Where Does This Escalator Go, Exactly?

This was a good week for reading. I finished the summer/fall Oxford American, revisited some of Derek Sivers’s best work, re-read Graham Duncan, and listened to some vintage Hardcore History (what would happen if some sort of disease broke out in the modern world, indeed?).

But my favorite was a multi-book review essay by Rana Foroohar in the FT, entitled “Why Meritocracy Isn’t Working.”

In addition to a damning moral argument — meritocracy, as opposed to the random inheritance of aristocracy, insists that those who do better are in fact better — Foroohar cites statistics that show the lie. One book she reviews (Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit), for example, finds a direct correlation between family income and SAT scores: children of families with earnings of at least $200,000 have a one-in-five chance of scoring above 1,400 on the SAT, while children of families earning only $20,000 have a 1-in-50 chance of getting the same score.

And all for what? “One Harvard admissions officer quoted in Sandel’s book worries that those who spend their high school and college years jumping through hoops of high achievement wind up as ‘dazed survivors of some bewildering life-long boot-camp.'”

Most interestingly, Foroohar wonders if this is a big part of the reason that so many elite Millennials are turning out for protests or turning down the spoils of the winner-take-all version of the meritocracy. As it becomes clearer and clearer (from underneath a pile of student-loan debt that now exceeds $2 trillion) that the race does not even necessarily go to the strong or the smart, people are beginning to ask better questions about the supposed escalator.

What if it’s narrower or shorter than we believed?

What if it’s not taking us where we wanted to go in the first place?