Chris Hayes Among the Meritocrats

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Let me tell you a story about the worst thing I ever did to my son. When he was four (I think -- possibly five), I took him to a small basement apartment in a brownstone. I then paid a man to give my son an intelligence test. The test was to get the boy into the gifted and talented program on the Upper West Side. The kid performed pretty abominably, which did not shake me so much as the fact that I'd actually participated in this system. 

The testing didn't stun me (I tested my way into gifted and talented) so much as the fact that you had to effectively pay for the chance of admission to a publicly subsidized school. They had some kind of waiver for the poor, but the waiver involved grappling with paperwork and the vagaries of the Department of Ed. What's more, I later learned that it's customary when parents are trying to get their kids into G&T to actually pay for test prep. The city has since (I think) centralized its requirements. At the time (this was '04-'05) G&T was left up to the districts. 

But paying for test prep for kindergartners has remained in force, resulting in situations like the following:

Nearly 5,000 children qualified for gifted and talented kindergarten seats in New York City public schools in the fall, 22 percent more than last year and more than double the number four years ago, setting off a fierce competition for the most sought-after programs in the system. On their face, the results, released on Friday by the Education Department, paint a portrait of a city in which some neighborhoods appear to be entirely above average. In Districts 2 and 3, which encompass most of Manhattan below 110th Street, more students scored at or above the 90th percentile on the entrance exam, the cutoff point, than scored below it. 

But experts pointed to several possible reasons for the large increase. For one, more middle-class and wealthy parents are staying in the city and choosing to send their children to public schools, rather than moving to the suburbs or pursuing increasingly expensive private schools. And the switch to a test-based admissions system four years ago has given rise to test-preparation services, from booklets costing a few dollars to courses costing hundreds or more, raising concerns that the test's results were being skewed.

Perhaps it's true that the children of New York's wealthiest (Manhattan below 110th) really are so naturally superior that a majority rank in the 90th percentile. I have my doubts. I consider taking my son to that test the "worst thing" I've done as a parent because it felt wrong before I did it. In my gut, I knew there was something disturbing about it, but I went in anyway. I was a young parent. But I should have known better.

This is a long prologue to the following -- I'm making my way through Chris Hayes' astounding Twilight of The Elites, one of those rare books that originates from a political home (the left) and yet actually challenges assumptions that undergird the dominant logic in both political parties. This is not mealy-mouthed centrism. It is a substantive critique of the underlying logic of both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney -- the logic of meritocracy. Hayes is not so much against the aims of meritocracy as he is against the inevitable outcome -- a pure self-replicating meritocracy is a myth, which must always devolve into oligarchy. Hence my example of an allegedly meritocratic test for G&T devolving into test of who can afford prep materials.

I think this paragraphs says a lot:

The areas in which the left has made the most significant progress -- gay rights, inclusion of women in higher education, the end of de jure racial discrimination -- are the battles it has fought or is fighting in favor of making the meritocracy more meritocratic. The areas in which it has suffered its worst defeats -- collective action to provide universal public goods, mitigating rising income inequality -- are those that fall outside the meritocracy's purview. The same goes for conservatives. Those who rail against unions and for reduced taxes on hedge fund bonuses have the logic of meritocracy on their side, yet those who want to keep gay men and women from serving openly in the military do not.

The winning side of this equation presents us with Thomas Friedman's mythical third party. It also, non-coincidentally, describes the worldview of most of the editors I've ever worked with. It's probably a good summation of The Atlantic's biases. We don't so much have a liberal MSM as we have a meritocratic MSM.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. More

Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.

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