BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York this is On The Media. Brooke Gladstone is off this week, I'm Bob Garfield. Two starkly different and highly interlocking news stories broke this week. The first was the president's proposed 2020 budget, which would cut more than $7 billion from the Department of Education.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Apparently in there the notion that we'll do away with subsidizing student loans loan forgiveness, that kind of thing.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The proposal would eliminate a program created by President George W. Bush that forgives federal student loans for certain borrowers who go on to work in public service or for a nonprofit after they have made payments for 10 years. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: Overall, the proposal would reduce college loan subsidies by $207 billion over 10 years. The consequence more obstacles for the non rich to get a college education. And then, meanwhile--
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The college admission bribery scandal rocking the nation. Actress Felicity Huffman leaving court. One of the dozens of high powered celebrities, executives and coaches accused of forging documents and photos. Cheating on SATs and bribing school officials to get their children into elite universities. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: Holy hell. Lifestyles of the rich and famous bribe your kid into Georgetown edition. Jaw dropping allegations on the obscene abuse of privilege for the purpose of giving your teen underachievers a leg up–and of course these accusations concern only the criminal expression of elite advantage. The scandal has also called attention to the completely legal multibillion dollar industry of test prep and college consulting that confers major advantages to the wealthy. This is the New York Times Jennifer Medina on Thursday's The Daily podcast.
JENNIFER MEDINA: If you believe that education, and that a college education specifically, is the great equalizer or can be the great equalizer of our country. What this shows you is that that system is completely broken. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: Well, gosh that's not the story we get from our leaders. They have another achievement narrative altogether.
BARACK OBAMA: Generations of patriots fought to keep America a land of opportunity. Where anyone–of any race, any religion, from any background–can make it if they try. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: Presidents and social studies teachers have been telling us that our whole lives. But as Nathan Robinson wrote in The Guardian this week quote, 'this scandal only begins to reveal the lies that sustained the American idea of meritocracy. Well that's cold water in the face. Meritocracy after all is a word that suggests innate fairness and reward for accomplishment, the opposite of class privilege–and seemingly the perfect expression of the American ideal of endless possibility. But reality sometimes lies hidden below the surface, until turbulence pushes it into view. It's what geologists call 'uplift.' This hour, without any preplanning and based entirely on recent news, turns out to be all about uplift. How our current political turbulence is rapidly pushing not just problems but also long buried potential solutions to the surface. Shortly, we will dig deeply into economic and social policy but we'll begin with a meditation on this week's fresh outcropping–the myth of meritocracy. Come to discover the word that so seems to distill our equal opportunity values was originally coined as satire. This from British sociologist Michael Young's 1958The Rise of the Meritocracy, a dystopian novel lampooning the British educational system.
JOHN PATRICK LEARY: What Young said was that what we have now is not an aristocracy of birth but a meritocracy of talent.
BOB GARFIELD: John Patrick Leary is the author of Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism.One of which is meritocracy.
JOHN PATRICK LEARY: The satirical point there is that merit is determined not by an accident of one's birth as in an aristocratic title, but instead merit is determined by one's access to an educational institution, which one is able to attend because of an accident of one's birth. And so meritocracy is a combination of merit and aristocracy and the point that Young was trying to make originally was that the meritocracy was a new form of aristocracy that hid the old class privileges behind a veneer of educational equality.
BOB GARFIELD: So even though it sounds egalitarian–after all what could be fairer than to proceed based on your own skills, talent, experience and so on–in fact, just creates a gigantic then overlap with old fashioned aristocracy because it was the old fashioned aristocrats who really had access to the education that could confer your merit.
JOHN PATRICK LEARY: Yeah and when you think about what merit means and how we measure it and how we assess it, we think about what college did you go to? How do you present yourself? What kind of voice do you use in public settings? What do you look like? What gender are you? What race are you? There are all these kinds of measures of merit that have nothing to do with one's talents or with one's skills. And even one's talents and skills are themselves, of course, determined by your access to places that you learn talents and skills. And so there's no way of defining merit that doesn't involve some kind of social inequality. As you say it suggests a kind of, to use another popular metaphor for, an equal playing field.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: So that you, based on your own merit, your own God given talent, that determines success.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Regardless of where you start out in life, if you work hard, if you do it for the right reasons, you can succeed in the United States of America.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Education in this country is an opportunity for all who show both the skill, the talent, intellect and the energy and the desire to be educated. It's a meritocracy. [END CLIP]
JOHN PATRICK LEARY: In which we all have a kind of equal chance to rise based on our talents.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, but once again the word sounds really good, and maybe it was inevitable that in time it would be uttered not in satire but absolutely without irony. When did it start to turn that way?
JOHN PATRICK LEARY: Well, I think it started to become very popular again in the –that's my sense. That meritocracy was a way of celebrating a kind of technocratic ideal of good governance and popular participation without class privileges or inherited titles and so forth. But in Tony Blair's Britain, meritocracy was a big watchword of his administration.
TONY BLAIR: And the new establishment, it's not a meritocracy. It's a power elite, of money shifters, middlemen, speculators, people whose self interest will always come before the national or the public interest. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: And Michael Young who coined the term originally, you know, was onto this and had something to say about the expropriation of the term by Tony Blair and the like. He said, 'ability of a conventional kind which used to be distributed between the classes more or less at random has become much more highly concentrated by the engine of education.' Which seems to get us right to the nub of this week's dual outrages. The rigging of the game against people without means and for those with ridiculous amounts of money.
JOHN PATRICK LEARY: It's important when we think about meritocracy to you remember that second half of the word. That it's an aristocracy based on a perceived demonstration of merit. It's not just a question of using the correct words or changing a vocabulary to describe the scandal. But the problem is even if you put aside all of the stuff that we've been talking about, meritocracies original satirical meaning and how it's been forgotten and so on, what we are talking about when we talk about a meritocracy is a system of equal access that doesn't exist by any kind of reasonable measure–especially when we're talking about American higher education. So the college scandal that has erupted over the last week is a cheating scandal on one level. It's a scandal about parents and these kind of unsavory actors rigging in an illegal way the system of testing and so forth to get these privileged, but apparently not very talented, children into these elite schools. But it's better understood as a sort of flagrant example of the way that the college admission system works all the time rather than an example of the rules breaking down.
BOB GARFIELD: It seems to me that what you're describing is a word that is not only in illusion but a kind of linguistic Potemkin village that obscures the ugly reality beneath it.
JOHN PATRICK LEARY: Yeah. You know, when we sort of assume that as a sort of bedrock principle, we tend not to interrogate whether it should be or whether it is in fact a lived reality for most people. You know, people often invoke the myth of meritocracy–that's a phrase you probably have heard a lot this week. There's actually sort of two myths. First, the myth that there is such a thing. And then, the myth that the United States is committed to that imaginary thing in actual practice. And when we talk about meritocracy, we're sort of assuming a national commitment to equality without really asking whether that commitment exists, and without asking how we intend to preserve it. You know, after everybody everybody's been indicted and after all of the prosecutions have gone forward, USC is still going to cost $70,000 a year or something. So the really big scandal here is not necessarily how college admissions work when people are cheating but how it works when people aren't cheating.
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BOB GARFIELD: John Pat, thank you very much.
JOHN PATRICK LEARY: Thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: John Patrick Leary is a professor of English at Wayne State University and author ofKeywords: The New Language of Capitalism.
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BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, a daring voyage to Utopia. This is On The Media.