Tyranny of the Meritocracy


Lani Guinier, in her new book, The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America, raises the question: what is the purpose of higher education? Is the purpose of education to cultivate an informed and engage citizenry? Is the purpose to prepare laborers to participate in the marketplace? Or is the purpose of education to reproduce social hierarchy based on academic credentials? A look at our overreliance on standardized testing—the creep from college admission testing down into the lower levels of elementary education—suggests the third option. Despite our reliance on standardized tests, such as the SAT for college or the LSAT and GRE for graduate school, to decide school admission, these tests are actually a very poor predictor of who will do well in college and graduate school. Rather, if we are honest with ourselves, these tests are more accurately used to determine deservedness. Students who score well on these tests may or may not do well in higher education. But students who score well on these tests “deserve” to be admitted to a “good” school. Standardized tests become another tool of “entitlement.”

What would it look like if the purpose of higher education were to cultivate an engaged and informed citizenry – not just to reward those who have already had access to opportunities? In a recent Supreme Court case about race conscious admission in higher education (Fisher v University of Texas, 2012), Justice Clarence Thomas argues that using a criterion such as race in admissions decisions does a disservice because it leads to a mismatch. You can read more about Fisher here, but this mismatch argument is what is interesting, and we use it more broadly than in race considerations. The idea is that when we consider criteria other than, say high test scores, (think race, or class, or service in the community) we run the risk of admitting students who are not academically prepared and are thus a mismatch to the schools and all of the high-achieving students. We weed out those un-deserving students for their own good—so that we don’t set them up for failure.

We like this argument because by using something like test scores, we can imagine that we are using objective criteria. Test scores are objective. Students who do well on test scores are smart and hard-working. They deserve to be admitted into institutes of higher education. The higher the score, the more competitive the school. Except test scores are not an objective measure of smartness or hard work. Test scores are more a measure of family wealth than anything else. (Read about that here and here and here and here. Oh, and here.) Yes, there are exceptions. But let’s be real: on a macro-level, test scores are a measure of wealth—not intelligence, not hard work, and not deservedness.

But what if the goal of admissions teams at institutes of higher education were not simply to cull the unprepared and reward the high achievers? What if the goal of admissions were to foster democracy and this cultivation of an engaged and informed citizenry? And what if the purpose of institutes of higher education were to take a diverse and complimentary student population and to actually prepare them for collaboration and achievement in the world?


About Kimberly

I am a Unitarian Universalist minister. I currently serve the UU Congregation of the South Fork in Bridgehampton, Long Island (NY). I hold a M. Div. from Meadville Lombard Theological School. I also teach Women's and Gender Studies as an adjunct professor at New Jersey City University. Wherever I am, I preach and teach about systems of oppression and the transformative power of love to change our world. Some people, who've seen me at work, think I have some promise. Go figure.

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