On the rise of the meritocracy (from pages 76–78 and 99–100):

 

.... In every part of the world, whether in the boarding schools of Victorian England or the academies of Qing China or the Shi‘ite seminaries of Ottoman Iraq, traditional education had centered on cultivating a virtuous character.  Atomists abandoned such notions as mere cobwebs of repression.  Wherever they shaped educational practice, the system reoriented its young charges away from character and toward measured ability alone....  By the 1970s, universities worldwide had become training grounds for narrow expertise.  Inner qualities...gave way to the kind of impersonal performance that atomist subcultures have valued since time immemorial.  Honor and gentlemanly decency withered, while the obsession with application dossiers and examination scores gained ground....  Perhaps meritocracy’s greatest effects have been psychological.  Passage through its screening mechanisms has tended to draw today’s educated people into an atomist subculture regardless of their origins.  Psychological studies of mobility have explored the oddities of the “achievement syndrome.”  They have found everything from a subservience to authority, to a weakening of social ties, to the “underdefinition of identity” that comes when one mixes meeting performance standards in public with indulging in private.  A week on an elite university campus, or among careerists at the world’s law firms and banking houses, would confirm as much.  Whatever the clinical labels put on it, meritocracy of the sort in question channels its beneficiaries into an atomist sense of self.  Of course, meritocracy can have healthier versions that do not produce atomists.  Premodern Chinese officials went through competitive examinations in the classics, but that screening process impressed non-atomist ethical commitments on them.  Only the character-blind meritocracy of the twentieth century could have produced atomism’s new social base....  Beyond favoring a certain “product,” the atomist meritocracy has also generated a new view of social responsibility.  Young foresaw that equal opportunity would lessen its beneficiaries’ sense of duty.  Confident that their privileges were won fairly, “no longer weakened by self-doubt and self-criticism,” they would turn out “so impressed with their own importance as to lose sympathy with the people whom they govern.”  Confirmation of this prophecy came early.  Even in the 1950s, a sociologist noted the tempering of social criticism among an intelligentsia ever more absorbed into a “cult of gratitude.”  Defenders of the modern meritocracy will claim these images are mere caricature, but the shift needs to be taken seriously.  Even the language in which liberals now call for a sense of responsibility bespeaks the contrast with earlier, non‑atomist elites.  Duty has become no more than balance in an exchange between the upwardly mobile and their society.  One “gives back” to the system that elevates one to advantage.  The meritocracy has had an uneasy, ongoing debate with itself about such issues.  Yet the mere fact of that debate shows something in itself.  Premodern elites took obligation for granted, as something “built into” the junction between a robust character and its role.  Some questions only need asking after a proper self-understanding is lost....  In all these respects, meritocratic ideology and practice created a new social base for atomism worldwide....

.... Even where liberalism tries to correct for arbitrary inequalities, it still buys into the atomist ideal of people who strive for predictable rewards that, all else being equal, they then enjoy without owing much to anyone else.  Schooling has evolved in recent decades to reinforce this mentality.  Unlike how education under the pacts gave a lot of weight to civic socialization, education is now seen mainly as a machine to allocate rewards.  Valedictorians live in McMansions....  Still, we must ask why so much unease lingers about meritocracy itself.  Why does a ruling class created largely by meritocratic screening not claim, quite baldly, that it owes its authority to its talents?  The reason has to do with the character structure I have described.  If atomists said as much outright, it would mean basing power on inherent traits.  Hard questions would then arise.  As soon as a culture openly sets an elite apart from most people, attention naturally shifts away from who is entitled to be in the elite.  Instead, people ask what qualities members of that elite should have....  Since atomist character has no content or mission built in, any talk about qualities of leadership would be dangerous ground for atomists to tread.  Such a debate in the broader culture would fuel critiques of atomist dominance.  After all, the atomist elite has few of the qualities historically considered admirable in those who rule.  It thus finds it safer to obscure the link between traits and power.  Meritocracy must seem an ideal far from realization, as in the rhetoric of the 1940s.  This way, the debate can focus “in the meantime” on how to get still more capable people to the top, rather than on what to demand of those who have already got there....

 

 

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