The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 18 No. 2 (Summer 2016)

The New Ruling Class

Helen Andrews

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2016

(Volume 18 | Issue 2)

Last fall, Toby Young did something ironic. Toby is the son of Michael Young, the British sociologist and Labour life peer whose 1958 satire The Rise of the Meritocracy has been credited with coining the term. Toby has become an education reformer in his own right, as founder of the West London Free School, after a celebrated career as a journalist and memoirist (How to Lose Friends and Alienate People). In September, he published an 8,000-word reconsideration of his father’s signature concept in an Australian monthly. The old man was right that meritocracy would gradually create a stratified and immobile society, he wrote, but wrong that abolishing selective education was the cure. “Unlike my father, I’m not an egalitarian,” Young wrote. If meritocracy creates a new caste system, “the answer is more meritocracy.” To restore equality of opportunity, he suggested subsidies for intelligence-maximizing embryo selection for poor parents “with below-average IQs.”1 The irony lay in the implication that Young, because of who his father was, has special insight into the ideology that holds that it shouldn’t matter who your father is.

His outlandish resort to eugenics suggests that Toby Young found himself at a loss for solutions, as all modern critics of meritocracy seem to do. The problems they describe are fundamental, but none of their remedies are more than tweaks to make the system more efficient or less prejudicial to the poor. For instance, in Excellent Sheep, William Deresiewicz accuses the Ivy League of imposing a malignant ruling class on the country, then meekly suggests that elite universities might solve the problem by giving greater weight in admissions to socioeconomic disadvantage and less to “résumé-stuffing.”2 In The Tyranny of the Meritocracy, Lani Guinier belies the harsh terms of her title by advising that we simply learn to reward “democratic rather than testocratic merit.”3 Christopher Hayes subtitled his debut book Twilight of the Elites “America after Meritocracy,” but the remedies he prescribes are all meant to preserve meritocracy by making it more effective.4 In his latest book, Our Kids, Robert Putnam proves that American social mobility is in crisis, then reposes his hopes in such predictable nostrums as housing vouchers and universal pre-kindergarten.5

When an author caps two hundred pages of rhetorical fire with fifteen pages of platitudes or utopian fantasy, that is called “the last chapter problem.” When every author who takes up a question finds himself equally at a loss, that is something else. In this case, our authors fail as critics of meritocracy because they cannot get their heads outside of it. They are incapable of imagining what it would be like not to believe in it. They assume the validity of the very thing they should be questioning.

But what would it be like not to take meritocracy for granted? The basic idea—that we should rank candidates for power according to some desirable quality, then pick the best of them—seems too obvious to have needed inventing, but invented it was, and (at least in the West) not so long ago. If we go back to the occasion of its first appearance in the English-speaking world, we will find a group of men who opposed it, not just because they did not think it would work in practice, but because they disagreed with it in principle. Meritocracy had a beginning and a middle and may yet have an end, and the beginning is exactly where the man who coined the term said it was on the very first page of his book: the Northcote-Trevelyan Report of 1854.6

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  1. Toby Young, “The Fall of the Meritocracy,” Quadrant, September 2015,
  2. William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (New York, NY: Free Press, 2014), 235.
  3. Lani Guinier, The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2015), 1.
  4. Christopher Hayes, Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy (New York, NY: Crown, 2012).
  5. Robert Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2015).
  6. Michael Young, The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870–2033: An Essay on Education and Equality (London, England: Thames & Hudson, 1958), 1. The Northcote-Trevelyan Report was published in 1854, but its recommendations were not fully implemented until 1870; hence the first date in the book’s title.

Helen Andrews is a policy analyst at the Centre for Independent Studies, Sydney, Australia. She has written for First Things, The University Bookman, Quadrant, and other magazines.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 18.2 (Summer 2016). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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