Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

Americans Don’t Believe in Meritocracy — They Believe in Fake-it-ocracy

| Mar. 18, 2019

Americans believe in meritocracy in principle. Polls show that significant majorities — between 67 percent and 70 percent since Gallup began asking the question in 2003 — believe that, when it comes to university admissions, “applicants should be admitted solely on the basis of merit.”

The most successful Broadway show in living memory, “Hamilton,” is an exuberant celebration of the self-made man —the first US Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, who was born into poverty (“a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman”) but indefatigably read, wrote, and fought his way to the top.

Unlike his wealthy rival, Aaron Burr, Hamilton doesn’t get admitted to Princeton, but has to settle for a scholarship at King’s College. It doesn’t matter. Hamilton gets “a lot farther by working a lot harder / By being a lot smarter / By being a self-starter.” Nothing can stop this young, scrappy and hungry prodigy from “rising up.”

Yet in practice Americans don’t believe in meritocracy at all. A significant number of wealthy Americans have no problem at all with the idea of hereditary privilege, so long as they are spared the social obligations of traditional aristocracy. At the same time, a significant number of educated Americans explicitly support and practice systematic racial discrimination — even if they justify today’s “affirmative action” as a form of redress for past discrimination. The result is the present corrupt and inequitable system of undergraduate admissions at the elite universities.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Ferguson, Niall.“Americans Don’t Believe in Meritocracy — They Believe in Fake-it-ocracy.” The Boston Globe, March 18, 2019.

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