Universities and Meritocracy — Less Related Than You’d Think

The campus of Colgate University, March 31, 2019 (Brent Buterbaugh/National Review)

What do universities have to do with the rise of meritocracy? Something to be sure, but less than you might think.

British writer Adrian Wooldridge has a new book out entitled The Aristocracy of Talent, which is about the great social change over the last 500 years or so, from society built around rigid status distinctions and into one where everyone was free to succeed in accordance with his abilities to create and produce. The book has much to do with universities and I offer my thoughts about it in today’s Martin Center article.

Was university education crucial to the economic development in Britain and the U.S.? Wooldridge observes that it was not. Most of the builders and innovators who sparked economic development were people who relied on their native intelligence. Mass education (including college) was more a consequence of meritocratic enrichment than the cause of it.

What has Wooldridge worried is that influential university professors are leading an attack on meritocracy. They think it’s unfair that some people are born with talents that get rewarded in the free market and want government to step in. Their egalitarian/communitarian notions have found fertile soil in the Democratic Party.

He’s also worried that today’s meritocrats will manage to become like the feudal lords of old, protecting themselves against competition by “investing” in higher education for their children. I don’t think that’s much to worry about, since people are still rewarded not on the basis of their educational pedigrees but on what they accomplish.

It’s a very interesting book, but the author’s proposals would make things worse, not better.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.