Do you think of your life achievements as something you have deserved because of hard work, or as something that has come through accidents of birth, upbringing, social class and educational opportunity which obligated one to “pay it forward” to society for the benefits one has enjoyed? The former stance defines what is known as “meritocracy”, a term, according to Andrew Delbanco did not exist prior to 1958. The latter stance is known under the term noblesse oblige or the obligation of the nobility to use their standing for the larger good.
Delbanco, in his book College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be, argues that we have witnessed a shift from the latter to the former in the university world. Admissions at many universities no longer favor either wealthy alumni nor minority students but look more at test scores and academic resumes. Delbanco observes that in former days, students from wealthy families like those of Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy knew they weren’t at one of the elite Ivies because of their academic talents but because of their family’s wealth. What Delbanco observes is that this privilege often engendered a corresponding sense of responsibility to devote oneself to the public good. I won’t argue here whether the Roosevelts or the Kennedys achieved public goods, but it was clear that these were at least some of what motivated their public service.
In a discussion with some graduate students, I asked a question Delbanco as a Harvard grad was asked–do you deserve to be here? Many, in really being honest said “yes”. And it is true that those who were in the room had worked, and were working hard. They’d studied when others played, took AP courses, were serious undergrads. What they seemed less aware of in some (not all!) cases were the opportunities that they had no choice in–the families into which they were born, the schools they attended, the access from an early age to educational resources, the affluence of parents in many (not all) cases, the help they received from parents and school counselors in choosing good undergrad institutions, the incredible fortune to work on taxpayer funded research projects and receive taxpayer funded stipends, and on and on.
Delbanco says that while there is much to commend meritocracy with its focus on personal excellence, if it loses sight of the fact that all who enjoy such opportunities are also blessed with undeserved favor, it can lead to a dark side of an attitude that says “each one for themselves, and devil take the hindmost”–that forgets those, in our country and others who haven’t had the same opportunities and privileges.
Delbanco self-identifies as a secular Jew but makes a striking observation that should give the religious among us pause:
“The shared point here is that our oldest colleges have abandoned the cardinal principle of the religion out of which they arose: the principle that no human being deserves anything based on his or her merit….To the extent that human beings are capable of worthy actions, they are unmerited gifts from a merciful God, and should be occasions for humility rather than pride.” (pp. 138-139)
I wonder if this gets to the heart of much of the polarization in our society. How do we hold together the quest for personal excellence and the rewards that accrue thereto, and yet also recognize that our very lives, gifts, and circumstances are “graced” things that are never ours alone?