Beyond Meritocracy

Some people on campus may lack the courage to speak up yet still believe that the meritocratic culture of Amherst College provokes a sense of personal inadequacy among students of color. Others, like Katrin Marquez, recognized the inadequacy but misidentify its source. In last week’s issue, she disclosed how a faculty member puzzled her by paying more attention to her ethnic background than to her academic interests in an early advising meeting. Marquez rightly interpreted the event through a racial prism and concluded that minority students should not be essentialized as subjects possessing a different intellectual perspective than the majority of white students. She also shared the absurd encounter she experienced with a white student who shouted “that the College should accept fewer minority students since many were ‘idiots.’” Despite her good intentions, Marquez opted to condemn affirmative action and even the College’s latest, and commendable, support for the respondents in the U.S. Supreme Court case Fisher v. University of Texas. Following a national trend among conservatives, she blames affirmative action for creating “an atmosphere in which highly accomplished minority students question themselves” and even the grounds for their admission.

At this point in time, we hope, no one should want to digress into the history of affirmative action to accept the bare fact that such a reparative policy has not been a free pass for allegedly unqualified students. Take Amherst College for instance. According to the College’s amicus brief presented in the aforementioned legal case, the Admission Office selects students “not mechanically by SAT score, but by looking holistically at each qualified applicant.” Central to such an approach is the decision to enroll students who “will take fullest advantage of what the college has to offer, contribute most to the educational process, and use what they have learned for the benefit of the larger society.” Thus the College can justifiably choose between two women from different socioeconomic and similar ethnic backgrounds, the one who best fits the school’s social purpose, namely: the education of “men and women of exceptional potential from all backgrounds so that they may seek, value, and advance knowledge, engage the world around them, and lead principled lives of consequence.”

Even a cursory understanding of the College’s admission process points to the centrality of merit in the selection of the so-called “best and brightest” students. As recently highlighted by the zealous alumna Sara Ruddock-Harris, “the admission officers scour the country to find the talented tenth of students from various backgrounds to offer them one the best liberal arts education that money can buy.” Katrin Marquez and others should be content with the highly meritocratic nature of the school’s selection process, and rather than feeling inadequate, she could rejoice her induction into the American elite class. But, like many other students of color, she struggles to belong. Why? Well, meritocratic values often turn both people and education into means to some deferred end; in other words, it reduces students to cogs in a machine and education into an ephemeral instrument for supposedly greater “achievements” or, in more opaque terminology, “to live a life of consequence.” It is the celebration of greatness, status, success, and ultimately power, which pervades this institution, what undermines our most human sensibilities, particularly, our need and desire to bond, without competition, with those surrounding us. What racializes students like Marquez and others is meritocracy, which, through a non-racial language, incites students, faculty and staff to assume that admitted students of color are not the “achievers.”

Thus, we believe Marquez to be correct when she expressed her desire for students of color not to be dismissed intellectually, classified as “not prepared,” or called “idiots.” Such a desire can only be fulfilled in a setting where human dignity and mutual recognition prevails. How can we begin to establish this new setting? We believe the College needs to support its staff by granting them decent job contracts; embrace the public educational system by hiring faculty from public universities; encourage students to live more humble lives by providing better support or incentives for careers outside the corrupt world of finance capital; facilitate the return of both national and international students to their home communities as non-exploitative agents; stop amassing wealth whether through the endowment or real estate; increase the number of working class students; diminish the influence of people from the corporate world in the Board of Trustees; and ultimately respect the vast majority of the world’s population who just live life without exercising power over others.