Put the Merit in Meritocracy


Illustration Credit: Sydney Fener

James Hess, Assistant Opinion Editor

As a country defined today by social achievement and democratic values, meritocracy seems like an obvious ideal to strive for. A social structure that rewards people for their talents and efforts appears unquestionably moral, a way for us to unite our nation’s values and make sure the most accomplished of us triumph. In our ideal world, those who win the meritocratic game succeed purely because of their combined ability and dedication––they studied for the test and received a perfect score, practiced for the sport and excelled in it or performed the most impressive act for the biggest audience and thrived on the stage. 

We use these cultural cliches in movies, books and songs to define our society. In media pieces that use tropes like the “American dream” and rags-to-riches story, we see the ideal of meritocracy lived out through individuals. We attach tradition and identity through these images to an otherwise strictly political system, one that has no intrinsic usefulness or value to us. Meritocracy, in this sense, becomes unique to our country and history. 

And yet, despite its moral ideal and cultural weight, questions about the implementation of meritocracy still remain. In his 2019 book “The Meritocracy Trap,” Yale Law School Professor Daniel Markovits strips away all positive presumptions about the system and argues firmly against its application. A society that rewards people based only on their abilities, he says, produces unhappiness in everyone who participates. Losers in the meritocratic competition face instability in a country riddled with wealth inequality, while winners––doctors, lawyers, academics, investment bankers and the like––confine themselves to lives of difficult and specialized labor. Worse still, according to Markovits’s book, cultural hubs that once served a unique purpose, including high schools and colleges, now represent only zero-sum games in which participants compete against each other for reputation. Instead of fulfilling its egalitarian ideal, Markovits argues, meritocracy makes America an unequal and pressure-filled place.

Whatever their economic truth for the entire country, these words should make us stop and think about our own lives. We attend a school notorious for its workload, pressure and achievement, one that fits perfectly into both our meritocratic ideal and Markovits’s contradictory theory. In our admissions offices, classrooms and athletic facilities, we see the results of the competition playing out. Students come to the school with exceptional standardized test scores, take especially difficult course loads from the beginning of ninth grade and continue them throughout their four years. Weekdays are spent doing homework and studying, while weekends and breaks are consumed by tutoring, independent research and extracurricular activities. In conversations with peers, we offhandedly mention our poor sleep schedules and homework loads to talk about our efforts without outright bragging about them: phrases like “I’m so tired” and “I didn’t sleep a minute last night” become synonymous with hard work and dedication. 

Through our combined efforts and talents, the school we attend lives up to the American meritocratic ideal: a place filled with driven learners and teachers working together toward success. As Markovits remarked to Yale Law School graduates in his 2015 commencement address, “You do almost whatever is necessary to produce, to continue to distinguish yourselves, to learn, to shine.” 

As a result of our dedication, we enjoy the resources of a school that receives generous donations from loyal parents and alumni, and we benefit enormously from the company of committed students and teachers. We have the opportunities, mentors and test scores to set us up for success in the future by remaining highly competitive in college admissions and other national contests. However, the means by which we achieve these ends also create our biggest problems: Students work long hours to the detriment of their happiness and health, view fellow peers as competition for the highest grades and most prestigious extracurricular positions. From this philosophy, the school gains its reputation in the minds of others as an unforgiving pressure-cooker, a place that cares less about its students’ mental wellbeing and more about their achievements. 

More importantly for our futures, though, the excesses of meritocracy make us sacrifice real academic achievement––the kind of organic curiosity that defines the “joyful pursuit of excellence” in our mission statement––for a cheap substitute in social recognition. Instead of seeking our genuine interests, we burden ourselves with classes, activities and projects we take only for the approval of others. We then turn around and use their complicated names to sound impressive in conversations, to show off our schedule to parents and to meet a perceived Advanced Placement and Honors quota. 

In these moments, we relegate the school and all of its endless resources to a list of boxes that must be checked off––ones we only care about because they further our meritocratic interests. According to Markovits’s commencement address, “Such a life proceeds under a pervasive shadow. At its worst, it squanders the capacity to set and pursue authentically embraced, intrinsically valuable goals. Even at its best, this life involves deep alienation.”

As members of a uniquely privileged community, we owe it to ourselves to consider the argument made in “The Meritocracy Trap” and its consequences. Part of our lives must include the work, pressure and competition that our system demands, but we must also take into account the excesses of meritocracy in all of their different forms. Thinking of both the system’s ideal and real-life implementation, we should step back and evaluate whether the classes, activities and projects we choose for ourselves add anything truly valuable to our lives. If we realize that we participate in them only for meritocratic standing, we must replace them with subjects we are truly interested in. These measures will allow us to live up to educational ideals far more important to our growth than sheer social achievement, and in turn make us better and more well-rounded people. Only when we do this will our school become what it should be: a place with endless resources used by students for natural and creative learning.