What’s happened in recent decades to the vaunted American system of meritocracy, and why isn’t it functioning as it once did? In his forthcoming book, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, Chris Hayes (pictured), host of msnbc’s Up with Chris Hayes, sets out to tackle those questions, among others. And in a piece adapted from the book and excerpted today in The Nation, Hayes uses the example of Hunter College High School in New York City, his alma mater, as a way in to the issue.
Hunter, Hayes writes, “operates under the conviction that it embodies the meritocratic ideal as much as any institution in the country.” That’s in large part because admittance to the school “rests on a single ‘objective’ measure: one three-hour test. If you clear the bar, you’re in; if not, you’re out.”
Because it is public and free, the school pulls kids from all over the city, many of whom are first-generation Americans, the children of immigrant strivers from Korea, Russia and Pakistan. Half the students have at least one parent born outside the United States. For all these reasons Hunter is, in its own imagination, a place where anyone with drive and brains can be catapulted from the anonymity of working-class outer-borough neighborhoods to the inner sanctum of the American elite. “I came from a family where nobody went to college. We lived up in Washington Heights. We had no money,” says Jennifer Raab, who as president of CUNY’s Hunter College oversees the high school as well. “It was incredibly empowering.” When she surveys the student body, “it gets me very sappy about the American dream. It really can come true. These kids are getting an education that is unparalleled, and it’s not about where they come from or who they are.”
But the problem with my alma mater is that over time, the mechanisms of meritocracy have broken down. In 1995, when I was a student at Hunter, the student body was 12 percent black and 6 percent Hispanic. Not coincidentally, there was no test-prep industry for the Hunter entrance exam. That’s no longer the case. Now, so-called cram schools like Elite Academy in Queens can charge thousands of dollars for after-school and weekend courses where sixth graders memorize vocabulary words and learn advanced math. Meanwhile, in the wealthier precincts of Manhattan, parents can hire $90-an-hour private tutors for one-on-one sessions with their children.
By 2009, Hunter’s demographics were radically different—just 3 percent black and 1 percent Hispanic, according to the New York Times. With the rise of a sophisticated and expensive test-preparation industry, the means of selecting entrants to Hunter has grown less independent of the social and economic hierarchies in New York at large. The pyramid of merit has come to mirror the pyramid of wealth and cultural capital.
How and why does this happen?
Read the whole piece here.