Being a baseball fan my whole life, the conversation about yesterday’s most recent Hall of Fame (HOF) induction interested me because I think that institution for whatever its other faults acted in accordance with its meritocratic nature. Critics of yesterday’s election results missing that point also mistake how arguments for admission to a meritocracy should proceed..
To say that a particular player belongs in the Hall is to make a claim. Accordingly, the HOF lays out how to support any claim that a particular individual deserves membership. As Tyler Kepner noted in a recent New York Times column on the subject the baseball writers who vote on possible admission “are given these guidelines: ‘Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.’” Over sixty years ago, the innovative logician Stephen Toulmin clarified a claim is a “conclusion whose merits we are seeking to establish. The facts offered in such an effort, the “foundation for the claim”, are our data. However, in seeking to prove the validity of a claim, we cannot just choose any facts that suit us. The pertinence of data offered depends upon such information fitting a framework set by some organization possessing the authority to do so, providing what Toulmin calls a warrant, the rationale or generalization for grounding the claim in the available data. The warrant establishes “the credibility, relevance and strength of the evidence in relation to the target conclusions.” In this case, the HOF sets and owns the warrant, which includes all six categories of consideration above.
Those who complain that Bobby Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Sammy Sosa possessed remarkable greatness in their playing records, ability and contributions to their teams wish to ignore how those players stack up in the categories of integrity, sportsmanship, and character. Having enjoyed watching these players over their exciting careers (well, not Clemens as I am a lifelong New York Mets fan) doesn’t alter my or apparently over one-third of the voters view of the facts regarding their poor performance in those three categories. The objection posed by pundits and fans to this restriction that there is a distinct possibility that other players either already admitted to the HOF or still in contention for that honor may also have violated those standards doesn’t alter how the HOF should view this trio. Finding out that there were undiscovered cheaters on an exam doesn’t excuse those who were caught.
Meritocracies, which have existed at least since the time of Confucius, currently suffer from misunderstanding and misapplication. For example, the United States though often bruited as a meritocracy is more a ganglion of oligarchies given the ability available to advance to the highest tiers of influence and affluence not by knowledge or talent but through nepotism and networks. The Hall of Fame is a meritocracy: what matters in securing admission is not who you know but what you did — or didn’t do — including your actions in the realms of integrity, sportsmanship, and character. It should stay that way.
Admittedly, admission to Hall of Fame depends upon both objective and subjective data. We can dive into the nerdy weeds of wins above replacement and OPS and even SIERA or Skill-interactive Earned Run Average. That’s not possible for integrity, sportsmanship, and character. Many of those who wish that or believe United States already is a meritocracy cite standardized testing as the most important and objective metric for admission to the upper ranks of such a system. Conversely, those who decry the possibility or present state of the United States as a meritocracy call testing “a crooked yardstick”, a lever of inequality, a pillar of the system, the tool of tyranny, and Satan’s magic baton. Well, not exactly the last one but you get the idea. If you don’t believe me, Google (using Boolean terms) the two phrases “meritocracy” AND “standardized testing”, 28,200 results will pop up on your screen. Keep scrolling down and then scroll down some more and then more. I didn’t find any positive associations credited to the two phrases. However, there are those who understand that it’s a ‘strawman argument’ because the United States is not a meritocracy and I don’t think the UK, Ireland, France, or Germany are meritocracies either. But I’ll stick close to home in completing my argument.
Nathan Robinson in an article entitled ‘Meritocracy is a myth invented by the rich’ wrote that “The elite college admissions scandal in the US is a reminder that wealth, not talent, is what determines the opportunities you have in life.” He continued, “It’s simple: wealth always confers greater capacity to give your children the edge over other people’s children. If we wanted anything resembling a “meritocracy”, we would probably have to start by instituting full egalitarian communism.”
What are some of the markers that support Robinson’s argument?
Jeffrey Aaron Snyder (@JeffreyASnyder) Tweeted recently:
Do you want to get into Harvard? It helps to be one or more of the following: 1. wealthy 2. a legacy 3. an accomplished athlete.
Dropping ACT/SAT score requirements at elite schools like @Harvard will not level the admissions playing field.
Jeffrey Flier (@jflier) Tweeted:
“interesting fact about Harvard *undergraduate* admissions – 43% of white admits are recruited athletes, legacies, on deans interest list (typically philanthropy) or children of faculty & staff. And 3/4 of these would have been rejected if not in these categories. I’m not surprised.
Is testing involved in admissions? But to have so many elite colleges that serve as the waiting rooms to the inner sancta of power ease entry for those with these hereditary and unmerited advantages by definition spoils the idea of a meritocracy existing. In other words, many people enter elite institutions not by SAT scores (which are accurate predictors of whether a student would get a degree or good GRE General Test scores, and correlate more highly with students’ graduate GPA than smoking is likely to predict lung cancer, but through other means) but by who their parents were. Or grandparents. And if the test scores are good those factors do come into play. As Kuncel and Sackett have found, “Standardized tests are not just proxy tests of wealth, and many students from less affluent backgrounds do brilliantly on them. But the class differences in skill development are real…”
Getting in is enhanced greatly by being born to the right family in the right place. “43 percent of the white applicants accepted to Harvard University between 2009 and 2014 (who) were athletes, the children of alumni, or the children of donors and faculty” show the lingering clout of ‘legacy admissions’, which Jim Jump described as “A form of property transfer from one generation to another”. The publication of the skewed geographic representation of Princeton students from wealthy enclaves is not only true for other lusted after universities but demonstrates the degree to which demographics are destiny. The collegiate practice of covertly collecting and analyzing data on prospective students such as their web activity proves that admission officers are more interested in clues of money than merit in those searches. Yet the misdescription of meritocracy continues and usually by pundits who must be counted as part of the supposed meritocracy.
Matthew Yglesias (@mattyglesias) Tweeted:
“This is interesting, argues that the scale of the legacy advantage in Harvard admissions has risen steadily over the past twenty years to keep the legacy share of the class constant.”
As Freddie deBoer contextualized this phenomenon in a recent Substack post:
“…legacy admissions are practiced by a small number of institutions and account for a small percentage of admitted students at schools that do. Yes, a fairly large percentage of the most competitive colleges and universities practice some sort of legacy preference, 56% of the top 250 colleges in terms of admissions percentage.” And while the universities and colleges where most students will go such as Brookdale Community College here in New Jersey or East Carolina are unlikely to practice the same sort of legacy admissions more than half of the top 250 colleges in this country, the metaphorical avenues from those campuses post graduation to the highest decision-making roles in the organizations that control our daily lives are both longer and scarcer.
Consider this finding contained within Adrian Wooldridge’s book The Aristocracy of Talent How Meritocracy Made the Modern World: “elite employers such as consultancies, investment banks and big law firms and lucky breaks of their own (to those with well-connected social networks). A study by Lauren Rivera, of Northwestern University’s Kellogg school of management, documents the sundry ways which delete employers screen for class privilege ‘smarts’. They favor people who have filled their leisure time doing ‘upper-class things’ like playing tennis or going skiing. They put heavy emphasis on subjective things like ‘fit rather than objective tests.”
If something other than testing such as wealth or other inheritance plays a highly significant role in the college admissions that everyone thinks matter, then why is testing still hobgoblin? Is it because there is ignorance of the role that our social membership plays or more likely a reticence to acknowledge that to really change the situation we would have to be willing to forgo some of the advantages we already hold as a result of our own social networks? It’s easy to complain about tests if like 99.9% of the critics of testing we are people who are done with number two pencils and filling in the bubbles on an answer sheet in our lives. It would be much more difficult to acknowledge that we seek and gain acceptance to networks because of the advantage they confer upon us and our families in various aspects of our lives.
It’s not merit principally that gets you in the right circles; it may be a birth certificate, or recycled money, it may be a contact list or Facebook group of friends and relatives, but it’s not merit.
The insistence on using the word meritocracy coined by Michael Young obstructs the kind of understanding necessary to make any progress in this area. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat used the term, but then suggested as its component elements things other than merit. If “unacknowledged mechanisms preserve privilege, reward the inside game, and ensure that the advantages enjoyed them one generation can be passed safely onward to the next” then we are not talking about merit. And we certainly are not talking about test scores. Correlation is not causation; that phrase suggested by 18th Century Scottish philosopher David Hume in A Treatise on Human Nature, was also heard frequently beneath the low ceilings on ETS’s campus. Those who speak about a correlation between people getting high test scores becoming the top echelon of the meritocracy also ignore two facts: not everyone at the top got the highest test scores and not everyone with the highest test scores finds themselves as rulers of the others.
Oligarchy, or plutocracy, explain far more the structure of this country then do test scores. Are more like what Michael Young, the early popularizer of the term meritocracy, believed we would become: a society where privilege possesses exponential benefits in deciding how much money you can make, how many decisions you can control, and even how long you can live. In other words, we are not a meritocracy. You can’t have your shibboleth and eat it too: either the ruling class got there more through social networks or smarts. Even claiming a combination makes our situation a hybrid with plenty weight to who you know instead of what you know. And that matters.
The realization makes me think Malcolm Gladwell erred in his forgiveness of the admission policies of elite college like Harvard: “The endless battle over admissions in the United States proceeds on the assumption that some great moral principle is at stake in the matter of whom schools like Harvard choose to let in—that those who are denied admission by the whims of the admissions office have somehow been harmed. If you are sick and a hospital shuts its doors to you, you are harmed. But a selective school is not a hospital, and those it turns away are not sick. Élite schools, like any luxury brand, are an aesthetic experience—an exquisitely constructed fantasy of what it means to belong to an élite —and they have always been mindful of what must be done to maintain that experience.” But you are harmed if one of the prime ways of being in the dominating networks is to be on that campus, be in those clubs, meet those people. These lower layers of the ruling oligarchy possess the basic information on how to succeed at the tasks that serve as gates to the best positions in life. Clubs, fraternities, teams, residences, and other associations become the media through which older members transmit that information about how things work selectively to existing or prospective members of the oligarchy. What really matters is that they also decide with the tasks are. They are the designers of ‘these tests’.
While such social networks exist in many different strata of our society, they are by no means equal in their influence. The findings of a Brookings Institution report of a very large study conducted in Charlotte, North Carolina would seem to me to be relevant in other parts of our country noted that “The character of social networks varies by race and gender. Whites see the greatest advantages. White men benefit from the richest pool of social capital, with a large, broad, and strong set of connections, including multiple professional contacts, family members, and personal associates. The networks of white women are not quite as valuable as for white men—though they do report good access to financial support.”
Of course, if we dismantled the networks and figured out some other way of choosing those with the most critical decision-making rights this issue changes drastically, but these networks will not go quietly if they go at all.
And what I must admit will also not easily fade is this ironic insistence by elites themselves to pretend that this country and its main organizations are actually a meritocracy. Thus, tomorrow we will say goodbye to this illusion of meritocracy being made possible by standardized testing to look at the problem of where the authority to give a test originates.
To build on one of my comments from a few days ago, and to keep this personal, I have two children, one applying to college now, one in their final year at a UK university. Their father and I were both ‘first generation’ HE undergraduates. Both my children struggled to work out what to do post-compulsory schooling, not because they aren’t bright (although I would say that, wouldn’t I), but because they had zilch guidance from their schools (they attended different schools in different counties) about what they might do next, what they might study, where it might be ‘good’ to do that. Apart from the assumption that because they were ‘assessed’ by their schools as likely to obtain ‘good’ A level results, they would be going to university, there was very little of substance. I am probably overegging this for dramatic effect, but that’s how it FEELS.
In the end, both got those ‘good’ grades but sensibly took a year out to decide what to do/where to go etc. I’m not against this, actually I think it’s a good idea for a lot of young people, but I do resent the assumption by many policymakers and academics that once you are/your family is on the ‘right track’, you stay on it. They are not ‘first generation’ undergraduates, but that does not automatically mean that their parents know all the ‘right’ people and all the ‘right’ stuff to get them to the ‘right’ places… We are still scrabbling at the edges of the social mobility mountain, that nebulous entity known as the ‘elite’. My older child is in their final year of a degree, in a subject they love, at a university they love, in a city they love, but it could all have gone in quite another direction. They are likely to get a very good degree and go on to be a highly productive member of society. Similarly, my younger child has identified a place and a course they think/hope they will love, but it is way outside our collective experience, on another continent. For such life decisions to be based on three lettered grades at A level seems ridiculous.
I’ll stop ranting now.