A ‘Meritocracy’ Is Not What People Think It Is

Students sit on a bench near Georgetown University's main lawn.
Students sit on a bench near Georgetown University's main lawn.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

When news spread on Tuesday about the bombshell college-bribery scandal—in which dozens of wealthy parents, including the actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, are accused of taking part in a scheme to buy slots for their children at exclusive universities such as Georgetown and Stanford—one word kept cropping up in social-media reactions: meritocracy.

“Guys, guys, I’m beginning to think America isn’t a meritocracy but a place where money rules and the rich rig the system to stay on top,” Jeet Heer, a contributing editor for The New Republic, sarcastically observed on Twitter. Other tweets zeroed in on how un-meritocratic admission into elite universities actually is, even when rich parents don’t resort to illegal tactics. “This is not a meritocracy,” wrote the CNN correspondent Abby D. Phillip. “Meritocracy is a myth,” asserted Jamil Smith, a senior writer for Rolling Stone.

Dictionary.com, meanwhile, simply tweeted out its definition of meritocracy: “An elite group of people whose progress is based on ability and talent rather than on class privilege or wealth.” In the replies, this was greeted as lexicographical “shade” of the highest order.

While the bribery scandal might help reveal the degree to which “meritocracy” is a mirage when it comes to elite institutions of higher learning, such a critique is, in fact, embedded in the history of the word itself.

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As the tech writer Antonio García Martínez pointed out, “It’s worth recalling that the word ‘meritocracy’ was coined as a satirical slur in a dystopic novel by a sociologist.” Martínez is referring to The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870–2033, published in 1958 by the British sociologist and politician Michael Young. Young’s work was indeed intended as a social satire, positing a future in which trends in the British educational system were carried out to their absurd conclusions.

Written in the style of a doctoral dissertation by a scholar in the year 2034, The Rise of the Meritocracy imagines a world in which social class has been replaced by a hierarchy that places at the top those who could advance educationally through rigid testing standards. But those standards simply end up reinscribing the old class system, leading to a popular revolt.

Writing in The Guardian in 2001, a year before his death, Young looked back ruefully on how the irony of his coinage had been lost on the likes of Tony Blair, who was then making “meritocracy” the keystone of the Labour Party’s educational policy. “I have been sadly disappointed by my 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy,” he wrote. “I coined a word which has gone into general circulation, especially in the United States, and most recently found a prominent place in the speeches of Mr Blair.” His book, he added, was “a satire meant to be a warning (which needless to say has not been heeded).”

The fate of meritocracy is a case study in how quickly a neologism can slip away from the grasp of its coiner. This frequently occurs with words that are coined in an academic context, but then shift in meaning as they become popularized. More recently, this has happened with another term from a sociologist: emotional labor, which Arlie Hochschild introduced in her 1983 book, The Managed Heart. Interviewed in November for The Atlantic, Hochschild acknowledged her discomfort with the semantic creep that her coinage had undergone. As Hochschild defines it, emotional labor is “the work, for which you’re paid, which centrally involves trying to feel the right feeling for the job,” such as flight attendants needing to smile at all times. But the term has been extended to cover household chores and the like. “It’s very blurry and over-applied,” she lamented.

Even if neologizers can’t control their creations, it is instructive to look at what has transpired with meritocracy. Young was, technically, not the first to put the word in print. Two years before his book was published, Alan Fox used it in an article in the journal Socialist Commentary. Fox defined meritocracy as “the society in which the gifted, the smart, the energetic, the ambitious and the ruthless are carefully sifted out and helped towards their destined positions of dominance.” In his book Equality and the British Left, Ben Jackson surmises that Fox had been introduced to the term by an early draft of Young’s book that was circulating in British socialist circles in the early 1950s.

When The Rise of the Meritocracy was finally published in 1958, the word spread swiftly on both sides of the Atlantic, though it is fair to assume that most who embraced the term did so in the same superficial manner that Blair did in 2001. “It is highly unlikely the prime minister has read the book,” Young wrote, “but he has caught on to the word without realizing the dangers of what he is advocating.”

Young’s observation that the word shed its sarcasm—“especially in the United States”—is a keen one. A search of newspaper databases reveals the unironic adoption of meritocracy almost immediately after the book’s publication. One small-town Texas newspaper in January 1959 reported on a Chamber of Commerce banquet at which the guest speaker, an insurance executive and would-be humorist named Louie Throgmorton, declared, “America is more than a democracy. It is a meritocracy—we rise and shine by our own merit.” (“Let’s keep America great!” he added, in proto-Trumpian fashion.) Throgmorton was at it again later that year in a speech at a local Lions Club in Louisiana, where he was reported as saying that “this nation constitutes the only meritocracy in the world.”

For the Throgmortons of the world who encountered meritocracy in the seemingly hopeful title of Young’s book without investigating further, the word might have seemed to represent an unproblematic ideal to which all societies should strive. In the United States, putatively free from the ossified boundaries of the British class system that Young critiqued, that meritocratic ideal played into the country’s Horatio Alger–style rags-to-riches mythology, the notion that anyone can pull oneself out of poverty through hard work and gumption.

But our friend Throgmorton didn’t simply see meritocracy as some sort of Platonic ideal—he jingoistically claimed that the United States was already a meritocracy, and the world’s only example of it. Not only did he overlook the peculiarly British irony in which Young couched the term, he also missed out on an irony much closer to home: In 1959, five years after the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in public schools, African Americans were still being systematically denied equal access to education across the South.

Six decades later, despite the progress of the civil-rights movement, those institutionalized imbalances remain, as does the happy fiction of “meritocracy.” Clint Smith, who studies education and inequality at Harvard, put it best on Twitter:

The very idea of our society, higher-ed or otherwise, being a ‘meritocracy’ is something that was made up to justify & reify existing social hierarchies. It’s not real. What’s real is how wealth & race combine to give ppl things that they tell themselves they inherently deserve.

Even though the ironies of meritocracy continue to be glossed over, moments like this inevitably expose the tensions at the heart of the word and the concept it labels.