Ross Douthat: How the meritocracy really works

By ROSS DOUTHATApril 8, 2013 

Susan Patton, the Princeton alumna who became famous for her letter urging Ivy League women to use their college years to find a mate, has been denounced as a traitor to feminism, to coeducation, to the university ideal. But really she's something much more interesting: a traitor to her class.

Her betrayal consists of being gauche enough to acknowledge publicly a truth that everyone who's come up through Ivy League culture knows intuitively -- that elite universities are about connecting more than learning, that the social world matters far more than the classroom to undergraduates, and that rather than an escalator elevating the best and brightest from every walk of life, the meritocracy as we know it mostly works to perpetuate the existing upper class.

Every elite seeks its own perpetuation, of course, but that project is uniquely difficult in a society that's formally democratic and egalitarian and colorblind. And it's even more difficult for an elite that prides itself on its progressive politics, its social conscience, its enlightened distance from hierarchies of blood and birth and breeding.

Thus the importance, in the modern meritocratic culture, of the unacknowledged mechanisms that preserve privilege, reward the inside game, and ensure that the advantages enjoyed in one generation can be passed safely onward to the next.

The intermarriage of elite collegians is only one of these mechanisms -- but it's an enormously important one. The outraged reaction to her comments notwithstanding, Patton wasn't telling Princetonians anything they didn't already understand. Of course Ivy League schools double as dating services. Of course members of elites -- yes, gender egalitarians, the males as well as the females -- have strong incentives to marry one another, or at the very least find a spouse from within the wider meritocratic circle. What better way to double down on our pre-existing advantages? What better way to minimize, in our descendants, the chances of the dread phenomenon known as "regression to the mean"?

That this "assortative mating," in which the best-educated Americans increasingly marry one another, also ends up perpetuating existing inequalities seems blindingly obvious, which is no doubt why it's considered embarrassing and reactionary to talk about it too overtly. We all know what we're supposed to do -- our mothers don't have to come out and say it!

Why, it would be like telling elite collegians that they should all move to similar cities and neighborhoods, surround themselves with their kinds of people and gradually price everybody else out of the places where social capital is built, influence exerted and great careers made. No need -- that's what we're already doing! (What Richard Florida called "the mass relocation of highly skilled, highly educated and highly paid Americans to a relatively small number of metropolitan regions, and a corresponding exodus of the traditional lower and middle classes from these same places" is one of the striking social facts of the modern meritocratic era.) We don't need well-meaning parents lecturing us about the advantages of elite self-segregation, and giving the game away to everybody else. ...

Or it would be like telling admissions offices at elite schools that they should seek a form of student-body "diversity" that's mostly cosmetic, designed to flatter multicultural sensibilities without threatening existing hierarchies all that much. They don't need to be told -- that's how the system already works! The "holistic" approach to admissions, which privileges resume-padding and extracurriculars over raw test scores or GPAs, has two major consequences: It enforces what looks suspiciously like de facto discrimination against Asian applicants with high SAT scores, while disadvantaging talented kids -- often white and working class and geographically dispersed -- who don't grow up in elite enclaves with parents and friends who understand the system. The result is an upper class that looks superficially like America, but mostly reproduces the previous generation's elite.

But don't come out and say it! Next people will start wondering why the names in the U.S. News rankings change so little from decade to decade. Or why the American population gets bigger and bigger, but our richest universities admit the same size classes every year, Or why in a country of 300 million people and countless universities, we can't seem to elect a president or nominate a Supreme Court justice who doesn't have a Harvard or Yale degree.

No, it's better for everyone when these questions aren't asked too loudly. The days of noblesse oblige are long behind us, so our elite's entire claim to legitimacy rests on theories of equal opportunity and upward mobility, and the promise that "merit" correlates with talents and deserts.

That the actual practice of meritocracy mostly involves a strenuous quest to avoid any kind of downward mobility, for oneself or for one's kids, is something every upper-class American understands deep in his or her highly educated bones.

But really, Susan Patton, do we have to talk about it?

Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.

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