Sunday, October 4, 2020

The War against Merit

Let’s see-- Harvard University is being sued by Asian applicants for discriminating against them because of their race. So, a distinguished Harvard professor, by name of Michael Sandel, writes a screed to argue that America is too meritocratic.

As America decides to go all in for diversity, it will necessarily follow the example of Harvard and dumb down the student body by ending merit-based admissions.

Or else, it will begin to acknowledge that while Asian applicants are judged primarily on the basis of their merit, many other applicants are not. Thus, colleges and universities have two sets of standards, lest their student bodies be overly Asian.

At the least, we should have the decency not to blame this on white privilege. 

As reported on this blog, administrators at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology are trying to undo meritocratic admissions standards because too many of the places are taken by Asian students. 

One should remark that most of these Asian students gravitate toward STEM majors. Today, most Ph. D. programs in science and engineering are populated by Asian students. They gain their positions by doing well in highly competitive exams. 

Sandel argues, in a book I have not read, that judging people by their merit imposes a tyranny on the nation, which leads to a division between an educated elite and the rest. One wonders whether he remarks that this technocratic elite is the brains behind the Democratic Party, but we will leave that for another day.

I quote Sandel from an interview he did for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The Tyranny of Merit hopes to explain the cultural background behind this bit of Trumpian braggadocio, and more broadly to argue that a just political future must recognize that even a perfect meritocracy would be fundamentally unfair.

What does he mean by unfair? If all students are allowed to take the same qualifying exam, if all have the same opportunity to work harder, then why would we assume that the outcomes are unfair. In truth, the outcomes tend to show that Asian American parents do not buy the American therapy culture about how important it is to have work/life balance, to have a well-rounded personality and to be popular. So, they shield their children from many of the more aberrant aspects of American culture and foster a cultural climate that produces academic achievement.

No one is forcing anyone to do otherwise than the Asian parents do, but one should have enough self-respect not to whine when the results favor the children who worked harder and who do not have as good work/life balance,

The case of Tiger Mom Amy Chua stands out, but Malcolm Gladwell has argued as much in his book, Outliers. Many people find this offensive because it repudiates much of what the psycho profession has declared to constitute the good life.

Of course, in a meritocratic system, people have earned what they have. And Sandel finds that to be offensive too. One does not understand why this should offend anyone. The student who spent Friday and Saturday nights in the library or the lab might be expected to do better. Shouldn’t he feel better about himself? 

Sandel, whose knowledge of psychology and of Greek tragedy, seems woefully inadequate, declares that these overachievers suffer from hubris. In truth, they are proud of their achievements, because they earned their rewards. Hubris is excessive pride, but reducing all pride to hubris is unworthy of a Harvard professor.

In truth, the current brouhaha about white privilege fails to remark that Anglo-Saxon civilization has become a world leader for what it has contributed to human civilization-- from the Industrial Revolution to parliamentary democracy to free enterprise. Success ought to be a challenge, not a humiliation. Those who make it a humiliation are saying that they want to be rewarded, not for their success, but for who they are-- as in identity politics.

And we hasten to notice, today’s overachievers are invariably not white; they are Asian. And, however much we dumb down American education, we should know that other nations around the world, especially in Asia, have not adopted the same form of self-sabotage. One is surprised to see a colleague of Samuel Huntington-- he of the clash of civilizations-- should fail to understand that cultures compete, and they they do not compete for work/life balance,

Thus, Sandel feels contempt for success, and suggests that we ought all to feel the same way.

Looking back at the last four decades, it’s clear that the divide between winners and losers has been deepened, poisoning our politics and driving us apart. This has partly to do with deepening inequality of income and wealth. But it’s about more than that. It has to do with the fact that those who landed on top came to believe that their success was their own doing, the measure of their merit — and by implication that those left behind had no one to blame but themselves. For people who didn’t flourish in the new economy, this attitude toward success made the inequality of the last four decades all the more galling.

As noted, Sandel confuses pride with hubris and declares that those who have not succeeded will suffer from crippling humiliation. In truth, they will feel embarrassed for losing, but without the embarrassment what would motivate them to improve their performance.

By Sandel's thought, we should abolish competitive sports because losing teams will feel humiliated. And because this is bad for their mental health. We must devote ourselves to making people feel good about themselves, regardless.

As noted, we might be able to engineer such a thing here, but that will make us all the more resentful toward people in other parts of the world who do not indulge the same self-sacrifice.

Meritocracy is an attractive, even inspiring ideal, but it has a dark side: It generates hubris among the winners and humiliation among the losers. I suppose you could say this is a reading of the moral psychology of our political moment.

The meritocratic hubris of elites is the conviction by those who land on top that their success is their own doing, that they have risen through a fair competition, that they therefore deserve the material benefits that the market showers upon their talents. Meritocratic hubris is the tendency of the successful to inhale too deeply of their success, to forget the luck and good fortune that helped them on their way. It goes along with the tendency to look down on those less fortunate, and less credentialed, than themselves. That gives rise to the sense of humiliation and resentment of those who are left out.

Here Sandel confuses two issues. It’s one thing to say that those who have worked hard to achieve success deserve the rewards that flow from hard work. Surely, there is no such thing as a human society that does not have a status hierarchy.

The problem today is that inequality has become extreme. Some people have too much money and they tend to lord it over everyone else. Then they conclude that they are philosophers and that they should be telling everyone else how to live their lives. Beginning with the abolition of meritocracy.

Have you noticed that the Silicon Valley tech oligarchs promote cultural habits that will prevent other people from challenging their dominance?

As for why this savage inequality has come to exist, consider the possibility that we do not have a true meritocracy, but that we have gone all in on diversity programs, whereby people are promoted and rewarded for their race, their gender, and their sexual orientation. Those who ignore the ambient cultural madness do better. Those who embrace it do worse.

One notes, yet again, that Silicon Valley tech companies are among the least diverse in the country. Preaching what they do not practice….

Sandel complains:

There is the tendency to think that those left behind by globalization are angry because they didn’t get their fair share of the benefit. That’s certainly true. The economic growth associated with globalization went to those on the top, roughly the top 20 percent. Median wage has been stagnant. So it’s easy to interpret the anger that has fueled the populist backlash as being about the failure of the winners to adequately compensate the losers.

As for those Asian students who excel at competitive tests, Sandel cannot grant them the least recognition. He does not merely hold them in contempt. He suggests that they are being rendered neurotic by their Tiger parents. He would apparently say the same about the Chinese students who spend their high school years preparing for the college entrance exam-- as they have been doing for nearly a millennium. 

Naturally, we prefer that our students study less and spend more time learning the joys of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Will this make America more competitive in the ongoing clash of civilizations.

In Sandel’s words:

Students win admission to these places by converting their teenage years — or their parents converting their teenage years — into a stress-strewn gauntlet of meritocratic striving. That inculcates intense pressure for achievement. So even the winners in the meritocratic competition are wounded by it, because they become so accustomed to accumulating achievements and credentials, so accustomed to jumping through hoops and pleasing their parents and teachers and coaches and admissions committees, that the habit of hoop-jumping becomes difficult to break. By the time they arrive in college, many find it difficult to step back and reflect on what’s worth caring about, on what they truly would love to study and learn. The habit of gathering credentials and of networking and of anticipating the next gateway in the ladder to success begins to interfere with the true reason for being in institutions of higher education, which is exploring and reflecting and questioning and seeking after one’s passions.

In order to dumb down the student body, which Harvard has been doing by using holistic standards for admission, Sandel proposes that children be admitted by lottery. Why not undermine initiative and competitive striving and hard work-- and make college admissions a function of dumb luck.

I propose that colleges and universities that have far more applicants than they have places should consider what I call a “lottery of the qualified.” Over 40,000 students apply to Stanford and to Harvard for about 2,000 places. The admissions officers tell us that the majority are well-qualified. Among those, fill the first-year class through a lottery. My hunch is that the quality of discussion in our classes would in no way be impaired.

Of course, this does not tell us what it means to be well qualified. This does not tell us whether some are more well or less well qualified.

The argument, which is part of the current American mania about dumbing down the nation, ignores the fact that some people are really smarter than others. Some people work a lot harder than others, and even contribute more.

When the War Department during World War II was organizing what was called the Manhattan Project-- the one that produced the atomic bomb-- it did not choose physicists and engineers by lottery. And it did not aim for diversity.


trigger warning said...

From the perspective of Deranged Race Theory, Asians are "white adjacent". This means, apparently, that they are a "model minority" because they tend to adopt the "typical tropes" of "whiteness" like competitiveness, hard work, and perseverance. So anti-Asian bigotry is not only acceptable, it's such a good idea it's mandatory.

Furthermore, selecting elite university applicants randomly (as Sandel proposes) is a strategy almost certain to fail, because the pool of applicants is unbalanced vis-a-vis national racial statistics and therefore embodies disparate impact.

David Foster said...

Certain 'progressives' will no doubt argue that the Manhattan Project, resulting in the atomic bomb and in atomic energy in general, is precisely an example of why scientific and technological merit should not be given free rein.

David Foster said...

In Walter Miller's novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, a devastating nuclear war is followed by the lynching of scientists and engineers--'the smart bastards who caused all this'...and by widespread book-burning.

The title 'simpleton' comes into use as the honorific of a decent person, just as the terms 'goodman' and 'goodwife' were used in earlier times.

Sam L. said...

As I've said elsewhere, many times. "Progressive". The word ALWAYS reminds me of Cancer. It's a killer.

Event Horizon said...

The implication that achievement and performance damages these students is as false as it is laughable. By pushing them to achieve they are taught that they are capable of more than they ever thought possible and that they can use their abilities and talents to achieve their dreams. They learn self-confidence that acts as a foundation for a healthy sense of self-worth. They learn to believe in themselves and find their happiness within themselves. It makes them solid, independent, confident human beings - which of course the left despises more than anything else. The argument that the pressure to achieve damages students is either the lazy man's excuse, or the evil man's method of keeping people helpless. Either one could apply to this "professor".

Anonymous said...

Event Horizon is right. I couldn't see comments on the original article as it was behind a paywall; maybe there weren't any. I wanted to see if anyone was dumb enough to agree with this guy. I seriously doubt anyone did because his entire essay is ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

Well, to be fair, in hard STEM majors at first tier schools, there is a lottery which takes place in the first year. Sometimes extends into the sophmore year.
It involve passing, or even surviving, courses with titles like "Physics I-III", "Chemistry I-II", "Mechanics", "Thermodynamics", "Abstract Algebra", "Differential Equations", "Real Analysis" and the like.
Using these classes as a 2nd level filter is quite profitable for the University, after the ones that don't make it, drop out.

Sam L. said...

I congratulate Harvard for shooting itself in the feet, and the opportunity to say "the STUPID is STRONG in Harvard."

Event Horizon said...

Anon 1:30, I went to lowly State U and still had to run the gauntlet of Calc 1&2,Chem 1&2,Physics 1&2, Differential Equations, Linear Algebra, Vector Calculus, and 7 engineering science courses covering every major engineering discipline (rigid body mechanics, kinematics, fluid dynamics, thermodynamics, material science, strengths of materials, and electrical science) before I could be admitted to professional school in electrical engineering. There was no need to limit admittance to professional school because most entering freshman either dropped out or switched majors before they finished that gauntlet. Among those that went through with me there were whites, asians, africans, middle easterners, and women. We all worked together, studied together, and competed with each other - and we also helped motivate and encourage each other also. There's no marxist philosophy or leftist ideology that could ever improve that experience.

Anonymous said...

But what about the humanities, history, literature, etc.? I’d hate to be in classes with super-strivers, raised by Tiger Moms, who don’t exercise their imaginations but just regurgitate what the professor tells them.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

The super strivers tend to do better on imaginative tasks. Studies have shown that children who are taught through the comprehension method, or Common Core, tend to do worse, not only in math and science, but also in innovation. You cannot innovate if you do not know anything or if your college has turned humanities and social sciences into indoctrination sessions.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Y’all have overvalued human imagination. All it does is create new things, new possibilities.

I say we get rid of it. Change is bothersome, troubling, disruptive.

Move along.

Ribro90 said...

I'm from New Zealand so a long way from the US but it strikes me that Sandel,who from his Wikipedia page, looks as white as I am is in a privileged position as a Harvard professor. How many of the 320,000,000 US citizens achieve this level of success? It's obvious he achieved this from a position of unearned privilege or by unfairly studying at the weekend thereby disadvantaging POC more deserving of his position.
He must instantly resign and donate any money he's earned over the average wage to fighting inequality.
Why don't right wingers in the US push this?