David Brooks’ latest, this one on the meritocracy, is a good example of how all the right questions and smart anaylsis in the world is not going to make up for a totally wrong premise — and how totally wrong premises are often the result of lazy, ideologically constrained thinking.
Here’s the premise:
One of the features of the Obama years is that we get to witness an enormous race, which you might call the race between meritocracy and government. On the one side, there is the meritocracy, which widens inequality. On the other side, there is President Obama’s team of progressives, who are trying to mitigate inequality. The big question is: Which side is winning?
So it’s a little subtle, I guess, but right there in that opening paragraph Brooks is making a bunch of assumptions. And they’re not banal assumptions but rather highly political ones that will have everything to do with how one supposes the problem of inequality should be solved — or whether it’s a problem at all. Chief among them is the idea of the meritocracy actually being on the level.
Trying to explain the meritocracy and how it works, Brooks goes straight to its beating heart — America’s most exclusive (and expensive) private colleges and universities:
First, there is our system of higher education, which is like a giant vacuum cleaner that sucks up some of the smartest people from across the country and concentrates them in a few privileged places.
Hmm. So while it’s undoubtedly true that many or even most students in the top-tier schools are there because of their skills and wit, it’s also unquestionable that less inspiring things like nepotism and money-grubbing play a significant role. A 2011 Harvard report, for example, found that the children of alumni — who are, incidentally, more likely to be white and wealthy — were seven times more likely to gain acceptance. What’s more, there’s reason to believe that the best students from lower incomes don’t even bother to apply to the top-end schools anyway! Other than that, though, Brooks is so far doing just fine.
He uses the wiggle word “some” when referring to the best and the brightest gobbled up by the Ivies. But the problem is that Brooks’ whole argument rests on the idea that not “some” but most or all of the best kids from around the country are heading off to these upper-echelon schools. Because he’s ultimately trying to make an argument about how a whole generation of one percenters become so alienated from the rest of the country, both socially and economically. If it were just happening to “some” kids, it wouldn’t matter much, would it?
What Brooks sees, instead, is a much larger process of acculturation, in which
Smart high school students from rural Nebraska, small-town Ohio and urban Newark get to go to good universities. When they get there they often find a culture shock….They may have been raised among people who enter the rooms of the mighty with the nerves of a stranger, but they are now around people who enter the highest places with the confident sense they belong.
This is an old and thus comfortable American story, the naive but brilliant bumpkin who has to learn to sink or swim in the crazy, kinetic world of the Big City. My sense is that it’s not as prevalent as it used to be — maybe because folks have noticed that, almost always, there’s a barely sublimated subtext of racial and ethnic anxiety undergirding the entire narrative…? — but I could be wrong. What’s less unclear is that as familiar as the story is, it’s wrong. At least for understanding the present day.
Nowadays, as a fascinating and deeply depressing recent story from Brooks’ own New York Times reported, the (few) diamonds in the rough that (try to) make it to the top schools don’t last long — and it’s not because of “culture shock” either. Or at least not primarily or even especially significantly. The reason these kids fail is because, even with federal and private loans, they quite simply cannot afford to go to college without working on the side. And in hyper-competitive environments full of students who need not worry about their finances (unless their parents are trying to teach them some abstract moral lesson about self-reliance) working on the side can be enough to ruin a future.
Whether it’s out of ignorance or mendaciousness, Brooks recognizes none of this. After the initial culture shock, he insists, these students find that:
[T]he system works. In the dorms, classrooms, summer internships and early jobs they learn how to behave the way successful people do in the highly educated hubs. There’s no economic reason to return home, and maybe it’s not even socially possible anymore.
The best way to understand how it is, exactly, that Brooks manages to get so much wrong in so few words is to look at that first sentence. The system works. That’s supremely important to a guy with Brooks’ politics, a guy who likes to think of himself as a “national greatness” conservative. Politicians may be craven; bureaucrats may be self-interested; and voters may be selfish and short-sighted. Brooks’ll grant all that. But the system — well, it’s like MacArthur’s the corps. It cannot fail; it can only be failed.
And if protecting that fundamental belief requires David Brooks to get the workings of his beloved meritocracy almost 100 percent wrong, so be it. The system will be fine. It always is.
Update: Definitely read Matt Bruenig, who knows way more about the intersection of education and class in America than I do, and his response to Brooks’ latest.