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Is Meritocracy Dead in America?

Posted on 10 April 2011 by Editor

Originally posted 2009-06-29 20:46:54. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

It was a beautiful day on Long Island today, as my daughter fussed over her cap and gown, getting ready for her high school graduation. The rite of passage that is the graduation ceremony was to be the highlight of our day, the last ritual before going away to college and beginning her new academic and social life away from home and the heretofore familiar surroundings. As most fathers are at this stage, I am very proud of her and her achievements to date and am confident she will do great in college.

As we arrived at the school athletic fields where the ceremony was to take place for the over 600 graduating seniors, the school principal and various dignitaries from the board of education were all lined up to fulfill their respective roles in the process. Among them the familiar face of Charles (Chuck) Schumer, the senior senator from New York was to give the commencement speech.

Opening the ceremony, the senator started with his speech, and I was surprised to hear the exact same one I heard 2 years ago at my older daughter’s graduation. Thinking this to be a bit odd and frankly somewhat lazy, I paid little attention to the drone of “how I became a senator” until the speech’s concluding remarks. The culminating point of the speech was Schumer’s self-aggrandizing statement of having successfully sponsored a new $2,500 tax credit program for middle-class families. Under the program, which will run for 2 years, families will be entitled to claim a $2,500 tax credit per each student enrolled in college, provided that their income meets certain maximum threshold provisions, which he stated would be capped at $200,000.

“For each of you earning less than $200,000, you will now be able to afford to send your children to college,” said the senator. “For those of you making $200,000 and above – well, God bless you.” The audience reacted with an energetic applause to this not so subtle example of class warfare rhetoric.

Setting aside the inaccuracy of the qualifying income limit (according to our research, when combined with the HOPE credit and other tax laws, the qualifying income limit may in fact be $60K for single and $120K for families), the principle notion of government sponsorship of college education based on financial need as opposed to merit should be of some concern.

By targeting the nation’s financial resources on programs which aid less affluent prospective students, we have fundamentally abandoned any notions of meritocracy and replaced them with a need-based social construct. While clearly a popular position among most Americans since it is portrayed as a caring gesture of the government (who would object to receiving a seemingly free gift or in this case benefit, i.e. the proverbial something for nothing?), we should examine its consequences, as in most cases many of them end up being unintended and in the greater context, undesirable.

Should the affluence level of the student’s family be the driving measure in the allocation of government subsidies for the student to attend college?

We are conditioned to answer this question in the affirmative, since in our politically correct dialect the less affluent are part of an affirmative action class. It is therefore our societal obligation, we are taught, to provide access to our nation’s financial resources on a preferred basis to those who are most in need of them, without regard to their individual contribution or their ability to make best use of such resources.

To what degree do we value fairness in the distribution of government financial aid for college education, or does the principle of equality trump all others?

As modern day Americans we don’t seem to place much value on fairness in the manner in which government serves its people. I’ve written on the distinction between equality and fairness in the June 13, 2000 article “Let’s not Confuse Equality and Fairness”. The article exposes our progressively degenerating definition of equality from what was our Founding Fathers’ original intent (equality of opportunity and not that of outcome) to the present socio-marxist interpretation of “… to each according to his needs.” In the long run, the dogmatic adherence to equality according to one’s need necessarily must lead to a polarization of the society and, instead of creating the intended harmony between income classes, it creates an increasingly greater rift between them. Meritocracy has to be, to a dominant extent, interwoven into the decision process in order for a society to survive and thrive.

Since we are now competing for minds in a global economy, how do we rank in their midst?

Since we’ve conceded that the optimal distribution of resources to produce the most effective outcome (only achievable through a merit based allocation) is not the goal, we therefore accept mediocrity as a satisfactory outcome. This, beyond any other force, is likely to have the most far reaching impact on the quality of citizens our education system produces over the long run. Comparing our policies with those of China, India and most European countries, where college entry is earned primarily through exceptional performance, the divergence in the intellectual quality of their college graduates as compared with those coming out of US schools is already becoming more apparent.

Many who would not consider themselves to be affluent, have historically not been able to qualify for any meaningful financial aid precisely because of their tax dollars being dispersed according to an equality formula that has very little, if anything to do with the benefit that the dollars spent will produce. In the case of my daughter, who graduated high school in the top 5% of her class of over 600, her acceptance into a number of very good schools was not matched with any meaningful financial contribution from the government. We ended up making a reasonable compromise, but I have not yet come up with a good way of explaining to her why her excellent performance and exceptional efforts were not recognized by the government of a country of which she will once be a leader.

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Quotation of the Day:

“Let us think of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength for our nation.”

John F. Kennedy (1917 – 1963)

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