Fake Merit?

This week, I’ve been reading Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy, by Christopher Hayes.  He asserts that meritocracy–the belief that the best and brightest among us deserve outsized rewards, because they’ve earned them–is the root of our problems, and that a program of government equalization is necessary to restore balance.

I read on, even though I didn’t agree with his premise.  I believe in the concept of the meritocracy: I like to believe that I’ve gotten where I am in the world through my wits and my skills.  My mother always used to say, “You’re only as good as the good you do.”  And I believed her.  But Hayes is right: something has gone seriously wrong.  Our best and our brightest seem to be the root of our problems.  Instead of actually improving things, they bring chaos and dysfunction.

A local news item provided an insight.  A group of students at Stuyvesant High School (where I went years ago) were found to be cheating on their state Regents exams by photographing the test papers with their phones, and sharing the tests (which are supposed to be kept secret) and the answers.

It isn’t that merit, and meritocracy, are bad.  It’s that merit has become debased.  Fake merit has overtaken and displaced real merit.

Real merit is hard.  When I was in Stuyvesant, the Regents exams were understood to be a challenge to us as individuals.  We studied; we followed the rules (most of us, anyway); we earned our scores.  More generally, achievement in the real world is hard.  The laws of physics are ruthless.  The court of physics admits no pre-trial motions and no continuances.  Verdicts are instantaneous and final.  And if you don’t like the result, the only alternative is to try, try again.  And in every field of productive endeavor, it’s true.  Engineering is hard, but so are railroading, running a factory, baseball, ballet and rock music.

But fake merit is easy.  Sharing pictures of the test papers is easier than actually studying math and physics and chemistry and French.  (And after all, the idea of taking an exam as an individual is kind of archaic: doesn’t everybody understand that collectively we all know more than any of us knows as an individual?)  Investment is hard; running a Ponzi scheme is easy.  Making real music is hard; making noise, then hiring a press agent to make people believe that it’s music, is easy.

Through fake merit, it’s easier to claim greater achievements than if you actually went and did the work.  And people will hold you in higher esteem, as if your fake achievements were  real… at least until the roof falls in.

It isn’t the meritocracy that has let us down, it’s the concept of merit itself.

3 thoughts on “Fake Merit?”

  1. Your parents and your initial social position matter hugely in life. Ann Richards noted of George H.W. Bush that he was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple. It’s a funny line, but it does point out the importance of one’s background.

    More troubling are the skills that are valued, and how they have changed over time. “Buzz” is more important than substance.

    I found that the effort required to cheat on a test was less than the effort required to learn the material. More accurately, I found that by the time I had finished my “cheat sheet”, I knew the material and no longer needed to cheat. It is now easier to cheat than in my youth.

    More and more tests are going to multiple-choice, machine-readable formats to make it easier to grade the tests and cut down on the number of arguments over partial credit. The professional engineering licensing exam used to be eight “essay problems”, which were multi-part problems that were graded by hand. If you were within 3 points or so of passing, you could request a regrading of your exam. Beginning in 2003 or so, the PE exam began to be a multiple choice test, as the EIT (now FE, for Fundamentals of Engineering) exam had been for at least 20 years previously.

    If you want to get really depressed, see what students were expected to learn in high school a century ago. Most people didn’t get past the equivalent of sixth grade, so you had a different class of student.

    The only conclusion that I can reach is that those who cheat and don’t get caught will enjoy at least a short-term advantage over the non-cheaters. Eventually, it will catch up with them. The cheating rings break down over time, but the advantage that they gain may be enough to sustain them for a long time.

  2. I have seen things my grandparents learned and it’s things I often didn’t learn until later. Neither one graduated high school (my grandpa dropped out right before graduation to join the navy in WW2 and my grandma had to drop out to work)but knew more by then than the average college grad today. I know too when I got to college many of the 101 classes (these are the beginning classes for anyone who doesn’t know)were identical to what I studied in high school.

    That is true that it depends on where one is born in life. A rich white male will always be a chosen one, whereas someone who is say a black woman from the projects will always have to work three times harder. As a white woman from a middle class suburb I always had to prove myself more than even my brother.

  3. I remember the design exercises in the PE test: I took mine in 1990. I burst out laughing during the test when I read one of the questions: it was exactly the same as it was in my review book, and the answer in the book was wrong. But someone had to spend time and effort to review the answers: yet another cost that can be trimmed.

    The horror of what has happened to education in the US is a saga for another day. It can’t compare to what it was 50 or 100 years ago; it can’t even compare to what it was when I went to high school in the late 1970s.

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