But this familiar story of higher education as a spur to social mobility blinds us to both what is pernicious and what is worth defending about the modern American university.
For starters, the meritocratic image of elite universities is troubling in theory and in practice. Even at its most idealized, social mobility — the chance for the naturally talented to rise to professional status through educational advancement — is deeply inegalitarian. This is because professional and high-status positions are inherently exclusive. For every person who makes it, many others cannot and are instead consigned to lower-status and lower-income work. Meritocracy, even without racial, gender, or intergenerational barriers, would produce a society in which power flows up to the few at the top. It rejects more-inclusive notions of opportunity and aptitude, and is ultimately nothing less than aristocracy by another name.”