Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Whaddya get?

Miss Self-Important has included me in the category of "everyone who's anyone," which is flattering. But she's also included me in the list of people across the political spectrum who oppose meritocracy, and... I don't oppose meritocracy.* I'm not sure which reforms would best get it functioning properly, but as an ideal, I prefer it to the alternatives.

Meritocracy fails when we care more about grades and test scores (which predict achievement) than accomplishments. But it also fails when we try and assess the "accomplishments" of high school juniors. It fails when all it does is replicates generations of elites, when children of doctors and lawyers do better than equally-talented-and-hard-working children of Kmart cashiers. When, in other words, it creates the illusion of far more social mobility than exists, thereby getting hopes up in vain.

But the newest criticism of meritocracy - or maybe not so new - is that meritocratic elites are simply the worst. Why the worst? Because they have all the same power as elites ever did, but they, unlike earlier elites, a) see themselves as ordinary folks and thus don't own up to their privilege, and b) believe that the system that got them where they are is entirely fair, entirely just, and therefore that they deserve their power. They, you know, merit it. (See also, from the New Yorker denunciation of billionaires who don't heart Obama, "America’s super-rich feel aggrieved in part because they believe themselves to be fundamentally different from a leisured, hereditary gentry.")

I don't find this critique all that convincing, because even if social mobility isn't 100% - and it's not - there's a huge difference between privilege passed down effortlessly and panicking, tutoring, etc. All this helicoptering is of course about preserving status across generations, but that ought to tell us that preservation is not a given. This gets us back into luck vs. privilege territory - one can be lucky in life, but if one was not born with privilege, one is arguably not privileged, just rich/lucky/etc. Also: it's not as if members of hereditary elites don't feel entitled to their status.

There's an older criticism of meritocracy, though: that meritocratic elites are illegitimate. Not in broken meritocracies, but in functioning ones. Those making this criticism tend to be - or to identify with, however implausibly - members of some older elite. It's a pro-aristocratic impulse, in other words, that finds all that UMC fuss about tutoring and prep courses to be crass and grasping.

The pro-aristocratic critique of meritocracy is plenty old, but has shifted in form: These days, it disguises itself as progressive. As in: if you want to complain about a system in which Asians - it used to be Jews - are "overrepresented," you can present this as being about underrepresentation of blacks and Latinos, even if your real concern is that Asians are taking the place at the top from white people,** that the culture at whichever institution you hold dear isn't what it was in some Golden Age. Or maybe it always posed as progressive - back in the day, this would have been about the honest worker vs. the nouveau-riche. Anyway.

So my preference for meritocracy was challenged recently, when the Stuyvesant cheating scandal*** reminded me of the near-ubiquity of cheating at the high school, and of the Scantron-covered dark side of meritocracy. It's a high school famous, above all else, for being a meritocracy, or as much of one as possible. (It's free to attend, admission is by test only so connections don't count, etc.) The existence of prep courses (which not everyone who gets in even uses, and which cost a tiny fraction of tuition at a private school) garners as much rage as it does precisely because the expectation is that the school is pure, Platonic-ideal meritocracy. Those who want the cheating scandal to be about entitled brats who feel above the law will be disappointed. Stuyvesant is meritocracy in its shabby, unvarnished state: there’s no pretense of a nurturing environment that reaches out to the student as a human being. Not much pretense of learning for learning’s sake, even if learning occurs despite this. And not, it seems, much integrity. If Stuyvesant=meritocracy, it's not looking good.

The level of cheating - 80%, they say? - is not new. I - class of 2001, so pre-smartphone - remember having the sense that I was among the few who didn't cheat, and that I was screwing myself over grade-wise by having the qualms I did. That I didn't cheat was in part about my own coming-from-privilege-ness - I didn't need to strive to enter the upper-middle class, just to stay put, which meant going to class and doing homework but not OMG-Harvard-or-the-gutter panic mode. I did a team sport because College, but never bothered to join the honor society, if I even qualified for it. I could afford, as it were, to find the kids hollering "whaddya get?" tacky. But I also thought - and continue to think- cheating is just plain wrong. Caring intensely about grades is understandable, but cheating crosses a line.

The article about the scandal vividly brought back those four years, and left me wondering if I'd maybe my professed fondness for my high school comes from having conveniently forgotten what it was actually like, day-to-day, to attend.

But what is the broader message to take from this? There’s a part of me that really appreciated the no-frills approach, and that found this kind of meritocracy refreshing, after being at a school where some kids' parents had donated millions, and where maybe this didn't not impact how patient teachers were with them if they were not as quick as all that. (The parents' own merit may have gotten them where they were, but once it's your kids, it's privilege.)

A lot of what's used instead of, or to disguise, meritocracy is either silly or hypocritical - see "holistic" college admissions, which are meant to sound gentle, but which nevertheless leave ever-more kids sobbing into their thin envelopes, knowing that not their applications but they, as people, didn't make the cut. Meanwhile, 'learning for learning's sake' sounds nice, but is often used snobbishly to mean learning with no regard for the social-mobility potential of education, i.e. as a way of favoring kids from privileged backgrounds, and of ignoring the very legitimate desire for a higher income on the part of kids who are, say, the first in their families to go to college. I had a teacher in high school who would only write letters of recommendation for kids who wanted to go to college "to learn, not to make money," I paraphrase or maybe even quote directly, it's been a while. On the one hand, I saw what she meant, but on the other, it seemed even at the time something unfair to ask of kids who were commuting in from one-bedrooms in Queens that they were sharing with their extended families. And what does this even mean, going to college to make money after? If your family is poor, it might well mean graduating and becoming... a NYC public school teacher.

And - and this is less about social class - there's a sense in which kids aren't the best judges of their own educations. Stuvyesant's no-frills approach maybe isn't one that is going to appeal to that many kids as they're actually experiencing it. A well-written but somewhat misguided 2010 op-ed in the Stuyvesant newspaper demands more "critical thinking," less regurgitation of facts. It's interesting that some students see their cheating as a form of noble resistance against rote memorization, and I’m sure there’s busy-work, but I do wonder what happens when these kids get to medical school, law school, or even - yup - French literature grad school, and are required to absorb and analyze huge amounts of material, because this is what makes for professional competence. (Evidently the most cheating occurs in foreign-language classes. Well, as a foreign-language instructor, I'm curious to know what this new pedagogical approach is that engages students critical-thinking skills, but doesn't ever require them to go after class, sit down, and memorize the conjugations of être.)

In other words, sugar-coating the educational experience, pretending it's all about intellectual enrichment and not competition or material gain, isn't ideal. But there's a point at which grade-obsession drowns out everything else - ethics, but also, you know, interesting conversation. Why, if attending this school might well decrease an individual's shot at getting into a good college, if the teachers aren't unusually good or the classes unusually small, does anyone even attend this high school? Isn't the point that you're supposed to get something out of being with a bunch of clever kids? Shouldn't the collaboration be over something more useful (and ethical!) than cheating on math homework?

But I don't think the cheating comes out of the meritocratic nature of the place. Nor do I even think the problem is the just-a-number approach to teaching. No, it's something much more basic, and much easier to fix: rather than giving out letter grades, every grade is out of 100 and to the hundredths place. The stress from this makes a good chunk of the school not merely grade-obsessed but insane. And, while grades/GPAs do tell you something about a student, the difference between two A students is negligible, merit-wise, a difference in how each one's social-studies teacher happened to grade. I'm no great fan of "holistic," but if the Ivies had to choose between two A students from Stuyvesant on the basis of something other than which one had who had a 95.23 (this, as I recall, meant Brown) vs. 97.45 (the euphemistic triumvirate), or even just went and picked one of the names out of a hat, that might not be the absolute end of the world.

*The post she links to, which I called "The referendum on meritocracy," wasn't me providing such a referendum, but rather a description of what I believed was the unifying theme of the two national political conventions. Both sides both embraced and rejected meritocracy, but in different ways. The RNC had "we built that," but the case for Romney was basically, here's a 1950s sitcom patrician you can trust, a born leader who never was or will be distracted by petty concerns like the fact that a dollar tip is now expected in coffee shops, and shoe repair - just the soles and heels! - has gone up to $65. Romney's privilege is - at least according to his wife's final remarks - his main selling point. At the DNC, meanwhile, we were repeatedly reminded that self-made is a myth... by the absolute most impressive self-made individuals that could possibly be assembled.

**The irony being that in this country, "aristocrats" are just the recent-ish offspring of meritocratic elites.

***Secondary takeaway from the article: sounds like Stuyvesant may have an opening for a French teacher. I'm not not interested.


PG said...

If you read rightwing blogs, you'll discover that the Obamas were not at all the products of bootstrap meritocracy. I think my favorite has been the Limbaugh-originated claim that Michelle Obama's high school was "a public magnet school for Chicago's upper class." These people, I do not think they understand what "public magnet school" means, particularly one in which half the school is black or Hispanic and 40% of the kids get free/reduced-price lunches.

Re: meritocracy, yup a significant chunk of the holistic admissions process seems to be about tripping up academically single-minded immigrant families. The process doesn't seem to have been adopted by most of their nations of origin (assuming the parents were even privileged enough in their home countries to know how that worked there). So it's a jolt to find out that forcing your kid to spend her afternoons on extra credit and SAT prep was "wrong," and she instead should have been organizing dance marathons and playing the Chapman Stick.

From what I've seen, the more privileged immigrant families, i.e. those who are professionals and more assimilated, get clued in faster and are perhaps even more cynical about it than native-born whites. I knew one mom who cold-bloodedly decided what was going to be her son's self-directed, self-originated medical research project that also would have a charitable mission. I was a little surprised this sort of thing didn't show up in Tiger Mom, but I guess she was too busy preparing for Carnegie Hall.

I know nothing about the Regents exams (and am surprised that scores on them go onto a college application -- I don't recall a college application asking for Texas's standardized test scores). However, I would think that essay exams, like parts of the AP exams in the arts and social sciences (my AP hard science teachers thought I was too dumb to bother taking the exams, so I don't know if they have essays), would be somewhat more difficult to cheat on than Scantron or short answer ones.

At law school, every exam I took except the one for Federal Income Taxation (guess my worst grade in law school!) was open-book, because fancy professors are not interested in your simply regurgitating basic information but in your ability to apply and analyze. I would think applied-analysis based learning would foster more classroom discussion and less cheating.

Then again, I found the level of intellectual engagement relative to grade-grubbing in law school disappointing, but that in itself probably was a symptom of privilege. If you were taking on crippling levels of debt purely because you wanted to make lots of money in private practice (perhaps for highly altruistic reasons, e.g. paying for a relative's health care or retirement), then ticking off the various meritocratic boxes of law school is far more important than developing a personal jurisprudence of the Commerce Clause.

Still, one might wish something different for high schools like Stuyvesant, which aren't professional and aren't the academic end-of-the-line. For most people in law school, the grades they get there are the last grades they will ever get, and to an extent that doesn't seem to exist in any other field, those grades keep mattering. (E.g. almost every job opening will request your transcript unless you are more than five years post-graduation.) Stuyvesant students are all planning to go to college -- why not become grade loons there instead?

Phoebe said...

Quick qu-maybe more later: isn't a bar exam closed-book?

CW said...

Law school doesn't really prepare you for the bar exam. Most people study for the bar exam by taking test prep courses offered by private companies.

Phoebe said...

Ok, but my point was that rote memorization is part of professional competence, not just busywork for hs kids

Phoebe said...

Longer version:


" I would think applied-analysis based learning would foster more classroom discussion and less cheating."

This, or grading essays, might be a problem at a school where class size is quite large (34, when I was there) and obviously teachers aren't just instructing that one section, don't have assistant graders, etc. It would also reinforce an impression (which students totally already have, at Stuyvesant and everywhere) of grades being chosen at whim by a teacher on the basis of how much he likes you. Given that the typical Stuyvesant kid imagines himself to be smarter than his teachers, he's not going to really believe that the essay-grade means much, except coming from a handful of respected teachers. Whereas the Scantron, one can tell one's self, doesn't lie.

Re: why high school kids would care... yes, most (not all) go on to college, but depending what you want to do, it might well matter more where you go to college than what grades you get there.

PG said...

my point was that rote memorization is part of professional competence, not just busywork for hs kids

Rote memorization is different for the bar exam than for, say, medical students. The prep course basically stuffs information into your brain over two months, you disgorge it during a 2-3 day exam, and then you never think about the Rule Against Perpetuities again. At least at elite law schools, rote memorization is seen as a waste of time because law school is supposed to teach you to Think Like A Lawyer (TM). In real life, you'd probably be committing malpractice if you dealt with a case based purely on memory, especially the level of knowledge needed for the bar. Legal clients expect you to say that you'll need to research and get back to them (and for you to charge them hourly for doing so). The one part of the bar exam that's marked as testing practical lawyering ability is the MPT, and they give you the laws and precedents (which may actually be fictional) to apply to a hypothetical set of facts. A law school that wants to produce "good" lawyers will focus on teaching excellent research and writing skills, not on cramming.

Medical patients, on the other, tend to mistrust a doctor who says he needs to consult some reference books and get back to them. I can't entirely explain this disparity (though it's at least partially grounded in the fact that law changes frequently and human bodies don't -- e.g. there was a near-revolutionary change in federal civil procedure after I graduated from law school), but it definitely exists.

It would also reinforce an impression (which students totally already have, at Stuyvesant and everywhere) of grades being chosen at whim by a teacher on the basis of how much he likes you.

Every law exam I've had, both for JD and PGD, has been anonymously graded, i.e. I type it up and turn it in under a number, not my name. I had to make the professor like me by citing his publications in my answer rather than through in-person ass-kissing.

Phoebe said...

This is all interesting, but I'm not sure what it changes here. Obviously most of a French program isn't rote memorization, but there's some to get certified to move on to the next level. This is a fact of professional life, and students taught only critical thinking would be in for a scary surprise.

I see how anonymity might help, though. So maybe it would just come down to whether teachers want to read that many 9th grade essay answers.

Moebius Stripper said...

Phoebe -

A big OH HELL YES to your comments about your former teacher who'd only write letters for students who were in college to learn, not to make money; this distinction is absolutely a class-based, and I only understood the insidiousness of the learning > money attitude - which, as a gifted kid from a well-to-do family, I'd bought into wholesale - after I'd left grad school, having chosen my area of study out of love, with no consideration for how I'd parlay my education into a career. It all worked out for me - I studied math and now teach it, and I love my job - but for a few years it was touch-and-go, there being few options for people who study math at the graduate level because they like it and not because they want to pursue a research career.

But it's not just a class thing; it's also a generational thing. "Study for love, not for money" is something baby boomers advised me all the time growing up; I know no one of my generation who passes on this advice to their students, children, nieces, or nephew. All of the boomers who counselled me thusly had careers in mind when they entered university, and all held steady jobs when they told me and my peers not to worry about how we'd make a living. They all came from the generation in which middle class 18-year-olds went to university to get jobs, not to learn for learning's sake.

I used to teach at traditional universities and colleges, where students were taking general arts or science classes. I now teach at a polytechnic whose tagline is "It's your career; get it right". Every single one of my current students is there for a job. I have seen no indication that they are less committed to learning than the students I taught a decade ago as a graduate student. If anything, it's the opposite: since my courses are very applied, my students see exactly how the material I teach them is related to their goals, so they are interested and motivated to work. When I started teaching at my current school, I was stunned by the fact that my students were actually engaged during lecture: this was an entirely new experience for me. Meanwhile, some of my general-studies students at the old university were there because they loved learning, but most were at university simply because that's what 18-year-olds of a certain class do.

PG said...

Regarding the aristocrats, I think the "characteristics of Boston Brahmins" Wikipedia sums up the argument for their rule.

Phoebe said...


Glad we're in agreement! I think part of it is snootiness, but it's also obliviousness (of the sort YPIS, alas, seeks to correct). If your idea of "making money" means running a hedge-fund, and not, say, becoming a dentist, then sure, you think you're supporting kids who want to earn a living, but who aren't money-crazed. I wouldn't be entirely shocked if that's where this teacher - who was actually quite a good teacher - was coming from.


I mean, maybe? That entry is kind of misleading - obviously other cultural traditions include charity, patronizing the arts, etc. Meanwhile, what about the exclusionary nature of a hereditary elite? What about the fact that all the genteel claims to not caring about the material are basically a way of holding onto power, of preventing anyone else from taking up a "community leader" position? In the comments here, MSI says something about how, as hierarchies go, one based on cash is maybe the best one can hope for.

But this is helping me think through the ideas in the post. Basically, I side with the strivers/graspers, but I do think we shouldn't assume "character" is always a euphemism used to keep an old elite in charge.

Miss Self-Important said...

My husband, who attended a much lower-ranked law school than PG, had to memorize/regurgitate on all his exams, which were only anonymously graded in the first year. If you want to meet an almost-French world where the rank of your school - and your rank within that rank - means almost everything for your career prospects, law seems to be it.

I don't have anything else substantive to add to this; I'm still fence-straddling on the general question of meritocracy. But I do think that it's much easier for someone in our positions (having gone through multiple meritocratic applications processes) to say that picking college admits almost at random from the top half of Stuyvesant's class would not change the quality of any elite student body one bit than for the students presently competing for those elite university places to understand us. For them, college admissions is the most personally salient and urgent instance of JUSTICE in America that they've ever experienced. That is, these are not generally the kinds of kids who have a lot of personal contact with the penal system or the government's involvement in the market or even taxes. Education, and particularly their experience of education, symbolizes the entire American regime to them. They want this symbol to epitomize the regime's justice, but the education system's justice is very much a matter of dessert, or merit, for them. You can push them harder to define merit, and then they get kind of muddled b/c being a violin prodigy is a kind of merit, but maybe not the merit that should win you a seat at Princeton, etc. So they'll admit that it's complicated and we should consider many factors, but no striving aspirant I've ever taught has been persuaded to agree that the hat lottery is even worth consideration. It is simply unjust. They've worked so hard. They deserve a personal application review on their merits, not some crummy lottery that doesn't reward skill and effort.

Now, given a few years' post-college perspective, they'll all likely come to see the extent of the arbitrariness involved in selecting their Princeton class vs. that year's class at Duke or UVA or the dozens of other good schools in America where the top half of Stuyvesant grads and their peers end up. But before then, it's a question too dear to their hearts and it implicates them so personally; they are intractable.

Miss Self-Important said...

Also, I didn't quite mean that a cash-based hierarchy is the best possible one, just that it is in certain ways egalitarian, or more egalitarian than it sounds. Applied to anything other than consumer purchases though, it seems to mean buying offices and positions, which I think we call corruption?

Andrew Stevens said...

Meanwhile, what about the exclusionary nature of a hereditary elite? What about the fact that all the genteel claims to not caring about the material are basically a way of holding onto power, of preventing anyone else from taking up a "community leader" position?

All of this is true, of course. For a long time, that's exactly how it was. On the other hand, the New England WASP elite did eventually abdicate. The Ivy League wasn't forced to admit other ethnicities at the point of a gun the way, for example, the Southern aristocracy was. Eventually, the New England elites simply became convinced that their exclusion of Jews and other ethnic minorities was wrong and voluntarily gave up a large measure of their power and prestige. (Not all of it, of course. The Ivy League still has legacy admissions, etc.)

So you could take the Douglas Adams argument and argue that, by voluntarily yielding their power, they may have proved their worthiness to wield it. This is just a devil's advocate argument though, and I don't necessarily buy it. On the other hand, I almost certainly would rather be ruled by the Cabots, the Lowells, and the Lodges than by the Kennedys. At the very least, the Brahmins had a sense of shame. The Kennedys haven't had their money and power for long enough to be embarrassed by it or even by their own behavior. As New England politics gets more and more corrupt (my own home state of Connecticut is now simply a cesspool), the old elite Republicans are just about the only ones who aren't. (Of course, many of them now consider themselves independents like Jim Jeffords, Lincoln Chafee, and Lowell Weicker.) They are also now almost completely powerless.

Phoebe said...


I think I got what you meant re: cash. Not that it should be, whoever gives the biggest wad of it to the math teacher gets the highest grade, but as in, as an alternative to nepotism, etc.

"But I do think that it's much easier for someone in our positions (having gone through multiple meritocratic applications processes) to say that picking college admits almost at random from the top half of Stuyvesant's class would not change the quality of any elite student body one bit than for the students presently competing for those elite university places to understand us. For them, college admissions is the most personally salient and urgent instance of JUSTICE in America that they've ever experienced."

First, this wouldn't be the top half, maybe the top 10%, maybe fewer - not too many kids will be getting nearly straight As, which is what a 97-plus average means. Next, the justice aspect wouldn't really change that much, if grades were on a scale of A-F rather than 65-100. The idea wouldn't be to change the value system to grades-don't-matter, but to acknowledge that tiny differences don't mean much if anything. I mean, cutoffs are always arbitrary, but if it's on the SATs, say, it happens (a few times, at most) and then that's that. Whereas with grades at Stuyvesant, one is measured out of 100.00 constantly. The overall culture wouldn't change, but it would just get toned down a notch.


Re: Boston Brahmins vs. newer elites, this is just a subset of a larger question that comes up all the time. As in, would it have been better to live in Country X when it was a colony than now that it's an independent, democratic mess. And I think the way you need to answer questions like this is to think of what different types of elites mean in terms of opportunity. Even if the old elite had their act together, the new one, by its very existence, signals a system in which anyone - or at least more people - can rise to the top. Obviously this gets more complicated if you're talking permanent-war-zone situations, but New England wasn't like that the last time I was there at least.

Kaleberg said...

When I was at Stuyvesant, I really don't remember anyone cheating, but I might have been out of the loop. I also don't remember anyone being all that grade conscious. Maybe it was the 60s. I do remember having my cumulative average computed for the first time early in my senior year and being surprised by it. (It was on a punch card. That's how long ago this was.)