‘A Providentialism Without God’

The case against meritocracy
Entrance gates at Harvard Yard (Roman Babakin/Alamy Stock Photo)

 

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“Democracy can be no more than an aspiration,” muses “Michael Young,” the narrator of Michael Young’s dystopian novel The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958). (Young cast the novel as a doctoral dissertation, which explains why thirteen publishers originally rejected the manuscript.) Writing in the midst of a workers’ revolt in the year 2034—and echoing the long and illustrious lineage of critics of democracy—“Young” describes and defends the meritocratic regime that replaced the old orders of inherited privilege and popular self-government. Though retaining the theatrical props of representative institutions, the new order is “rule not so much by the people as by the cleverest people; not an aristocracy of birth, not a plutocracy of wealth, but a true meritocracy of talent.” Unlike the previous hierarchies of divine right, nepotism, and riches, meritocracy apportions power, status, and income on the basis of “merit”: “IQ + effort,” as the formula states, measured by a series of intelligence tests that determine an individual’s professional advancement. Where traditional democracy rooted legitimacy in social and political equality, meritocracy redefines democratic promise as “equality of opportunity,” a course of competition, open to all, through which positions in schools, industry, and government are allocated.

“Young” traces the emergence of the meritocracy and proudly records its achievements: the opening of opportunity to gifted people from all ranks of society (“to imagine merit where none existed” had been the “sanctioned psychosis” of previous elites); the rapid eradication of older forms of entitlement and bigotry; the substitution of scientific and technical knowledge for superstition and moralism. Overthrowing centuries of illegitimate dominion, meritocracy appears to be the consummation of an enlightened utopian reverie: “The world beholds for the first time the spectacle of a brilliant class,” the narrator raves, “the five percent of the nation who know what five percent means.”

Yet in that very remark “Young” reveals the ambivalence that mars his otherwise celebratory tale, for despite its ostensibly fair, benign, and commonsensical ideal of authority, meritocracy produces the most insufferable ruling class in history. Because their status has been ratified by a supposedly objective standard, and because they think they’ve received what they truly deserve, the meritocratic elite is “no longer weakened by self-doubt and self-criticism.” Equating worth with credentialed intelligence, and convinced by the impeccable testing regimen of their own existential preeminence, they reckon that “their social inferiors are inferiors in other ways as well.” Dismissing the commoners as incorrigible rubes, they neither possess nor seek to cultivate “sympathy with the people whom they govern.” Hoarding their advantages for their children, the cognoscenti become as tenaciously entrenched as any earlier caste of patricians. “By imperceptible degrees,” “Young” laments, “an aristocracy of birth has turned into an aristocracy of talent.”

Unlike the previous hierarchies of divine right, nepotism, and riches, meritocracy apportions power, status, and income on the basis of “merit.”

By the end of the novel, the new aristocracy is facing an angry and bloody comeuppance. At first, the vast majority believe themselves worthy of the meritocrats’ scorn; in the sleek lexicon of professionalism, “worker” becomes a badge of dishonor, replaced with “common technician.” Because the meritocratic ethos has eroded religious notions of inherent worth, for the first time in history “the inferior man has no ready buttress for his self-regard.” The less talented submit to the verdict of the standardized tests and accept that “they are inferior.” But slowly the unmeritorious regain a sense of their intrinsic dignity; they rise to challenge the hubris and even the legitimacy of the meritocrats. This resistance stems from two unlikely sources: unable to reconcile their professional imperatives with their romantic and maternal desires, talented young women forge a revolutionary alliance with the “common technicians.” In the “Chelsea Manifesto” (named for London’s renowned bohemian quarter), the rebels call for “socialism”: a society in which people are evaluated, not simply in terms of intelligence or occupation, but “according to their kindness and their courage, their imagination and sensitivity, their sympathy and generosity.” Repudiating the quantitative and instrumentalist rubrics of “merit,” they issue an expansive affirmation of all human talents and qualities:

Who would be able to say that the scientist was superior to the porter with admirable qualities as a father, the civil servant with unusual skill at gaining prizes superior to the lorry-driver with unusual skill at growing roses?

Were we to answer that question honestly, they conclude, “there could be no classes.”

The reader never gets to see the denouement of the rebellion—“Young,” the narrator, is killed before he finishes his page proofs. (In the ultimate act of meritocratic failure, he literally perishes before he publishes.) But Young himself—the real author, not the fictional narrator—was one of the more prescient and troubling prophets of our moment in history. His novel foreshadows our own meritocracy’s harsh and inexorable appointment with Nemesis. Since the Occupy Wall Street movement took off in 2011, the brilliant classes of the North Atlantic world have been under mounting and sometimes violent assault, discredited by a slow-burning bonfire of meritocratic vanities: two needless and protracted imperialist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the virtual collapse of capitalism in 2008–2009 and the fragile, inequitable recovery; four decades of stagnant wages and increasingly precarious employment, accompanied by an upward redistribution of wealth toward capital and its corporate stewards; a flagrantly corrupt, dysfunctional, and plutocratic political system. Some of the “populist” movements of our day exhibit the morbid symptoms of a general crisis of meritocracy: Brexit, Trumpism, the gilets jaunes in France, irascible and deadly skepticism about scientific responses to the COVID pandemic, the metastasis of bizarre and grisly conspiracy theories such as QAnon.

Skepticism about the pretensions of our cognitive elite has taken root even in the citadels of meritocracy: in The Tyranny of Merit, Michael J. Sandel, a professor of government at Harvard, writes that meritocracy has “failed as a mode of governance.” Two other recent books—David Goodhart’s Head, Hand, Heart and Fredrik deBoer’s The Cult of Smart—arrive at the same conclusion from different angles of approach. Together, the three books make a comprehensive case against our current meritocratic hierarchy.

 

Is this hierarchy worth reforming and preserving, or should we hasten its well-deserved demise? Subjected to the scrutiny not only of history, but also of philosophical and theological reflection, the techno-financial meritocracy of neoliberal capitalism earns a failing grade. It excels in the esoteric arts and sciences of avarice, but its pecuniary acumen obscures its greater talents for ineptitude, blandness, condescension, and carnage. Uncritical devotees of what deBoer calls the “Cult of Smart”—the adulation of scholastic achievement as the indubitable measure of human worth—our meritocratic overlords have been virtuosi of insipid conformism, acquiescing in the moldiest platitudes of “innovation” and imperial exceptionalism.

As Young rightly foresaw, the dismantling of meritocracy entails a socialist transformation of our political economy, one in which, as Goodhart contends, the ascendency of “the Head”—cognitive labor—gives way to equality with “the Hand and the Heart”—manual and caring labor. We need, he writes, to include “a wider range of human aptitudes in our allocation of reward and prestige.” But this democratic reconstruction of society requires a cultural revolution as well: a reaffirmation of bodily and emotional experience, and a thoroughgoing rejection of the morality of “desert” in favor of grace, gratitude, and gift. “Wisdom,” as Goodhart hopes, “is due for a comeback.”

Sandel traces the Western genealogy of the meritocratic ethos to two ancient sources: the Platonic ideal of philosopher-rulers and the Hebrew conviction that God rewards the good and punishes the evil according to their deserts. In the Republic, Plato’s epistocracy undergoes an intensive physical, moral, and intellectual tutelage that qualifies them for leadership. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Yahweh admonishes the people that obedience to the Torah will lead to long life and prosperity, while dereliction will provoke divine wrath, suffering, and even dispossession from the Promised Land. This moral theology of just deserts took a Christian form with Pelagius (the patron saint of over-achievers) who maintained that human beings were perfectly capable of freely living lives of righteousness. Yet Greek tragedians such as Euripides contradicted Plato’s alignment of talent and reward, while for Jews and Christians the Book of Job dispelled any delusion that fortune was commensurate with merit: the whole point of the story is that happiness and hardship bear no relationship to virtue and vice. The point is underscored in the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus informs the crowd that God sends the sun and rain on the righteous and the reprobate alike.

Is this hierarchy worth reforming and preserving, or should we hasten its well-deserved demise?

Despite its insistence that salvation was predestined and therefore utterly unmerited, Calvinist theology provided an ironic warrant for modern meritocracy. Forging what became “the Protestant work ethic,” Calvinists contended that sedulous worldly activity was both a sign of God’s favor and a way to assuage the anxiety of not knowing if one was indeed among the elect. The Protestant ethic gradually sloughed off its theological casing and morphed into an ideology of striving, in which wealth and achievement became tokens of merit—a “providentialism without God,” as Sandel puts it. The Founding Fathers of the United States espoused a post-Protestant, liberal-republican form of this complacency, upholding “Men of Merit” idealized from their own propertied, classically educated selves. Against the decadence of the Old World nobility, Thomas Jefferson posed a “natural aristocracy” that united “virtue and talent.” As Sandel notes, this linkage of morality and ability was central to this elitist vision; like Plato’s sages and Israel’s people, this “natural aristocracy” would blend intellectual strength with moral rectitude.

Beginning with nineteenth-century nostrums of “self-help,” “self-culture,” and “the career open to talents,” the mythology of merit has been a powerful solvent of the rights of inherited prerogative. Nobles might endow their nitwit children with titles, fortunes, and estates, but with smarts and perseverance any plucky poor boy could hustle his way into riches and status. At the same time, education was widely seen not as an instrument of “social mobility” but rather as a necessity for popular participation in governance. Pointing to the work of Christopher Lasch, Sandel reminds us that early educational reformers envisioned not a meritocracy, but rather “a general diffusion of intelligence and learning across all classes and vocations.” Robustly egalitarian, this democratic faith in “diffusion” remained in tension with the liberal ideal of “mobility.”

Of course, even this faith reflected the perennial American delusion that some sort of fraternal, classless society could be built on the foundations of capitalism. Yet if “diffusion” proceeded in tandem with ruthless competitive struggle, the maelstrom of market society in the nineteenth century precluded any rationalized system of meritocracy. In the unregulated industrial capitalism that prevailed in Britain and the United States, profitable but deceptive displays of proficiency abounded in the marketplace; without certified affirmations of talent, fraud and buncombe could masquerade as ability. What Goodhart calls “the rise of the cognitive class” began in the nexus of a peculiar historical conjuncture: the evolution of a corporate, bureaucratic capitalism that required managerial and professional expertise, and the birth of the modern university, with its dedication to the “practical” as well as the “liberal” arts. Enlarging the scope of meritocratic enterprise with employment in new technical and supervisory fields, corporations saw an opportunity to offload instruction in these skills onto universities, which happily—and lucratively—appropriated the responsibility for professional training.

Our meritocracy emerged from the development of this educational-industrial complex. Until the mid-twentieth century, a fledgling meritocratic ideal competed with the hoary reality of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant aristocracy. In the wake of World War II, James B. Conant, president of Harvard University, engineered a “meritocratic coup d’etat” that swiftly displaced the old-boy network. Scandalized by the persistence of a hereditary upper class, Conant championed the creation of merit-based scholarships and a national system of standardized testing, the latter capped by the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). Purportedly blind to class or ethnicity, this leviathan “sorting machine” would identify and discipline the new class of mandarins, empower the formerly marginalized, and institute a competitive model of social equality—“equality of opportunity.” This was really a brand of merit-based inequality in which wealth and power could be justified as proper compensations for accredited skill and diligence (in other words, “IQ + effort”). Yet by viewing education as a well-mannered scramble up “the ladder of opportunity,” Conant exemplified the confusion at the heart of liberal democratic meritocracy: the belief that social mobility would lead to some sort of “classless” society, uneasily aligned with a recognition that, as Sandel puts it, “sorting for talent and seeking equality are two different projects.”

By the 2000s, the meritocratic ideal had become both the Platonism of the upper-middle classes and the moral imagination of neoliberal capitalism. This is deBoer’s “Cult of Smart”: a credulous and subtly malevolent reverence for scholastic and professional accomplishment. In what he calls his “prayer for the untalented,” deBoer—a prolific essayist and self-proclaimed “revolutionary socialist”—outlines the tenets of this Cult and embarks on a caustic errand of desecration. The Cult of Smart enjoins that “academic value is the only value” and that “intelligence [is] the only true measure of human worth.” Yet, according to deBoer, these highbrow dogmas only camouflage the Cult’s true trinity of veneration: “money, access, and power,” admission to which is the “secret function” of the meritocracy. The Cult of Smart rests on two equally fallacious articles of faith: equality of opportunity—“liberalism’s greatest lie,” deBoer declares, “a way for progressive people to give their blessing to inequality”—and “the myth of just deserts,” the preposterous conviction, belied by the slightest acquaintance with everyday life, that “we more or less receive what we deserve” and that “our station is determined by our work ethic and our talent.”

The Cult of Smart has spread, as Sandel sees, into the broader mainstream culture, where all too often “being smart” possesses “more persuasive heft than being right.” Since the advent of the digital age and the spread of algorithmic technologies, “smart” has become a way to describe not just people but things and policies as well: “smart cars,” “smart phones,” “smart homes,” “smart thermostats,” even “smart bombs.” The cachet of “smart” is increasingly integral to neoliberal commodity fetishism. Perhaps even more insidiously, “smart” now describes the mode of governance preferred by neoliberal elites, a tendency manifest especially among the Democratic Party establishment, who conceive of politics as the management of popular obeisance to meritocrats. “At the heart of smart power are smart people,” Hillary Clinton once proclaimed. Barack Obama used “smart” over nine hundred times to describe his timid and pluto-fawning policies.

Meritocrats display a resolutely “West Wing” understanding of politics, with Aaron Sorkin as the voluble Shakespeare of the neoliberal intelligentsia.

“Smart” beckons to the supersession of democracy by a benevolent aristocracy of meritocrats. Defining moral, political, and ideological issues as problems of technical or managerial know-how, meritocratic politicians abandon the antiquated rhetoric of justice and fellowship, and seek to abort political struggle in favor of compromise, “bipartisanship,” and the finessing of market forces. As Sandel laments, this dispassionate and technocratic conception of politics “abandons the project of political persuasion” in favor of lecturing and shaming. This cavalier badgering becomes all the easier as more and more meritocrats no longer share space with the less educated: in Goodhart’s taxonomy (borrowed from the late Roger Scruton), meritocrats are “Anywheres” who prize geographical as well as social mobility, while all other people are “Somewheres,” who value security, place, and familiarity. With Anywheres increasingly cloistered in their own enclaves of privilege, meritocratic hauteur slowly induces a “corrosion of the civic sensibilities,” leading to its own peculiar kinds of insularity and parochialism. (Clinton’s stupid and contemptuous derision of Trump supporters as “a basket of deplorables” epitomized an ill-concealed disdain for large swaths of the American populace.) Indifferent to and even dismissive of the wisdom of the uncredentialed—“credentialism,” Sandel observes, “is the last acceptable prejudice”—meritocrats reflect and affirm “an impoverished conception of citizenship and freedom.”

Meritocratic liberals in particular seem utterly clueless about the nature of political conflict and rhetoric. Ever the sanctimonious nerds seeking the teacher’s approval, they believe that political conflict turns on the marshaling of information—not the mobilization of interests, the creation of compelling narratives, and an appeal to the moral or even religious imaginations of the electorate. (In politics, Goodhart remarks, “the Heart usually trumps the Head”—even among the better-educated. This is why “fact-checking” conservatives—the strategy of tiresome liberal comedians and political commentators—was and always will be little more than a show of intellectual vanity.) Relying on statistics embellished with their own self-importance and patriotic bombast (“America is already great”), meritocrats display a resolutely West Wing understanding of politics, with Aaron Sorkin as the voluble Shakespeare of the neoliberal intelligentsia.

 

As all three authors suggest, the most delicious irony of meritocratic ideology is that it’s not really all that smart on its own terms. Money may not buy you love, but it certainly buys you “merit.” As deBoer and Sandel both point out, our meritocracy is fast becoming a hereditary aristocracy of money and education. Numerous studies have indicated that SAT scores are closely correlated with wealth, and that universities have facilitated not social mobility, but further class consolidation. As Sandel mordantly observes, “American higher education is like an elevator in a building that most people enter on the top floor.” “The game is still rigged,” deBoer shrugs. “It just justifies itself with an empty rhetoric of freedom and fairness.”

The critique of meritocracy goes deeper, however, than its meretricious claims about “mobility.” DeBoer is most devastating when he smashes the idols of “progressive” educational theory, much of which is little more, in his view, than a farrago of upbeat boilerplate. He dismisses the “progressive” educational cliché that each of us is, in his words, an “endlessly moldable lump of clay,” and that all any of us need to achieve intellectual excellence is better schools and teachers. In this view, because we have no natural talents or inclinations, our outcomes in any fair competition are the results of our own laziness. This is wrong and even “actively cruel,” deBoer thinks: it suggests that those who don’t make it up the ladder of opportunity deserve their measly lots in life, and it sustains the dubious and vindictive morality of “getting what we deserve,” thus conferring a liberal sanction on poverty and inequality. It also perpetuates one of the most perennial of liberal panaceas: the belief that education is “a proxy for our society’s greatest ills,” and that schools, not movements or political parties, are the most effective vehicles for social transformation.

DeBoer’s insistence on the significance of genetics in determining intellectual and other abilities is surely the most contentious feature of his book. Differences in intelligence and other qualities do have an important genetic basis, he maintains on the basis of a host of studies in behavioral genetics, parenting, and adoption, as well as (perhaps less convincingly) an appeal to our everyday intuitions. While acknowledging that the invocation of genetics raises legitimate fears of racism (recall Charles Murray and The Bell Curve controversy), deBoer credits the scientific evidence and holds that we should nonetheless improve educational conditions for everyone, regardless of genetic endowment. Whatever one makes of his argument about genetics, his conclusion should be uncontroversial: school everyone to the extent of their ability and give everyone what they need to flourish. As deBoer rightly attests, the great traditions of the Left have never shared the liberal bourgeois passion for “equality” defined as some unreal, abstract equivalence of persons. “From each according to ability, to each according to need” is precisely not a recipe for such a specious “equality.”

This reminder of equality in difference animates Goodhart’s most passionate concern: that meritocratic elitism has denigrated manual and caring forms of labor and cognition. The “head,” in his terms, belittles the “hand” and the “heart.” Following Matthew Crawford, Richard Sennett, and other enthusiasts of craft and artisanal labor, Goodhart—a founder of Prospect magazine and a former director of the think tank Demos—sings the praises of work that’s more tactile and proximate to the material world. The intimate relationship between the maker and the thing, or the caregiver and the person, blurs the distinction between subject and object, enabling the self to become more capacious by uniting it with something outside itself. Carpentry and nursing, for instance, bring together abstract and palpable knowledge into productive familiarity. More than head work, which often alienates us from the delights of the physical world, the labor of the hand or the heart affords us “the pleasure of being immanent.” They also rely on the unquantifiable quotients of emotional and corporeal intelligence—knowledge of the texture and contours of feeling, or the resonance of the tangible world.

As a longtime instructor to the children of the elite, Sandel is, of the three, the most perspicacious critic of the meritocratic credo. (On occasion, he alludes to arguments with his students, who vociferously defend their “well-earned” positions in their Ivy League elysium of merit.) The author of several books on political philosophy—including Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1982), Democracy’s Discontent (1996), and What Money Can’t Buy (2012)—Sandel has devoted his intellectual career to exploring the meaning of justice, and in his most recent volume he makes what is arguably his most incisive and radical analysis. From his perch at Harvard, perhaps the foremost temple of the Cult of Smart, Sandel declares that the fundamental problem with meritocracy “is not that we have failed to achieve it but that the ideal is flawed.”

Sandel inveighs against the human costs of the meritocratic demiurge. Even for those affluent and talented enough to ride high on the educational elevator, the ascent is a morally and spiritually destructive exercise in self-discipline. Meritocratic asceticism deforms the young from an early age, imposing what Sandel characterizes as “soul-destroying demands”: the right kindergartens and elementary schools; the expensive tutors, prep courses and counselors; the obsession with grades that precludes or perverts any love of learning for its own sake; the “extracurricular activities” pursued for the résumé rather than for pleasure; the internecine combat for placement in advanced academic tracks and classes; the college essay, application, and interview, all designed to be perfectly suave and inoffensive. It’s hard to see how any passion for beauty or capacity for defiance could emerge from so joyless an education, the wellsprings of poetry or revolution having been so thoroughly dammed up and poisoned. As William Deresiewicz showed in Excellent Sheep (2014), many successful adolescents and undergraduates are profoundly unhappy and alienated—“wounded winners,” as Sandel dubs them, emotionally stunted and politically conformist, well-prepared to take on the smart labor of accumulating capital and patrolling the boundaries of permissible discussion.

What is to be done about our new aristocracy? To some degree, nothing, Goodhart suggests, as the meritocrats are busy downsizing their own ranks by promoting technological development. As artificial intelligence enables the automation of intellectual as well as manual skill, capitalism will need fewer workers with advanced degrees—in other words, fewer meritocrats. Contrary to the hype from business and tech circles since the 1980s, “the knowledge economy,” Goodhart writes, “does not need an ever-growing supply of knowledge workers.” Thus, rather than steering people into competition for the work of the head, technologically advanced societies should develop “a far greater appreciation of cognitive diversity,” and encourage craft and caregiving by affording them greater respect and remuneration.

The meritocratic ethic has no room for the idea that chance or contingency or grace has any role in human affairs.

While Goodhart appears to think that the power of the cognitive classes can be bridled without any radical transformation of social and economic life, deBoer and Sandel propose more far-reaching structural and cultural changes. Upholding “the equal right of all people to the good life,” deBoer calls on us to disavow equality of opportunity and instead embrace “equality of economic and social outcomes.” As a socialist, deBoer rejects the liberal bromide of merely mitigating the harsh impact of meritocratic failure; the goal, he insists, should be “increasing worker power, not just decreasing poverty.” Although he doesn’t flesh out this ideal of workplace democracy, it is, I think, the most direct political attack on meritocracy: reclaiming control of the workplace from the “complex” and recondite knowledge of managerial specialists. (From the earliest days of scientific management, palaver about “complexity” has always been a nimble technocratic ruse.) DeBoer’s call for socialism comports with Sandel’s hope for “lowering the stakes” of winning the educational arms race by weakening if not severing the link between professional success and university education—a rupture, I would add, that could be accomplished only through the relocation of professional training in worker-controlled enterprises.

At their most compelling, Sandel, Goodhart, and deBoer are all less interesting for the institutional changes they endorse than for the transvaluation of values they envision: overthrowing the insolent and self-righteous regime of “opportunity” and “desert.” No matter how bourgeois-bohemian they may seem, meritocrats remain more bourgeois than bohemian: they believe that their power and wealth mark their own assiduously nurtured talent. There are obvious objections to this conceit—the significance of conditions outside of one’s control, the bungling or even horrific decisions that meritocrats have made over the decades—but the best retort is that talent itself is a matter of radical contingency. Smart people may pride themselves for working hard in school, but as Goodhart writes, they “no more earn their upbringing or innate intelligence than they earn being born into a rich family.” Having a talent is a matter of luck, our authors agree; it’s a gift, and you don’t earn a gift. Indeed, as Sandel points out, living in a society that values your talents is also an accident of birth. The recognition of talent as a gratuity invalidates centuries of unctuous humbug about the right of the obscenely wealthy to their riches. As Sandel argues with a subtle but bracing audacity, “if our talents are gifts for which we are indebted—whether to the genetic lottery or to God—then it is a mistake and a conceit to assume we deserve the benefits that flow from them.” The meritocratic ethic has no room for the idea that chance or contingency or grace has any role in human affairs. But the admission of grace and contingency into the heart of our moral universe, far from rendering us lazy or amoral, would make us less self-satisfied and more magnanimous and open-hearted.

Uncoupling talent from desert would constitute enough of a moral revolution, but deBoer goes one step farther, by objecting to “desert” itself. We should not, he believes, invent better ways of adjusting reward to talent or achievement; rather, we should seek “the elimination of the very ideal of just deserts.” Because it assumes some sort of equality in human needs and capabilities, we must cast into historical oblivion the notion that we should only receive as much as we give. Especially now, in a world of abundance, we can supply everyone with what they need—and then some.

Such a democratic vista was espoused by the British socialist R. H. Tawney—historian, social philosopher, and éminence grise of the Labour Party. While Equality (1931), his remarkable treatise on the subject, is perhaps best known for its rebuttal of the libertarian canard that equality stifles freedom, its more salient and fundamental argument is that real equality is not lusterless uniformity. The egalitarian goal of socialists, Tawney contended, should be to foster “cohesion and solidarity” by making “the external conditions of health and civilization a common possession.” A socialist society would feature “a high level of general culture” and “a strong sense of common interests.” But socialists did not and should not deny the reality of human differences; rather, they sought to ensure that “inequalities of personal capacity” would be neither “concealed nor exaggerated by inequalities which have their source in social arrangements.” No morality of just deserts here: while opportunity would abound in such a world, men and women would still be able “to lead a life of dignity and culture, whether they rise or not.” It’s an astute, humane, and generous ideal, more respectful of human diversity than all the shibboleths of the meritocrats. It imagines a world where the study of physics would be level with the growing of roses. 

 

The Tyranny of Merit
What’s Become of the Common Good?

Michael J. Sandel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$28 | 288 pp.

Head, Hand, Heart
Why Intelligence Is Over-Rewarded, Manual Workers Matter, and Caregivers Deserve More Respect

David Goodhart
Free Press
$27 | 368 pp. 

The Cult of Smart
How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice

Fredrik deBoer
All Points Books
$28.99 | 288 pp.

Published in the April 2021 issue: 
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Eugene McCarraher is an associate professor of humanities at Villanova University. His book, The Enchantments of Mammon, was published by Harvard University Press in the fall of 2019.

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