Unfortunately too many people focus on their "academic" education nowadays, try to be better than others by having a better diploma while forgetting what is far more important: understanding life. LIFE - is what has to be understood in order to facilitate living for the curious minds out there. It's a learning process that starts at home, between friends, continues at school and later at work and/or university, depending on one's choices and possibilities.
To those who had the opportunity of pursuing an education, good for you. Consider yourselves lucky but don't forget that you're still a long way from knowing it all.
To those who never did have this opportunity, it's no big deal, the big teachings are still out there and you need only your soul and common sense to fetch them.
The education voyage starts at birth and ends at death. We reach stability when we understand and accept that there are parts of life that we cannot understand.
The career voyage starts at birth and ends at death as well. It is your contribution to society, to your generation. Ask yourselves every now and then, what I am doing to make things better? Personal contributions can be good or small, it doesn't matter. What matters is that they have to be positive.
But just because burnout can happen at work or because of work, doesn’t mean how you use your time outside of work can’t help prevent it. As a time management coach, I’ve seen that at the core, burnout prevention is about living out what is true about your body, your personality and your reality. You don’t need a dream job. But in your overall life, you do need to find time to take care of your health, do things you find refreshing and have a sense of purpose. The closer you are to living your truth, the less likely you are to burnout.
I can’t guarantee that if you follow these simple strategies that you will never experience burnout. I can guarantee, however, that you’ll significantly reduce the likelihood of it, and that you’ll get back to work more quickly after taking a break if you reach a burnout state.
Your body is designed to repair and restore itself. So when you’re feeling the impact of burnout — ongoing exhaustion, detachment from your job and perhaps even weight gain and illness from stress — it’s a sign that the demands on your body exceed its ability to keep up. Giving your body what it needs is the foundation of burnout prevention. You can help reduce the energy depletion associated with burnout and facilitate restoration by prioritizing three universal core needs: sleeping, eating and moving.
Sleep serves many purposes, including regulating our mood, clearing waste from our brain and re-energizing our cells. That’s why not getting enough sleep is one of the main risk factors for developing burnout, and improving sleep quality can help individuals with even a clinical burnout problem recover enough to return to work.
First, you should know how much sleep you need. The National Sleep Foundation recommends between seven to nine hours of sleep for most adults, but that could mean as little as six hours to as much as 10 depending on your needs. The goal is to get to the point where you feel alert most of the day. And as a bonus, you’ll likely feel happier too, which can reduce your chance of the cynicism associated with burnout.
Getting more sleep is pretty basic math: You can either go to bed earlier, get up later or do both. If you tend to lose track of time, set an alarm to remind yourself to turn off electronic devices and wind down at least 30 minutes before your bed time. In that moment, you’ll likely feel tempted to stay up longer. One strategy to motivate yourself to get to bed is to remember just how bad it feels when you’re exhausted and then how good it feels when you’ve had enough rest.
What you put in your mouth also has an impact on your mood and energy. Avoid foods that make you feel tired or too full. Try eating lighter, healthier foods that increase your energy level. Similarly, eating smaller, more frequent meals can help maintain your high energy.
So if you find that you’re more negative about your job at certain times in the day, you may want to assess whether you need to eat more frequently. Before working with me, some of my coaching clients would forget to eat, and found that their energy level was dragging by mid-afternoon. For some of them, creating a routine around packing lunch the night before or simply setting a calendar reminder to get lunch midday really helped. When you’re honest about what fuel your body needs to feel happy and healthy, you help buffer against the potential for burnout.
Finally, taking time to move provides another opportunity for our bodies and minds to recalibrate. Even five minutes of outdoor exercise can have a meaningful psychological impact. And better yet, if you can do 20 to 30 minutes of exercise at a time, you can over all improve your mental health. For example, when something stressful happens to me, I’ll try to go on a walk or a run around the block as soon as possible to get the negative energy out of my body. This not only reduces the negative feelings but also calms my mind so I can focus for the rest of the day. Thinking through difficult situations is important but at a certain point, the only way to release the emotions is to physically let them go.
In addition to living our truth about our health and our bodies, to prevent burnout we need to honor the truth around our personalities.
“Self-care is dependent on the individual. It is based on what helps them to feel more like they’re in their natural state, which is the thing, place or feeling that would happen if there were no pressure on them — the thing they would want to do,” said Robert L. Bogue, co-author of “Extinguish Burnout: A Practical Guide to Prevention and Recovery.”
“When you’re operating outside of your natural state, you are consuming energy,” he explained. “The more in alignment you become, the less you’re demanding of yourself and the more personal agency you build up.”
Put simply, you need to know what restores you and invest in those activities to prevent burnout. But what fulfills these needs for you may look different than what fulfills those needs for someone else. For example, someone who is highly extroverted may need to hang out with friends or family on a daily basis after work to buffer against burnout. Someone who is highly introverted, on the other hand, may require time alone to recharge. One introverted home-schooling mom I know starts and finishes each day with deep breathing and makes sure at least once a week to do something on her own, such as journaling, gardening, crafting or hiking.
Or the differences in what you need may vary based on your core motivations. For example, Dr. Steven Reiss, a research psychologist, conducted studies involving more than 6,000 people and found that 16 core desires can motivate our behavior: power, independence, curiosity, acceptance, order, saving, honor, idealism, social contact, family, status, vengeance, romance, eating, physical exercise and tranquillity. For instance, I really enjoy order so I might choose to take a night to tidy up and organize my home in order to recharge. If you have a very strong desire for curiosity, you might spend that same night learning a new skill or language, or going somewhere new to feel refreshed.
I’m not wrong, and you’re not wrong. We’re just different. As Mr. Bogue stated, the more you know what truly aligns with who you are and honor that need, the less drained you will feel and the less likely you will burnout.
A third element of burnout prevention is to live the truth of your work situation reality — what you can actually change, and where you will need to find alternative sources to meet your needs. According to the “Areas of Worklife” model, workload is only one of the six contributors to burnout. Control, reward, fairness, community and values are the other five elements.
These other contributors revolve around feeling supported, appreciated and safe. Ideally, you can either shift your current work environment or find a new job where all of these areas meet up with your expectations. But in some cases, that’s not possible. In those circumstances, you have other options.
One alternative is to modify your expectations. For example, you may prefer going to lunch with colleagues, but maybe that’s not their preference. It may work better, instead, to cultivate community by stopping by their desk to chat for a few minutes, or organize after-work get-togethers if everyone agrees to come. Or you may prefer that your boss verbally affirms you every time you complete a large task. But maybe that’s not his style. You can learn to appreciate that he gives you good annual reviews and respects your opinion in meetings.
Another alternative is to stop expecting satisfaction in these areas within your job and, instead, seek opportunities outside of work that fulfill these core needs. For example, maybe you volunteer with an organization where you feel appreciated, find the activities intrinsically rewarding, have values alignment and a strong sense of community. Or maybe you invest time in your family or friends to cultivate a feeling of belonging, fulfillment and autonomy.
When you’re “filled up” by how you invest your time outside of work, and you feel supported by people who know and care about you, you have a buffer against the drain that may exist in the office.
You may not have the ability to change everything you don’t like about your job, but you do have the ability to improve how good you feel about yourself and life in general. By investing your time based on the truth of your body, personality and reality, you can reduce your risk of burnout. And if you already feel burnt out, you can recover faster.
Elizabeth Grace Saunders is a time management coach and the author of “The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment, How to Invest Your Time Like Money, and Divine Time Management.” She is a regular contributor to Harvard Business Review and Fast Company.
How much good does a preschool experience offer children born in poverty? Enough to make their later lives much better, and they pass a heritage of opportunity on to their own children.
In 1962, 58 African-American 3- and 4-year-olds, all from poor familiesand likely candidates for failure in school, enrolled in Perry Preschool in Ypsilanti, Mich. This was a novel venture, and parents clamored to sign their children up. Louise Derman-Sparks, who taught there, told me she “fell in love with the kids. They were so excited, so intelligent, so curious.” Because the demand could not be satisfied, 65 applicants were turned away. They became the control group in an experiment that confirmed the importance of a child’s first years.
Researchers who tracked these children say this experience shaped their lives. Those in preschool were more likely to graduate from high school and attend college. As adults, more have held down jobs, and owned a home and a car. Fewer smoke, drink, use drugs, receive welfare or have gone to prison.
The significance of these findings is striking. Early education used to be equated with babysitting, and a child-care center was considered just a cozy nest where working parents could safely drop off their children. Perry became exhibit No. 1 in the argument for high-quality preschool.
Attending a good preschool is not the only early-in-life experience that reverberates for decades. Studies show that whether their mother had prenatal care and whether they had well-baby checkups and had enough to eat can change children’s lives — whether they stayed healthy, went to high school, graduated from college, earned a decent wage or ran afoul of the law.
To be sure, the fact that middle-class youngsters have had it much better in these respects has made it hard for poor youths to climb the social-class ladder. But safety-net programs like Head Start, Food Stamps and Medicaid, devised in the 1960s and 1970s, were intended to shrink this gap, even as conservatives reflexively dismissed those efforts as wastes of money.
Those programs do work. During the 1980s and 1990s, Medicaid eligibility expanded to ensure that millions more mothers had prenatal care, regular visits to a pediatrician and well-baby checkups. That care kept millions of children in school and out of trouble, allowing for a longer, healthier and more economically stable life. Food Stamps have yielded or generated long-term benefits.
By now, many of the children whose parents signed up decades ago have had children of their own. And scholars have begun asking whether advantages conferred on one generation are passed on to the next.
The answer is a resounding yes. Public investments can break the cycle of poverty.
The Perry preschoolers’ offspring are more likely to have graduated from high school, gone to college and found jobs, and less likely to have a criminal record than their peers whose parents lacked the same opportunity. As for Head Start, more of the second generation graduate from high school and enroll in college, and fewer become pregnant as teenagers or go to prison. What’s more, girls whose mothers saw a doctor when they were pregnant are less likely to have low-birthweight or premature babies.
These positive findings make intuitive sense. When children who have absorbed the ethos of preschool — wait your turn, share — become adults, they are primed to be good parents, inclined to enroll their own offspring in an early-education program. When poor and working-class families don’t have to pay for prenatal care or well-baby checkups, they have less stress and more money to spend at home.
“Poverty perpetuates itself. Five- and 6-year-old children are inheritors of poverty’s curse and not its creators,” President Lyndon Johnson said in 1965 as Head Start began. “Unless we act, these children will pass it on to the next generation, like a family birthmark.”
But there is something missing from this prescription for a more equal society across generations — the failure to dismantle school segregation. Although desegregation is seldom mentioned in the same breath as Head Start or Medicaid, it belongs high among strategies that can help to derail the cycle of poverty.
Conservatives often dismiss integration as social engineering run amok. By contrast, in a new book, “Children of the Dream,” Rucker Johnson, a Berkeley professor of public policy, spells out the price we pay for having abandoned the policy. In the 1970s, integration gave a leg up to black children in newly desegregated schools. The longer they attended those schools, the more they benefited.
Those gains too have carried into the second generation; children whose parents attended an integrated school for at least five years are 10 percent more likely to graduate from high school. “They become more civic-minded, more socially conscious and more career-oriented,” Professor Johnson told me. Social psychologists say interracial experience undercuts bigotry.
But that opportunity was missed. The pitched battles in New York City over redrawing school boundaries and diversifying its selective high schools delivers a stunning reminder that integration can be a political third rail. Elsewhere, however, the picture now isn’t so bleak. During the past decade, more than 100 school districts adopted plans that foster socio-economic integration. And despite opposition at the outset, Louisville, Ky. has drawn attendance zones that promote racial as well as socio-economic integration; polls now show overwhelming support.
Perhaps the nation would be less racially polarized today, immune to the race-baiting from the White House, if public schools adopted Louisville’s approach.
Let’s think big — how about coupling prenatal care and good early education with integrated, well-financed schools? That would pack a wallop.
David L. Kirp, a contributing writer, is a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of “The College Dropout Scandal.”
About 25 years ago, I spent a memorable afternoon in London with Michael Young, the author of the strange 1958 dystopian novel in the form of a dissertation called The Rise of the Meritocracy, which introduced that term into the English language. In the United States, for years, people have liked to insist that wherever they work or go to school is a meritocracy, meaning, roughly, that they understand it as an open competition in which the most deserving succeed. Americans assume meritocracy to be an unalloyed good; the term implies a contrast to some past system or an era when success went instead to lazy inheritors, timeservers, or adept players of office politics.
Young, however, wanted not to celebrate meritocracy but to warn the world against it. He had the detached air of someone who has quietly noticed everything, and a sense of humor so bone-dry that most people missed it. By the time I met him, he was Baron Young of Dartington—an oft-noted irony. But intellectually, he was a creature of the post–World War II British Labour Party, in which he served as an important adviser on education, and of the impoverished East End, where he did his sociological research. He had been involved in the great expansion of the state-run school system after the war, which was an aspect of the broader socialist project aimed at creating structured mass opportunity for the first time in British history. It was in keeping with the tenor of the time that this effort relied on administering intelligence tests to masses of 11-year-olds, who were then each directed into what was, essentially, a blue-collar or a white-collar educational track and who would, when they were a few years older, take another set of exams that would anoint a small cohort as bound for higher education.
Young assumed that this would be a fair system—that what the tests measured was “merit,” something crucial and immutable. But its results forced him to confront the question of whether there was any real moral difference between the new, deserving upper class and the older, undeserving one. He concluded that meritocracy functioned as a justification for a new and especially harsh class system and that therefore he preferred the old elite. As a socialist, his primary commitment was not to equal opportunity but to just plain equality, and he foresaw that what he had decided to call “meritocracy” would make equality harder to sell, since it would provide a supposedly scientific justification for inequality. “To be good, a society must have a fault,” he told me. The United Kingdom’s fault was a class system based on inheritance, which made the country a propitious environment for midcentury Labour socialism; the new meritocracy that Labour was creating would be much less propitious. The Rise of the Meritocracyends by telling us that its author, a scholar named Michael Young, has regrettably been killed in a bloody mass uprising against the meritocrats.
In the current moment of global populist, nationalist, and socialist revolts against elites, this scenario seems prescient. And yet in his new book, The Meritocracy Trap, the legal scholar Daniel Markovits rather ungenerously insists that “Young’s satire missed its mark by a mile.” By that, Markovits means two things: that Young failed to understand that meritocracy is itself actually based on the circumstances of birth rather than merit, and that his idea that meritocracy was something to be avoided, not embraced, never caught on. Quite the reverse happened: in Markovits’s maximally bleak view, meritocracy has ruined American life. By presenting itself as a means of providing equal opportunity, it has preemptively shut down opposition; it pushes inequality to ever-higher levels; it serves as an efficient mechanism for the inheritance, rather than the upending, of privilege; and it turns even its relatively small number of beneficiaries into miserable, relentlessly pressured workaholics who have to expend most of their large incomes on their children’s private schools and tutors. Markovits’s picture of American society is so lurid, so inexorably dark, that it invites skepticism more than it persuades.
CASTE OF CHARACTERS
Young was sort of kidding about the threat meritocracy posed. Markovits most definitely is not. He attributes to meritocracy a very high level of social and economic damage—maybe not on a level with what Soviet communism wreaked in Russia, but not entirely out of that range. The charge can’t be evaluated without first defining “meritocracy” precisely, which isn’t so easy.
Like all social systems, the one that Markovits describes was made and not born. His righteous rage against it is powered by a sense of betrayal, or promises unkept: as he puts it, “Despite the motives that led to its adoption, meritocracy no longer promotes equality of social and economic opportunity, as it was intended and expected to do.” But historically, it was neither intended nor expected to do that. The founders of the system Markovits’s book examines did not have the word “meritocracy” available to them, because Young hadn’t yet written his book at the time when they were devising it. They also did not think they were addressing the problem of opportunity in the United States. The British Education Act of 1944 was aimed at expanding the state-run educational system. The American meritocracy, launched at roughly the same time, had a narrower purpose: to use IQ tests as an admission device for elite undergraduate institutions, as a way of changing the character of those schools and creating a new breed of high-level technocrats.
If the system had a father, it was James Bryant Conant, the president of Harvard University from 1933 to 1953, whom Markovits mentions only in passing. It was Conant who arranged for the SAT, an adapted IQ test, to become the dominant college admission device. While he was doing this, in stages during his reign at Harvard, he was also occasionally writing essays calling for the establishment of a new, classless America. But it’s worth noting that during his peak period of influence, he was also a leading opponent of the GI Bill, the greatest expansion of educational opportunity the country had ever seen. Historical figures act according to the assumptions and exigencies of the moment; Conant was focused on promoting the research university model at Harvard and other elite academic institutions and on winning the Cold War. The prospect of wasted scientific and administrative talent haunted him, and he feared that class divisions would weaken American society.
His solution to these problems was to create large but strictly tracked public high schools whose male graduates would also have to go through a period of compulsory national service. If everybody went to high school and did their national service together, he believed, that would prevent class tensions from developing, so the project of strict elite selection could proceed unimpeded. Expanding access to college was not part of his plan; doing so would have diluted the focus on superachievers that Conant thought universities should maintain. He also expected that the new American elites would be overwhelmingly oriented toward public service, as were graduates of top universities in Europe, and that they would not try to rig the system that had produced them in order to advantage their children. Those qualities, too, would forestall any resentment the new elites might engender.
Like most social visionaries, Conant was substantially wrong in his expectations about the system he was helping create—especially about how it would be perceived by the public. Today, many people assume that admission to Ivy League schools is a process that is highly susceptible to corruption by prosperous parents, and degrees from those institutions are widely perceived as tickets to gaudy status and material success, not to careers in public service. This is partly, but not entirely, accurate. Ivy League admissions now rely on a pastiche: remnants of the pre-Conant system—preferences for athletes and the children of alumni, for example—persist alongside a genuine commitment to racial and class diversity, as well as the strong emphasis on academic criteria that Conant wanted. And Ivy League students are inculcated into an elite culture defined less by crass ambition than by a peculiar mixture of soaring liberal idealism and an overwhelming preoccupation with success.
Markovits’s home institution, Yale Law School, is an exemplar. It was founded in 1824 but essentially refounded in the late 1920s, when a coterie of fiery young reformers led by the legal scholar and future Supreme Court justice William Douglas arrived after defecting from Columbia University and gave the school a decidedly more liberal cast than its competitors. Yale still overproduces law professors, judges, and government officials. It is also intensely conscious of being considered the country’s number one law school. Its students have run a brutally competitive academic gauntlet for two decades before they arrive, and when they leave, they are highly attractive to prominent commercial law firms. The Meritocracy Trap grew out of a speech Markovits gave at the Yale Law School graduation ceremony in 2015, which he began by assuring his listeners of their preeminence. “You are sitting here today because you ranked among the top three-tenths of one percent of a massive, meritocratic competition,” he said, “in which all the competitors conspicuously agree about which is the biggest prize.” But the system that produced them, he added, had been “a catastrophe for our broader society.” This blending of status consciousness and stinging social critique is deeply woven into the fabric of the institution.
The story Markovits tells isn’t so different from the one that Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray laid out, controversially, in The Bell Curve in 1994, except that Markovits vigorously insists that the special qualities of meritocrats result from their upbringing and their own efforts rather than from inherited traits. But in both versions of this tale, there existed a baseline period, before SAT-based admissions, when Ivy League students were not especially bright and when, conversely, potential meritocrats were scattered randomly across the class system. Then came a dramatic change in admission policies at elite universities, which led to the displacement of the old American upper class by a new, more deserving one. The resulting meritocratic elite efficiently replicates itself through campus-based “assortative mating,” ruthless residential and social self-segregation, and high-pressure child-rearing practices. Therefore, Markovits writes, “American meritocracy has become precisely what it was invented to combat: a mechanism for the concentration and dynastic transmission of wealth, privilege, and caste across generations.”
The consequences of these developments, in Markovits’s account, are even worse than the plain fact of an aristocracy-to-meritocracy-to-aristocracy dynamic would indicate. The old aristocracy presided over a “classless society,” he writes, a near paradise of middle-class prosperity and opportunity. The new meritocrats, who on graduation quickly become extravagantly paid “superordinate workers” in fields such as finance and law, have created “a stagnant, depleted, and shrinking world” for the middle class by redefining economic value in terms that reward the kinds of labor only they, the meritocrats, perform and by pulling an increasing proportion of all economic activity into their purview and away from everyone else’s.
To Markovits, because of what the meritocrats have done to American society, there is hardly any difference these days between the middle class and the poor: “Meritocracy remakes the middle class as a lumpenproletariat.” The United States now features a bipolar labor market, “epitomized by Walmart greeters and Goldman Sachs bankers.” And the meritocrats don’t even get to enjoy feasting on the carrion of the good society they have ruined, because they are working too hard: “A brilliant vortex of training, skill, industry, and income holds elites in thrall, bending them from earliest childhood through retirement to an unrelenting discipline of meritocratic production that alienates superordinate workers from their labor, so that they exploit rather than fulfill themselves and eventually lose authentic ambitions that they might never fulfill.” A meritocrat can’t go into “teaching, . . . or journalism, public service, or even engineering,” because to do so would mean “sacrificing her own, and her children’s, caste.”
THE BAD OLD DAYS?
Markovits is hardly the first writer to notice that inequality is rising and middle-class incomes are stagnating in the United States. What’s distinctive about his argument is the direct causal link he draws between a change in the admission policies of a handful of elite universities and, a few decades later, a tableau of vast, nearly hopeless social and economic ruin. He regularly makes the connection simply by using the phrase “meritocratic inequality” as a synonym for “inequality.” That certainly gets the reader’s attention, but it’s also highly tendentious.
The first problem with Markovits’s version of the world is that the pre-meritocratic society he conjures up is more a projection than a rigorously established historical fact. He asserts that in an earlier era, the elites were “dull, sluggish, and inert” people who didn’t work hard—“lazy rentiers who deployed inherited wealth and power to exploit subordinate labor.” The top universities they attended were characterized by “uncompetitive mediocrity.” Their education “had no compelling purpose.” These are pleasing thoughts if one happens to be a meritocrat, but they are very difficult to prove, partly because pre-meritocrats were not evaluated with standardized tests. American popular culture in the pre-meritocracy period was full of hagiographies of economic titans, but they were self-made industrialists, not landed gentry: Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford. Even more plausibly aristocratic (but hardly lazy) types, such as Henry Adams and Edith Wharton, were exquisitely aware by the early twentieth century that their class’s preeminence was being threatened by uncouth people with newly acquired fortunes not based on landownership. And universities such as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale were already well on their way to being considered among the best in the world, decades before they had altered their admission policies.
A better way of thinking about the change in Ivy League admissions is as a chapter—and not one with “no historical precedent,” as Markovits claims—in the never-ending recalibration of the membership criteria for this particular corner of the American elite. Owen Johnson’s 1912 young-adult novel, Stover at Yale, a bible of sorts for generations of Old Blues, depicts a fanatically competitive college culture but with a narrow group of participants and a set of standards that attributed much less importance to academic achievement than to factors such as “character” and “leadership,” which were hard to define but nonetheless palpable to the students at the time. Kingman Brewster, Jr., the president of Yale for most of the 1960s and 1970s, whom Markovits credits with bringing meritocracy to the university, dialed up the importance of academic criteria and tried to include groups such as African Americans and women but didn’t entirely scrap the old system, either. Brewster used to say that the alternative to the changes he was pushing was that Yale would become merely “a finishing school on Long Island Sound”—meaning that he was preserving its importance, not remaking the entire U.S. political economy and opportunity structure.
FINAL GRADE: INCOMPLETE
The Meritocracy Trap gives the impression that today, the superprosperous one percent is essentially conterminous with the new class of Ivy League graduates and that all of them face the kinds of punishing work schedules maintained by Markovits’s former students who bill 2,000 hours a year at white-shoe law firms. They dominate the business world. Their money and status are a reward for their superiority—“no prior elite has ever been as capable or as industrious as the meritocratic elite”—and therefore, “to deny that meritocrats earn and deserve their income seems to require denying that anyone ever earns or deserves anything.”
A theory is supposed to be predictive and testable, but Markovits often falls into the post hoc fallacy when presenting evidence for his: if anybody does anything amazingly productive, it must mean that person is a meritocrat, regardless of his or her educational background. He claims, for example, that “the cascading innovations behind the managerial revolution did not arise spontaneously. Instead, they were all—every one—generated from within meritocracy, by . . . workers coming out of America’s newly meritocratic schools and universities.” Because his meritocrats apply their nearly superhuman talent and resources to the fullest extent to raising their children in a meritocratic hothouse, whatever they have, the next generation will surely have, too.
The mind teems with objections to these extravagant assertions. Aren’t there any members of the one percent who inherited their money, or who started their own businesses, or who invest for a living? Aren’t there people who work at the Wall Street and Big Law bastions that Markovits identifies with meritocracy who didn’t go to Ivy League schools? What about people whose main compensation does not take the form of salaries based on hours worked (which is how Markovits suggests that all meritocrats are paid) and instead consists of bonuses based on measurable economic performance—traders, fund managers, and the like? What about meritocrats who have somehow managed to do something they enjoy that doesn’t pay boatloads of money? What about meritocrats whose children go to college but not to Ivy League schools? Readers of The Meritocracy Trap might be surprised to learn that 65 percent of Yale’s current sophomore class went to public school and that only 11 percent were admitted owing to a “legacy affiliation,” such as being the child of an alumnus.
Outside the tight confines of elite education, the broader social order that Markovits calls “meritocracy” comprises three distinct concepts that he lumps together: equality (that is, how evenly distributed income and wealth are), mass mobility (whether conditions are improving for the whole society), and circulation mobility (how efficiently socioeconomic status is passed on from parents to children). It’s possible that changes in elite college admissions would affect none of those, because the numbers involved are too small to move the needle in a country of more than 325 million people. Other possible causes of the “great compression” of income inequality during the third quarter of the twentieth century include high marginal tax rates on the rich, widespread unionization, and a heavily regulated economy that made what is now called “disruption” difficult. During that period, mass mobility was driven by a growing economy and a substantial expansion in access to higher education, mainly in the relatively unselective public universities that the great majority of U.S. students attend. Circulation mobility in the United States, contrary to American mythology, has never been appreciably higher than in Europe, and it hasn’t changed much over the years.
OUTSIDE THE IVORY TOWER
If one believes that the overall social and economic conditions of the United States have been produced by meritocracy, then it’s natural to look to meritocracy as the zone where reforms should take place. Markovits proposes to solve the larger problems of the country by taking away private universities’ tax deductions unless they draw half their students from the bottom two-thirds of the income distribution; he believes this would force them to expand their enrollment. The narrowness of this remedy is a sign of how little space the nonelite, non-university world takes up in Markovits’s vision. There is very little politics or economics or history in The Meritocracy Trap—only the cascading effects of changes in elite college admissions, which explain practically everything.
Even within higher education, Markovits’s scope is strikingly limited. Public universities, plagued by low graduation rates and large cuts in funding, might be a plausible place to look if one wants to enhance opportunity and promote equality, but they are hardly mentioned in the book. “The thought that a generic BA constitutes a general ticket of admission into the elite is . . . a midcentury idea,” Markovits writes dismissively. But the data clearly show that getting any college degree meaningfully improves one’s life chances and that the difference in value between an elite degree and a “generic BA” is less than most upper-middle-class parents probably believe. Anyway, isn’t shoring up the middle class, rather than providing access to membership in the elite, Markovits’s larger mission?
Rising inequality and the stalled progress of the middle class are the preoccupying problems of American society today, and most of the possible solutions offered by politicians, intellectuals, academics, and activists don’t involve meritocracy at all. Markovits suggests changes in the notoriously regressive payroll tax and redistributing work in ways that support “mid-skilled production.” But these fall far short of the grand effort, on the scale of the New Deal, that he plausibly insists would be necessary to address the situation successfully. Because he is so focused on selling the distinctiveness of his approach, he tends to ignore or underrate the many other possible remedies that are part of the national conversation right now. These include enhanced antitrust policies (a concentration of economic power and inequality go together), wealth taxes, higher income tax rates in the top brackets, and significant enhancements to the basic welfare-state package of public education, health care, and old-age pensions. Ninety percent of young American adults now go to college, but their completion rates are parlously low—60 percent for those pursuing a bachelor’s degree and 30 percent for those pursuing an associate’s degree at a community college. Both those degrees are strongly correlated with higher lifetime incomes and lower unemployment rates. Enhancing teaching and advising so as to improve college completion rates would be a good way to expand opportunities for most Americans.
Works of social diagnosis and prescription are always produced from within a particular time and place and culture. Some of them wind up looking like trenchant analysis, and others like documents that vividly expose the world from which they emerged. The Meritocracy Trap seems destined to wind up in the latter category. It displays a brilliant mind choosing to understand a great global turn toward market ideology and policy as the product of changes at a handful of elite universities. That’s a sign of how unconsciously constrained the view from those places can be.