Lani Guinier became the first woman of color appointed as a tenured professor at Harvard Law School, so she is well-versed in the role elite colleges play in perpetuating privilege. Guinier, also a civil rights activist, argues that all universities and colleges – particularly the most prestigious – need to develop new admission standards that emphasize choosing students who will potentially become engaged citizens and participate in collaborative problem solving. Receive her cogent new book by contributing to Truthout by clicking here now.
The following excerpt is Lani Guinier’s introduction to The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America:
Suspended on steam tunneling up from the government-issue heating grates, the last of the fall foliage dances just beyond the windowpane. In the crisp autumn air, the leaves ricochet off the grimy glass before coming to rest on the banks of the buildings’ curved cement ledge, just outside the science classroom. These dancing leaves are barely visible to the sixteen- and seventeen-year-old teenagers unpacking their book bags atop rows of smooth, black Formica countertop, crowded with petri dishes, glass beakers, and gas blowtorches. It’s a Monday morning in November, the time of year when high school seniors around the country carefully calculate their college admissions odds. A solemn stillness reigns as nine boys and one girl wait for the Advanced Placement physics teacher to begin the double-period lesson that is the toughest course in this public school. Of the seven high school seniors and three juniors, only one—a policeman’s son—does not have parents who graduated from college. Nevertheless all ten students are preoccupied with the same thing: getting into college.
“Who remembers what the force on a turning object is called?” The teacher surveys the room as he toys with a piece of chalk.
A hand from the front row shoots up. “Torque!” cries the son of a computer engineer. Wisps of his tousled, orange hair outline his pale face, suddenly ruddy with his excitement.
The teacher nods. The boy beams. He quickly swivels in his chair to note the reactions of his classmates. Annoyed by their tired, first-class-of-the-day expressions, he glances back toward the teacher for approval, but the teacher has already returned to the blackboard. Undeterred, the boy blurts out, “Oh, I’m so smart.”
The class seems amused but mostly inattentive. A few students suppress yawns. The others busy themselves trying to find the right page in the textbook. A deep cough from the back of the room breaks the silence. The proprietor of the cough, the policeman’s son, wears an ironic smile. He has rocked his chair back to rest against the countertop right below the gas blowtorch. Jutting out his chest he bellows, “You shouldn’t say that about yourself!”
“I can,” the first boy says with a sneer. A smug grin spreads over his face. “I can,” he repeats, “when I got a 1600. Bitch.” (Today a perfect score would be a 2400.)
A loud thump echoes through the classroom as the front legs of the second boy’s chair hit the floor. His eyes narrow. The smile on his face dissolves in a brew of contempt and hurt.
The orange-haired boy’s sly excuse has worked. He was proud to know the answer to the teacher’s question; but his real agenda was to broadcast his perfect SAT scores. Except for the scraping of the chalk on the blackboard, the room is quiet.
But unable to contain his enthusiasm, the braggart with the orange locks interrupts the class several more times, proclaiming his flawless SAT scores again and again. Awe morphs into disgust among his classmates, yet no one else speaks out. The policeman’s boy squirms. He sits hunched with his elbows cocked on his desk, his stubby fingers cupping his chin.
Finally, after the fourth unanswered SAT-score announcement, the policeman’s boy sits straight up, his face still glowering from the earlier insult. “That’s enough,” he snarls. “Shut up already about your scores.”
Another student, a tall, long-limbed boy, enters the fray. His parents both graduated from an Ivy League college, and his dad is a science professor. This leggy fellow chewing on a pencil has said nothing all class, but he now pitches forward in his chair as he calmly assumes the role of defense attorney for the braggart. “If I got a 1600,” the college professor’s boy says, “I’d be talking about it too.”
The policeman’s son grimaces. His lip curls as he reluctantly acknowledges the shifting classroom alliance. It is now two against one. He plants his hands on the desktop. “Maybe so,” he mumbles and briefly contemplates the thought that the SAT creates a special exception for crude boasting.
“But it doesn’t mean you have to be a jerk,” he finally shoots back.
For the immodest boy who has hit the SAT jackpot, there is no difference between accomplishment and arrogance. In the terminology of the SATs, a 1600 (or a 2400, depending on what year the test was taken) is an achievement worthy of mentioning—several times. Indeed it is such an accomplishment that it cries out for mention not just by the boy with the perfect scores but by his peer advocate as well.
Both the boastful boy and his tall, lanky supporter know the game. The rules, so the thinking goes, are objective, neutral, and, above all, fair. And that boy won. Using the SAT test as a yardstick, college admissions officers select who they think are the best-prepared students, meaning those likely to get the highest first-year grades. Presumably the SAT not only measures college preparedness; it also provides an incentive system for high school students to work hard and take a rigorous curriculum. The tenets of high-stakes admissions testing—the testocracy—have become so widely shared that they form the building blocks of a secular religion among college-bound elites: if you test well, you deserve to enter a top college. In some ways you have earned the right not just to succeed but to preen. And, such students might think, you owe nothing to anyone, not to the community whose tax dollars supported your AP physics lab with a teacher/student ratio of one to ten, and not to your classmates, whose own egos and futures are also on the line.
The testocracy, a twenty-first-century cult of standardized, quantifiable merit, values perfect scores but ignores character. Indeed, the boy with the winning scores, derisive grin, and bad manners could be a poster child for the closely fought college admissions competition. The testocracy teaches the cocky boy to internalize success and to take personal credit for the trappings of privilege, including the educational resources and networks of his college-educated parents. He has learned that individual achievement trumps collective commitment. Those who reach the finish line faster will reap their rewards here on earth. And one of those rewards is the right to brag.
The boy still squirming with resentment in the back row knows the difference between being proud and being a jerk. He has the instincts of character. One should not boast, preen, or complain. Yet, he knows that, to the academic world, his character counts less than his SAT scores. He knows that the SAT opens doors to the best schools and by extension to long-term success. This boy is from a working-class family.
The son of the policeman and the school secretary, he is hoping to be the first in his family to attend college. But in order to give himself and his children-to-be a better life than his parents could provide for him, he needs financial aid. He plays hockey, but because he barely got 1300 on his SATs, his athletic skill was not enough to win a much-needed scholarship. Thus far he is losing in the college admissions contest. His test scores and his self-esteem both take a beating. Reduced to protesting from the back row, he struggles to compete while staying grounded. His parents cannot afford SAT prep classes. He will simply retake the test, hoping that his scores improve.
THIS IS THE challenge I propose in this book: to reconsider the status quo. We can and must adjust our understanding of testocratic merit to better reflect what we want to value in a democratic society. Testocratic merit makes the assumption that test scores are the best evidence of applicants’ worth, without paying much attention to the environments in which one finds those individuals. It thereby ignores several built-in biases that privilege those who are already quite advantaged. However, if our society truly values education as a means of preparing citizens to participate in the decisions that affect their lives as individuals and the society they create as a collective, as well as to enable individuals to improve their lots and their society, then we need to reexamine exactly how we define “merit.”
Harvard economist Amartya Sen defines “merit” as an incentive system that rewards the actions a society values.  Defining merit through students’ grades and test scores is evidence that our society values individual competition above all else. As the policeman’s son reminds us, our obsession with testing is often depressing but it need not be permanent. In fact, the historical journey that led to this current culture, which I trace in chapter 2, demonstrates how our national understanding of “merit” can change and has changed over time. We are at a turning point in history. It is now time for another culture shift: from honoring testocratic merit to honoring democratic merit.
We can alter how we think about merit, from something a child is born with to something that she (and/or we) can help cultivate. We can shift from prioritizing individualized testing to group collaboration among all stakeholders, including students, parents, teachers, and administrators. Unfortunately, it’s not going to be easy, as the entire undergirding of our educational system rests upon notions of individual achievement and the promotion of competition. Yet we must shift from promoting testocratic merit, which has produced dubious results, to developing democratic merit, because the latter is the foundation upon which our national values truly ought to rest.
I am not trying to destroy the concept of merit here. I am trying to redefine what it means to be meritorious beyond a student’s performance on standardized tests or in isolated academic situations. If we are going to have a “meritocracy”—which really just means “rule by merit”—then we need a better conception of what now constitutes merit in our society versus what it should be.
THE TERM MERITOCRACY was coined by British sociologist Michael Young as a spoof. In his 1958 satire, The Rise of Meritocracy, 1870–2033, Young gave an imaginary account of a smug elite: instead of ancestry, ability had determined their social position. Rule by this select few would appear both benign and bountiful because of a talent-based formula for assigning status. The best would rise to the top using this simple equation: intelligence (or aptitude) + effort = merit. In Young’s hypothetical meritocracy, test scores (or other suitable substitutes for innate talent or aptitude) would matter the most; because those who had risen in the status hierarchy would have attained their status through talent and effort, they would also be immune to criticism. Those at the top of this status hierarchy would be able to justify their continued rule because they had earned it.
To Young, such a testocracy would not be a shining vision but rather a nightmare. And more than forty years after the publication of his book, Young is “sadly disappointed” at how the word he coined has “gone into general circulation, especially in the United States.”  He intended to warn society about what might happen if, in assigning social status, we continued to place gaining formal educational qualifications over all other considerations. In Young’s fictional world, anyone unable to jump through educational hoops, including many—like the policeman’s son—from the working class, would be barred from a new, exclusive social class as discriminatory as older ones based on inheritance.
And that is exactly what has happened. Through their admissions criteria, our colleges and universities have adopted Young’s nightmarish meritocracy. Just as Young anticipated, merit as defined by test-based admissions has harnessed “schools and universities to the task of sieving people” according to a “narrow band of values.”  Those values, as it turns out, are the production and reproduction of privilege but without obligation or shame. The rise of the testocratic meritocracy has enabled those already at the top of the heap to continue to preside without a sense of moral or political accountability. The privileged have come to believe that their “advancement comes from their own merits,” and thus they are entitled to their power.
But this is not the only possible definition of merit. The term merit originally meant “earned by service.”  Giving good service, such as working for the benefit of community rather than simply for personal advantage, is what made someone worthy of entitlements, such as admission to top-ranked colleges and plum internships and job opportunities. Democratic merit revives this notion by providing educational access to those who serve the goals and contribute to the conditions of a thriving democracy. It does what our current meritocracy fails to do: it creates an incentive system that emphasizes not just the possession of individual talent and related personal success but also the ability to collaborate and the commitment to building a better society for more people. Our nation has always prided itself on overthrowing tyranny. We now have a new one in our midst: the tyranny of our current understanding of meritocracy.
1. Amartya Sen, “Merit and Justice,” in Meritocracy and Economic Inequality, ed. Kenneth Arrow, Samuel Bowles, and Steven Durlauf (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 5, 14.
2. Michael Young, “Down with Meritocracy: The Man Who Coined the Word Four Decades Ago Wishes Tony Blair Would Stop Using It,” Guardian (UK), June 28, 2001, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2001/jun/29/comment.
4. The Latin word deservire means “to devote oneself to the service of,” which in Vulgar Latin came to mean “to merit by service.” Dictionary.com, https://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=desert.
Copyright (2015) by Lani Guinier. Not to be reposted without permission of the publisher, Beacon Press.
Not everyone can pay for the news. But if you can, we need your support.
Truthout is widely read among people with lower incomes and among young people who are mired in debt. Our site is read at public libraries, among people without internet access of their own. People print out our articles and send them to family members in prison — we receive letters from behind bars regularly thanking us for our coverage. Our stories are emailed and shared around communities, sparking grassroots mobilization.
We’re committed to keeping all Truthout articles free and available to the public. But in order to do that, we need those who can afford to contribute to our work to do so — especially now, because we have just 2 days left to raise $33,000 in critical funds.
We’ll never require you to give, but we can ask you from the bottom of our hearts: Will you donate what you can, so we can continue providing journalism in the service of justice and truth?