Several days ago I spent some time reading through an extensive article by Ron Unz at The American Conservative on admissions practices in Ivy League schools in the USA, entitled “The Myth of American Meritocracy“. While I certainly cannot do justice to all the arguments and stories he marshalls to make his points, I want to draw out an implication from one statement he makes. He writes:
In recent decades, elite college admissions policy has frequently become an ideological battlefield between liberals and conservatives, but I would argue that both these warring camps have been missing the actual reality of the situation.
Conservatives have denounced “affirmative action” policies which emphasize race over academic merit, and thereby lead to the enrollment of lesser qualified blacks and Hispanics over their more qualified white and Asian competitors; they argue that our elite institutions should be color-blind and race-neutral. Meanwhile, liberals have countered that the student body of these institutions should “look like America,” at least approximately, and that ethnic and racial diversity intrinsically provide important educational benefits, at least if all admitted students are reasonably qualified and able to do the work.
My own position has always been strongly in the former camp, supporting meritocracy over diversity in elite admissions. But based on the detailed evidence I have discussed above, it appears that both these ideological values have gradually been overwhelmed and replaced by the influence of corruption and ethnic favoritism, thereby selecting future American elites which are not meritocratic nor diverse, neither being drawn from our most able students nor reasonably reflecting the general American population.
The overwhelming evidence is that the system currently employed by most of our leading universities admits applicants whose ability may be unremarkable but who are beneficiaries of underhanded manipulation and favoritism. Nations which put their future national leadership in the hands of such individuals are likely to encounter enormous economic and social problems, exactly the sort of problems which our own country seems to have increasingly experienced over the last couple of decades. And unless the absurdly skewed enrollments of our elite academic institutions are corrected, the composition of these feeder institutions will ensure that such national problems only continue to grow worse as time passes. We should therefore consider various means of correcting the severe flaws in our academic admissions system, which functions as the primary intake valve of our future national elites.
Unz draws attention to the deleterious effects the current process will have on the nation’s economy and society. But students of religion should note that these same schools are producing the “best minds” working on religion. Yet, if we recognize the large influence of corruption, both for financial and ideological reasons, we must, if we are reasonable, adjust our respect for the consensuses of these institutions downward accordingly.
I think one “take-away” from this article on the state of humanities and religion scholarship is this: we ought to simply recognize brilliance and foolishness wherever they appear, rather than give an argument more weight because it came from a prestigious institution, or less because it did not.