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Justification by merit alone?

The American Dream is a national theology foundered on the rocks of race and meritocracy

Artillery Row

The American Dream is restored. The Supreme Court’s decision to ban Harvard inter alia from considering the racial composition of incoming classes is surely a win for meritocracy. The question of who deserves a college place and who merits success in America are theological questions, however. It is only when we acknowledge this that, paradoxically, we see the need for colleges to discount merit to save the meritocracy.

The demographics of those who have made it ought to look like America

Affirmative action is the easy answer to the brute fact of elite college admissions. The problem is simple: too many perfect applicants for too few places. Elite American colleges have an acceptance rate hovering around four or five per cent. For Harvard’s class of 2027, just 3.4 per cent of candidates were successful. Basic questions of grades, test scores, athletics and extracurriculars are the first filter. That still leaves innumerable perfect students for each place on the lifeboat. Aware of their curatorial role, Harvard’s next filters are quite different. Race, economic status and legacy status are the anonymised filters. If you’re in the business of choosing the first winners of the American dream, the logic goes, you want to ensure that those new American gods mirror the contemporary nation. Anyone can make it in America, so the demographics of those who have made it ought to look like America. If they don’t, then awkward questions about inequalities, wealth and capitalism begin to gain legitimacy.

As the Supreme Court ruled, however, selection on any other basis than merit is profoundly un-American. For the Asian-American plaintiffs in particular, it seemed obvious that their race counted against them in elite admissions. They had the statistics to prove it. The most-recent Harvard cohort was 28 per cent Asian-American. In California, where racial profiling was banned, Berkeley’s stats for Fall 2022 admissions show those identifying as Asian represented 40 per cent of all new undergrads. America defends its gross inequalities of wealth and status by pointing to the foundational concept of merit. One should rise or fall on the basis of your own effort. Questions of skin colour, the Supreme Court agreed, should have been left in the 60s. Since entry into elite colleges is strongly correlated with entrance into the American elite, to consider racial inequalities at Harvard was to run against the promises and hopes of the post-racial Republic. Legacy admissions, naturally, are next in the plaintiffs’ sights.

America, however, will remain crushingly unequal. Talent is not enough. The sheer hazards of life matter. Now that the Supreme Court has removed the fig leaf of affirmative action, the meritocratic answer for unsuccessful students will be stark. Astounding candidates such as Jon Wang, one of the plaintiffs in the Supreme Court case, or Kaitlyn Younger, will continue to roll the dice. When those dice fail through no fault of their own and their college applications are unsuccessful, they will no longer be able to externalise the reasons for their failure. There will always be the question of whether they or their parents had worked hard enough. If they had put everything into it, then why didn’t they succeed now that admissions were purely merit based? If you give your all to a key chance at escaping poverty, the meritocratic logic then goes, surely failure is a sign that you deserve poverty. The only rational response to such a fallen world is despair. From there, it is a short step to anger as they begin to notice that America does not run on meritocratic lines: the brute chance of genetics and nurture, of family connections and talent, are just as important. Such discrepancy between meritocracy and oligarchy breeds profound psychological pain, but it also breeds revolution.

How, then, to move beyond affirmative action whilst still holding on to the American Dream? As Michael Sandel has explained, the meritocratic mode is profoundly cruel. To see why his answer — embracing chance and implementing a lottery — is the best approach for America requires us to consider the profoundly theological nature of the question of merit and justice in an unfair world.

The debacle around college is about to show them that hard work is never enough

To succeed in America is almost to be transfigured, and elite college admission is the first and most important sign that you are on the right track to accumulating the greatest signifier, wealth. This is the enduring and paradoxical promise of meritocracy in the supposedly disenchanted hallways of Protestant America. As Eugene McCarraher notes, Max Weber’s central insight is that “capitalism was the primary culprit in the eclipse of the sacred”. Weber points to the moral language that the founding father Ben Franklin employs when arguing for the fecundity of wealth. This, McCarraher points out, was not an eclipse but a continuation. If the American project is in some sense a continuation of some Enlightenment belief in the power of human reason to transmute desacralised self and land, then despite its protestations, it was not a secular project. The accumulation of success and wealth, particularly in American society, is a concrete sign of divine election. The young American is told life is difficult but hard work is rewarded educationally, professionally and spiritually. The debacle around college is about to show them, however, that hard work is never enough. Therein lies the challenges of elite college admissions in contemporary America.

We must, therefore, follow Luther and temporarily take salvation out of the hands of student and college alike. Charles Taylor is useful here. In tracing the development of the modern concept of the self, he argues that for Martin Luther, recognising “redemption as outside our power liberated him from a crushing sense of personal depravity”. Likewise, following Schopenhauer and Baudelaire in recognising the baseness of the world “allows us to cast off the impossible burdens of Schillerian optimism” which would “crush us under a sense of our own inadequacy”. Enter the emancipatory potential of Sandel’s lottery in soothing theological despair by removing “schillerian optimism”. One lottery ticket for Harvard for every one who wants it. An extra ticket for legacy, the highly academic or the athletic student. The High School C student, the high-flyer, the loafing Boston Brahmin alike would all be reminded that their seat at the table was not down to their efforts alone. Chance, luck or the will of God all played a role. That, in turn, would serve as a balm both to the republic and the American soul.

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