Jerome Karabel's The Chosen.

Reading between the lines.
Oct. 24 2005 5:35 AM

Ivory Tower Intrigues

The pseudo-meritocracy of the Ivy League.

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Karabel's ultimate goal in deconstructing merit is not, however, to vindicate affirmative action but to expose the hollowness of the central American myth of equal opportunity. The selection process at elite universities is widely understood as the outward symbol, and in many ways the foundation, of our society's distribution of opportunities and rewards. It thus "legitimates the established order as one that rewards ability and hard work over the prerogatives of birth." But the truth, Karabel argues, is very nearly the opposite: Social mobility is diminishing, privilege is increasingly reproducing itself, and the system of higher education has become the chief means whereby well-situated parents pass on the "cultural capital" indispensable to success. "Merit" is always a political tool, always "bears the imprint of the distribution of power in the larger society." When merit was defined according to character attributes associated with the upper class, that imprint was plain for all to see, and to attack, but now that elite universities reward academic skills theoretically attainable by all, but in practice concentrated among the children of the well-to-do and the well-educated, the mark of power is, like the admissions process itself, "veiled." And it is precisely this appearance of equal opportunity that makes current-day admissions systems so effective a legitimating device.

What, then, to do? Karabel proposes that colleges extend affirmative action from race to class, as some have tentatively begun to do, and end preferences for legacies and athletes. I am on record elsewhere as having renounced the legacy privilege on behalf of my son—not that I asked him at the time—but Karabel's own narrative has persuaded me that the elite universities are unlikely to end affirmative action for the overprivileged. If anything, The Chosen demonstrates the danger of imagining great universities as miniature replicas of the social order, and their admissions policies as simulacra of the national reward system. Yes, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton are plainly open to, and in many ways driven by, our animating national ideals; but Karabel shows us that their admissions choices are profoundly shaped by cultural, political, and economic considerations that can not be wished away. If we care about equality of opportunity, perhaps we would do better to focus our attention on the public schools, on the tax system, on such social goods as housing and health care. I don't think we can prevent meritocratic privilege from reproducing itself; we can, however, increase the supply of meritocrats.

James Traub is at work on a book about Kofi Annan and the United Nations.