Letters | The Pitfalls of the Meritocracy

 

‘INTELLIGENCE WORKERS’

The mostly bland diagnosis of the state of our union and our psyches in Charles McNamara’s essay “Know-Nothing Know-It-Alls” (June) is completely belied by the photo of “QAnon shaman” Jacob Chansley on the cover of that issue. While McNamara borrows Walter Lippmann’s words to describe us as “cop[ing] with a modern world that is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance,” Chansley’s attorney has been describing him and his fellow insurrectionists in far less anodyne terms (with expletives but not politically incorrect language removed): “short-bus people.... people with brain damage.... They’re on the...spectrum.”

McNamara’s further invocation of Lippmann to prescribe reliance on “bureaucratic ‘intelligence work’ done by academic experts who have the time and talent to master specialized knowledge” as our cure is even more off the mark than is his diagnosis of our ills. He should read Michael Sandel’s new book, The Tyranny of Merit (or the excellent essay on that book in the April issue of Commonweal), which calls out the “toxic brew” in our meritocratic society of the hubris among educated elites and the humiliation and resentment among those who fail to succeed.

We do not need more expert information from “intelligence workers.” We need functioning communities in which we can discover a common good. And, to bring in a second beautifully written essay in Commonweal (David Albertson and Jason Blakely’s “From Here to Utopia,” June), lived community is what the Church could reteach us. It could do so, that is, if bishops would stop pretending to be the “intelligence workers” on whose words we are all hanging to bring clarity to the complicated moral issues of our lives, and start attending to rebuilding our “devastated social belonging.”

William McDonough
St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn.

 

CHARLES MCNAMARA RESPONDS:

I appreciate Dr. McDonough’s letter and the opportunity it affords to underscore an important point about “intelligence work.” As I write in my original commentary, Walter Lippmann’s critics—John Dewey chief among them—were correct to be suspicious of a bureaucratic elite confident in its ability to cure all our literal and figurative ills. Lippmann’s own notion of stereotypes, in fact, requires such suspicion: not a soul on Earth fully grasps this strange virus, and last year, disastrous epistemic “hubris” was on display among meritocratic heroes like Anthony Fauci and Jerome Adams. I did not intend to make an unqualified defense of elites, nor do I think I made one. (Last year in Commonweal, too, I lamented some failures of university meritocracy in a review of Zena Hitz’s Lost in Thought.)

Rejecting Lippmann’s reverence for authoritative experts, Dewey argues in The Public and Its Problems that expertise itself must center around McDonough’s “functioning communities”: “No government by experts in which the masses do not have the chance to inform the experts as to their needs can be anything but an oligarchy.” Aware of the dangers of meritocratic aristocracy, Dewey concludes that the “world has suffered more from leaders and authorities than from the masses.” After the fatal missteps of the Trump administration, I find it impossible to dismiss Dewey’s verdict.

I agree with McDonough that what we all need is more epistemic humility—from bishops, from epidemiologists, and most of all from violent insurrectionists. Indeed, this was my essay’s central claim. Perhaps he and I would also agree that the model “intelligence worker” is not the surgeon general nor even a university professor. She might instead be a volunteer clinician who offers her patients a “chance to inform” her about their pandemic bewilderment and humbly confesses some of her own in return.

 

INSPIRING THE NEXT SCHOLARS

I read with great interest Julia Young’s review of Leslie Woodcock Tentler’s American Catholics: A History (“Diversity & Division,” May). One point in the review puzzled me. Young notes how readers might want “a fuller investigation of the history of Black Catholicism in the United States rather than the overview that Tentler provides.” Her subsequent comments fail to mention that such an investigation already exists. While I too eagerly await the publication of Shannen Dee Williams’s work, Subversive Habits: Black Catholic Nuns in the Long African-American Freedom Struggle, Fr. Cyprian Davis, OSB, already laid the groundwork in The History of Black Catholics in the United States (1995). My colleague Dr. Cecilia Moore has almost completed a revision of Fr. Davis’s magisterial work, which inspired numerous publications on Black Catholics in the United States. May Fr. Davis rest in the light of Christ knowing his good work continues to inspire the next generation.

Sandra Yocum
University of Dayton, Dayton, Ohio

Published in the July/August 2021 issue: 
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