The Merits of “Meritocracy”

Source: The Hedgehog Review, Summer 2016

as historian Joseph F. Kett has shown, in a fascinating and subtle study of merit’s travails through three centuries of American history, there are at least two strikingly different ways in which merit has been understood in that history.4 The founding generation itself thought in terms of what Kett calls “essential merit,” by which he means merit that rests on specific and visible achievements by an individual that were thought, in turn, to reflect that individual’s estimable character, quite apart from his social “rank.” “Merit” was that quality in the person that propelled the achievements, his “essential character.” Those who did the achieving were known as “men of merit,”

over time, a different way of understanding merit began to emerge, an ideal Kett calls “institutional merit.” Rather than focusing on questions of character, this new form of merit concerned itself with the acquisition of specialized knowledge, the kind that is susceptible of being taught in schools, tested in written examinations, and certified by expert-staffed credentialing bodies.

We would do well to leave room for the Lincolns among us—especially if they are as raw and uncredentialed as the man who would become our sixteenth president was. Think of his great speech at the dedication of the cemetery in Gettysburg in November 1863.

As many know, there were two notable speeches that day. The first, and the longest and most learned and most florid, was given by the supremely well-pedigreed Edward Everett, former president of Harvard—and the first American to receive a German PhD. But it was the self-educated frontiersman president who gave the speech whose accents ring down through the ages. Perhaps there is a pattern here to learn from.

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