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The Woke Meritocracy

How telling the right stories about overcoming oppression in the right way became a requirement for entering the elite credentialing system

Blake Smith
April 05, 2021
This article is part of Wokeness, Social Justice, and Cancel Culture.
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Every level of American education, from earliest grades to elite universities, is informed, to a greater or lesser extent, by two apparently contradictory forces: competition in the name of meritocracy, and identitarian notions of social justice. Meritocracy and wokeness seem to be at odds, particularly in debates about criteria for college admissions or the continued existence of selective public secondary schools. Between those who see meritocratic admissions as giving fair rewards to hard work and ability, and those who demand that schools focus on students’ identities rather than individual performance, there appears little room for compromise.

But the two positions have unexamined common ground, coexisting in the consciousness of students and teachers. At the University of Chicago, where I have taught for three years, I see students combine meritocratic and identitarian ideas in ways that reveal these two apparently antagonistic modes of thought to be not only compatible, but complementary symptoms of our collective failure to think honestly about the real purposes of education. Notions of meritocracy and social justice alike direct our attention away from the way our schools do not simply reward competence or resist inequality, but also shape the character of our elites and our very nation.

My students have experienced their schooling as both a long, isolating competition and as a continuous solicitation to stage their membership in racial and other identity groups. By the time they come into my yearlong great-books-style seminar, “Self, Culture, and Society,” they have been through more than a decade of evaluations that compare them to peers through supposedly objective (and therefore, uncriticizable) measures of competence. They are ranked not so much by teachers as by rubrics and metrics, and they learn to see the world in terms of such individualizing but impersonal rankings.

In almost every instance, my students come to study at the University of Chicago not because some particular quality about this school (its “nerdy” reputation, location, etc.) appealed to them, but because it was the “highest-ranked” school that accepted them. Once here, they organize their leisure and career aspirations around rankings. Many student clubs require potential members to submit applications and undergo interviews, and students seem to get a certain sadistic thrill from doing to others as the educational system has done to them. Already in their sophomore years, they are applying for internships that will open paths to careers in consulting and finance, which they also perceive in terms of rank—only a few “top” firms in New York, they have learned from peers and parents, are worthy of a bright young person’s ambition.

But many of my students have also learned that, while working themselves to the top of whatever rankings are on offer is the only way to prove themselves worthy of respect, they must combine their ambition with affability. This is not an easy lesson—less socially skilled students often rankle faculty sensibilities by directly asking, even fighting, for a better grade. Too transparent in their striving desperation, they lose out to more Machiavellian peers.

One of my most disturbingly honest students, a young Asian American man who often wore a sweatshirt letting fellow students know he had attended one of the most expensive high schools in the country, told me that his parents had made him “do sports as a kid, so that white people would like me.” Indeed, he had the casual, embodied confidence of someone who had grown up knocking limbs against the sons of old money. He had figured out for himself, he said, to approach English teachers with poignant anecdotes about how much a particular poem had touched him—dazzled by the possibility of living their Dead Poets Society fantasies, how could they give less than an A to such a sensitive, promising young man?

Our elite universities have long had as a primary (although not always explicit) mission to nurture this kind of personality, in which intelligence and ambition are smilingly hidden by a “well-rounded” and not apparently mercenary interest in sports and art. An ingratiating human touch has been part of admissions criteria to elite universities since the early 20th century, when notions of “character” were developed to keep the children of Jewish immigrants from getting into the Ivy League on the basis of mere brainpower. Since then, generations of immigrants have taught their children that their intellectual acumen won’t get them far unless they can also mimic the ideal personality of the American elite. This image of the smart, athletic, sociable individual who sheathes his competitive edge in good humor has likewise shaped our national culture, in which the aim of mass education has been conflated with preparing children for college. University admissions, particularly at the most exclusive schools, is thus not only a matter of finding the worthiest candidates, but of telling young Americans what kind of person they ought to be. Debates about college admissions standards are debates about the moral character of our elites and the nation they rule.

What is new about education’s turn to woke identity politics is not the fact that administrators and faculty are influencing students’ sense of self, but rather the sort of values that the new ideal personality is supposed to uphold. The contemporary ideal, increasingly, is no longer someone so charmingly personable that others forget he is in fact a ruthless competitor, but a person who so convincingly narrates her having overcome some kind of social injustice that others forget she is in fact a beneficiary of systems of privilege.

My students are experts at performing this kind of self, and their stories of overcoming are almost all about “identity”—stereotyped racial dramas. I realized this when I organized a series of lessons on the theories of Michel Foucault. I had asked students to explain how institutions like the university elicit us to speak ’the truth’ about ourselves, and in doing so reshape who we are. They told me about their college admissions essays, narratives about themselves that both reflected a cunning sense of what their audience wanted to hear, and reached, more deeply than I think students know, into their own souls.

Students of color, particularly from immigrant backgrounds, wrote about the psychic suffering that had been inflicted on them by the dominant white culture. They had stories about having to learn to love their curly hair, their “unusual” names—in short, themselves. College applicants—and Americans generally—are increasingly asked to recount how through great difficulty they have succeeded in taking the self as the object of their love, a stage of narcissism that for earlier generations of psychoanalysts appeared not as a challenging achievement too often thwarted by an oppressive culture, but as a falling back into an infantile condition.

Members of less obviously oppressed groups had variant strategies. A number of Asian American students, for example, told me that they had written their admissions essays to demonstrate that they weren’t “like other Asians,” with narratives of how they had to challenge their strict parents and limited cultural horizons to develop passions for, as one wrote, beat-boxing and hip-hop.

These are not students’ own stories. Many students in my class received tremendous amounts of help on their admissions essays from dedicated tutors at their high schools as well as private writing coaches. Their letters are a collective output, a kind of shared fantasy of the ruling class. They should not be read for their insight into what students are really like, but for the purposes they serve their supposed authors and the society that has trained them to speak of themselves in these terms.

Students told stories that were variations on a theme we often find in modern American culture, in phrases like “black excellence,” or in the endless exhortations to recognize women’s intellectual achievements and potential. In this vision of the world, racism, patriarchy, etc., have long warped our society by obscuring the talents of certain groups. This perspective allows us to reconcile our commitment to meritocracy with our new moral sense that any state of affairs that does not see Black people, women, etc., represented in a given field in at least (but preferably greater than) their proportion of the general population is necessarily racist, sexist, etc.

One obvious wrinkle to this intuition is that centuries of oppression would seem rather likely to diminish the capacities of members of oppressed groups. When I confront students with Simone de Beauvoir’s version of this argument as we read The Second Sex (Beauvoir was concerned to explain why there had been, in her opinion, no female geniuses), they are horrified to find the mother of modern feminism insisting that oppression makes the oppressed objectively “inferior.” Women, still suffering the effects of historical and present-day sexism, are not yet “as good” as men in many fields, Beauvoir claimed. But students, and Americans more generally, prefer to imagine that oppression, however traumatic, in no way deprives the oppressed of merit. Thus, we can both speak of racism and sexism, in ever more dramatic terms, as terrible national problems, without having to imagine that increasing “diversity” in various fields of work will mean any loss of competence.

Stories of heroically overcoming discrimination help us collectively reconcile the apparently antagonistic values of meritocracy and wokeness, but they are no less useful for individual students, who are able to imagine themselves as singular, isolated subjects who have triumphed over vast “structural” inequities. The story of a self that resists hegemonic forces of racism and sexism may seem to oppose, but in fact confirms, the self-image of a successful meritocratic individual. Such a person speaks of herself as the bearer of internal, personal talents, which she deploys through hard work to win the recognition and compensation that are the fair due for her accomplishments. Narratives of triumph over oppression similarly position the subject as winning for herself—this time against a hostile and unfair system—the just rewards of her work. The teller of such a story does not need to—and perhaps, telling such stories so often, loses the ability to—understand herself as the beneficiary of several kinds of privilege or good fortune.

Generations of immigrants have taught their children that their intellectual acumen won’t get them far unless they can also mimic the ideal personality of the American elite.

No students get to my classroom without having had a lot of good luck, or without learning how to occlude that luck through narratives of merit and identity. Nearly all of them have been born into wealthy, stable families, and attended excellent primary and secondary schools. Parents, teachers, and classmates pushed them to make the most of their cognitive abilities (another stroke of genetic and environmental fortune) and to develop the sort of personality most congenial to teachers and future employers. None of this was their own doing.

They were all, of course, trained to work hard, and eventually internalized a commitment to hard work to such an extent that they may believe themselves to have earned, by their own efforts and choice, access to a university degree that will in turn grant them entry into the highest levels of such lucrative professions as consulting and finance. They are able to tell themselves, through stories of personal merit and victory over oppressive structures, that they were the heroes of their own lives.

When I ask students to explain how they choose their desired career paths and majors, however, they often answer that these were chosen for them, by their parents, or don’t seem to have been chosen at all, but simply bubbled up into their consciousness from their social milieu. Throughout their childhoods, they complain, they were overscheduled, given almost no free time in which they might develop interests and commitments independent of their parents’ ambitions for them or the notions of adult “success” that were dominant in their family, school, and neighborhood.

Most of them report never having experienced what, before teaching, I thought was an obligatory American rite of passage: an adolescent crisis that pitted them against their parents’ values. My students say their parents are their best friends and surest allies. It’s true that they could never have made it to the University of Chicago without massive, uninterrupted parental supervision, which has left them without an effective sense of personal agency. What they have instead are stories, in meritocratic and woke versions, about how their own efforts and talents lead them as far as my class, and will lead them, after it, to high-paying jobs at the commanding heights of our economy.

Students’ absence of an internal locus of control—a core self whose values they know to be their own, and against which they can measure, and sometimes refuse, the demands of the world—appears even in what may seem to be simple questions of learning and skill, such as their ability to write. After my first year of teaching, troubled by the unclear, disorganized, and utterly unaesthetic papers written by students who had, in theory, received the best (and certainly the most expensive) educations in the country, I tried a new method to inspire them to improve their writing. In my office hours, after confronting a student with the revisions they would have to make to whichever assignment, I would ask them to tell me the last book they had enjoyed reading. My naive expectation was that in response to their answer I could send them off to analyze what had made its author’s writing style seem so effective.

The exercise was a failure. Most students had not read a book for pleasure for years; they had no time. Even in college, away from their parents’ schedules, they kept themselves busy with student organizations that are often indistinguishable from classes (the finance and consulting clubs, membership in which is highly sought after, assign homework and study sessions). They have—or give themselves—no opportunity to read what they like. Without even a sense of their own tastes, they cannot develop their own sense of what it is that makes what they like enjoyable. Instead of a personal sense of their own tastes, and therefore capacity to ask what, beyond the subjectively pleasurable, makes good writing good, students merely have a sense that each instructor has his or her own arbitrary standards, each expressed in terms of rules and rubrics.

Moments of leisure in which people can follow and become curious about their own pleasures are not luxuries but necessities for both the craft of writing and the moral life. Bad writers can be good people, of course, and good writers, bad people. But the problems that prevent my students from being good writers are moral rather than cognitive. Becoming good writers would require them to have an individual ideal of good writing (a pantheon of admired authors and turns of phrase), which they had made for themselves out of their own self-directed reading. An ideal gives leverage by which the demands of others can be relativized—one can recognize, for example, that although an essay assignment requires a five-point structure, this is not a requirement for good writing as such.

In what may seem to be a paradox, it is only by developing such a freely chosen personal standard that a student can start to have a genuinely objective attitude towards writing—that is, an attitude that understands the words on the page as forming a real object that can be meaningfully evaluated not only according to various and conflicting sets of explicit scholastic criteria, but in reference to its success or failure at realizing a standard of clarity and cogency, and fulfilling an inner purpose. The power to articulate and follow an ideal of one’s own, and the perspicacity to see how one’s pleasures and work contain implicit invitations to consider the nature of the good, are moral capacities that students’ educations have degraded.

Students write poorly because they have been stripped of agency. What they have instead of an internal locus of control, the ability to form their own personal standards and adhere to them, are stories, usually written by other people on their behalf, about how by dint of hard work and personal talent they have surmounted powerful and malevolent social structures. Such images of themselves, whether expressed in terms of the older meritocratic ideal or its new woke competitor, are a kind of camera obscura in which the students’ real powerlessness, their lack of even the most basic components of private life such as leisure time and personal taste, their total beholdenness to hegemonic social norms, are inverted.

Young people whose self-understandings are organized by narratives about their heroic resistance against racism and sexism, and excellence in the face of adversity, are rewarded by the university—and will be rewarded by employers, media, and other sources of legitimation—for their deft combination of meritocratic and woke discourses. They will have no reason to notice that they are kicking down open doors—that, far from racism and sexism holding back their access to elite spaces, they are being invited in on the basis of their ability to perform triumph over oppression. Given this sort of legitimation, which combines the thrill of transgression with the self-righteousness of moralism, future elites who make sense of themselves and the world through a combination of meritocracy and wokeness likewise have little reason to ask the kinds of questions about what they really want and what is really good that are absent from my students’ relationship to writing.

This is bad enough for the students, but, unfortunately for the rest of us, they are also our future leaders. There have been many recent critiques of meritocracy, such as Michael Sandel’s book The Tyranny of Merit, demonstrating that organizing education on the basis of competition and measurement has contributed to the growing economic inequality that threatens the foundation of American society. There is much that could be said about the pernicious role of elite universities and their admissions process in this crisis—but we must also be careful not to let urgently necessary critiques of economic inequality allow us to ignore that we cannot avoid having some kind of elite.

Even in an economy organized around meeting the needs of ordinary citizens rather than offering rewards to those imagined to be especially meritorious, there would still be an important and irreducible form of inequality at the heart of our democracy. Only a small number of people at any given time can make the important decisions that shape our collective life. As citizens, we have the right, and the obligation, to determine who our political elites will be—not only by deciding which person will receive our vote, but what kind of person the institutions that train our elites should produce. We must ask ourselves toward what ideal personality, or moral character, we expect the efforts of our educators to aim, and we must confront—and indeed lament—the ideal that we have tacitly accepted in both meritocratic and woke pedagogy.

Elites whose character has been shaped by the apparent conflict, and inner coherence, of meritocracy and wokeness, may not be immoral or incompetent. I can offer no evidence that elites with a different sort of education would be better people or more effective leaders. I can only observe that every system of education aims, whether anyone acknowledges it or not, toward producing and privileging a certain human type, and that every society has an elite. Beyond the noisy conflict between defenders of meritocracy and their woke opponents, our society has chosen, and continues to choose, to educate its children with the apparent aim of making a class of leaders who are disconnected from any real solidarity to others but unable to think for themselves, combining the worst qualities of individualism and conformism. Students’ test scores and racial demographics dominate our public debates, but ultimately matter less than the implicit moral ideal towards which our institutions teach them to aspire.

Blake Smith, a contributing writer at Tablet, lives in Chicago.