Interview with Daniel Markovits

The Yale Law School professor discusses the ‘sham’ of meritocracy, the damage the idea causes and why elite universities are part of the problem

October 31, 2019
Daniel Markovits
Source: Stephanie Anestis

Daniel Markovits is Guido Calabresi professor of law at Yale Law School. His recently published book, The Meritocracy Trap, critiques the concept of meritocracy – the idea that people can or should attribute their position in society to their own abilities rather than to their social background. It was described in The New York Times as “perhaps the most sweeping and detailed indictment to date” of the concept.

When and where were you born?
I was born in London in 1969, but we moved about a great deal throughout my childhood.  I attended schools in London, but also in Stanford, Austin, Oxford and Berlin.

How has this shaped who you are?
Whenever we moved to a new city, my parents put me in the state schools allotted to our address. So I attended a wide range of schools with classmates from many different backgrounds. My friends at A. N. McCallum High School in Austin were every bit as naturally capable as my friends at Balliol College, Oxford, or at Yale Law School. But they had very different parents, and ended up with very different training and commensurately different jobs. This specific lived experience underwrites many of the general arguments of The Meritocracy Trap.

Your book describes merit as a ‘sham’. What do you mean? 
The book develops two versions of this claim: one liberal, and one more radical. The liberal version argues that although meritocracy was conceived to open up an insular and sclerotic elite, it has developed into a powerful obstacle to equality of opportunity. In the US, for example, children whose parents make more than $200,000 (£155,000) per year score on average 250 points higher on the SAT – the test that dominates college admissions – than children whose parents make between $40,000 and $60,000 per year. The skews to wealth at elite universities should not surprise anyone. In the US, elite private schools spend up to six times as much per pupil, per year as the median state school; and in the UK private schools spend up to three times as much. This makes it inevitable that their students, having absorbed these extraordinary educational investments, will outperform students who have received only ordinary educations. When inequality of outcomes grows large enough, equality of opportunity becomes impossible. The radical version of the argument identifies feedback loops that connect meritocratic training and meritocratic jobs. The rise of a meritocratic, superordinate working class induces innovators to invent new technologies that deploy this new labour force, making elite workers enormously productive and extravagantly paid. This feedback relationship means that the skills that underwrite top wages are not inevitably or naturally valuable but rather possess great value only where an unequal education system has bent technology’s arc to favour these particular and peculiar skills. Merit is not a natural virtue but rather an ideological conceit, built to launder an otherwise offensive distribution of advantage.

To what extent has your experience of Yale as an undergraduate and faculty member shaped your views about elite universities and inequality?
My time at Yale has exerted a powerful influence over my views on these matters. My student days drove home – through unignorable direct experience – the basic lesson of meritocratic exclusion: that the divergence between the income and status of my compatriots from school and from university flows directly from differences in the educations that their families could afford to buy for them. Moreover, my work as a teacher drives home that meritocratic inequality no longer serves even the winners well.  My students at Yale – the poster children for meritocracy – are more nearly overwhelmed by their apparent blessings than complacent or even just self-assured. They have been nurtured, but also cultivated, coached, drilled, shaped, and packaged – all in an unrelenting quest to succeed at school and preserve their caste. Meritocratic inequality’s greatest harm remains the exclusion it imposes on virtually everyone born outside the elite. But meritocracy harms the elite as well, trapping entire generations inside demeaning fears and inauthentic ambitions: always hungry, never finding, or even knowing, the right food.

What solutions do you advocate for addressing the negative impact of elite universities on society?
It is a fantasy to think that a fairer meritocratic competition – with careers open to talents, in the memorable liberal phrase – could possibly launder continuing meritocratic inequality. Elite schools and universities cannot become meaningfully fair by growing more open. Instead, they must become less elite. The gap between the resources invested in educating the rich and the rest must decline. The best way to accomplish this is the most direct: massively expand enrolments in elite education, not just at university but at all levels of schooling, and draw most of the new students from households outside the economic elite. There are good reasons – concerning liberty, diversity, and the ways in which schooling intrudes on the family – for permitting private education. But there is no good reason for permitting rich parents to buy as much private education as they can afford, and especially not for giving private schooling the enormous public subsidies that its tax-exempt status now confers in both the US and the UK.

Name a book that has changed how you think.
Aristotle’s Ethics, in particular, in its accounts of what virtues are and how they are acquired, seems to me to get nearer the truth about living well than any other book ever written.

What keeps you awake at night?
That, across human experience, in all places and at all times, only one or two societies have unwound concentrations of income and wealth as great as [those that] plague the US today without losing in war to a foreign foe or succumbing to a domestic revolution.

When are you happiest?
When my children, claiming authority over their lives, pursue ends that – whether I share them or not – I admire.

john.morgan@timeshighereducation.com


Appointments

Sheila Gupta has been appointed vice-principal for people, culture and inclusion at Queen Mary University of London. Ms Gupta will join Queen Mary in January from the University of Sussex, where she is director of human resources, and is tasked with helping her new employer achieve its goal of becoming “the most inclusive research-intensive university in the world”. Ms Gupta was previously director of human resources at the universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh, and City, University of London. “For me, this role offers an exceptional opportunity to contribute to delivering a truly transformative vision and one that has particular personal resonance,” Ms Gupta said.

Martie-Louise Verreynne has been named deputy pro vice-chancellor for research and innovation in the College of Business at RMIT University. Her remit when she joins next year will be to strengthen connections between the college and RMIT’s innovation and entrepreneurship activities. Professor Verreynne is currently professor in innovation and deputy head of the University of Queensland Business School. She said that she saw “a significant opportunity for researchers in the college to transform business and society as they work with researchers across the university to solve the grand challenges we face”.

Geert Dewulf has been appointed chief development officer and director of strategic business development at the University of Twente. He is currently dean of Twente’s Faculty of Engineering Technology.

Mona Hicks has been appointed senior associate vice-provost and dean of students at Stanford University. She is currently dean of students at Saint Louis University.

Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple, has been appointed chairman of the advisory board at Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management.

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