Professors Gordon Winston and Cappy Hill ’76 provide their usual excellent research in “Low-Income Students and Highly Selective Private Colleges: Searching and Recruiting” (pdf). But, for now, leave aside the substance and consider the opening sentence.

Low-income students’ access to the best of American higher education is a matter not only of individual equality of opportunity, but of social efficiency, of fully utilizing the nation’s talents.

Really? By default, we all assume that it is a good thing that Williams, and other elite institutions, scour the earth for the best and brightest. The smartest kid in Nowhere, Kansas should go to Williams, not to Kansas State. But is this really a good thing? Is it best for society if the most talented individuals are whisked away from their local communities at age 18, fated to, in all likelihood, never return? Sometimes, I am not so sure. Consider some opposing arguments.

Indeed, with regard to higher education, we might think of meritocracy as the equivalent of the practice of strip-mining. For the meritocratic system is a method that uses impersonal technology (e.g., the SAT) to help us identify valuable natural resources (bright kids), and then pitilessly removes them from their ecological contexts (local communities), never to return them, thus creating cultural landscapes just as ravaged as the denuded mountainsides of Kentucky coal country.

In other words, in an irony not often enough noted, modernity, whose distinctive political philosophies have stressed equality, has led to greater inequality than ever, precisely because it has equalized opportunity — that is, because it has unleashed talent either to sink or swim — more than had ever previously been done. To put it yet another way, modernity has created many more opportunities for the expression of inequality than ever. And it has made inherent inequality more important than ever in determining social and economic distinctions.

For my part, I prefer to accept the critics’ assertion that the meritocratic ideal is itself mistaken. Mistaken because it leads to social resentment. Mistaken because it has disturbingly anti-democratic consequences. Mistaken because it further rewards those already favored by nature and further punishes those who have been relatively disfavored. Mistaken because it is deeply anti-communal and anti-familial. And mistaken, perhaps most fundamentally, because it is premised on the lie that we are our own, the lie that we all can make and remake ourselves into whatever we want to be, and the lie that our achievements and failings could ever be fully “merited,” rather than, as a Christian might say it, the gifts of grace or the unfortunate consequences of the Fall.

Then there is a vast interconnected network of public and private scholarships, grants, loans, and subsidies, not to mention ranking and testing systems, designed to identify and support the smartest and most able young men and women in reaching the highest positions possible in our meritocracy. Fine and good, except that it is all done without regard for the consequences for the communities and regions from which they spring. Indeed, those who are selected from the ghettos and hinterlands are typically taught only one major in college, says Wendell Berry: the discipline of upward mobility. They are encouraged to question and reject the values and loyalties and histories of their home places for the more enlightened substitutes offered by the global meritocracy.

Indeed. Obviously, I would not expect Williams to change its current admissions practices because of these concerns. I want us to find the most academically talented and ambitious 18 year-olds in the world and bring them to Williams. If that hurts the small towns they come from, too bad.

But the more firmly you hold belief X, the more you should seek out the smartest arguments against it.

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