The Book Club

The Impossible Dream of Equality

Dear Nat,

You strike a balanced note at the end of your message that I think is absolutely appropriate. On the subject of heredity, you note that some portion of intelligence does seem to be hereditary, or at least so many serious people say. So while we should try to reduce inequality of opportunity, there will always be some, since some people are born smarter, and that intelligence may reproduce itself down the generations.

That doesn’t mean we need dwell on the negative. As Lemann’s narrative makes clear, the current meritocratic sorting system has done a good deal to reduce inequality of opportunity. The 1950s elite was based on blood and, to a much larger extent, looks–things that are totally and overwhelmingly hereditary. F. Scott Fitzgerald once remarked that the elite of his day consisted of animal magnetism married to money. One of the virtues of the education-based elite of ours is that it has reduced the influence of looks, magnetism, and social polish, though it will never get rid of them.

Lemann also makes it clear that the current meritocratic system is far more egalitarian than its intellectual founders, Chauncey and Conant, intended. They wanted to create a small elite class of guardians who would serve the public selflessly. That was elitist, and America tends to wash away elitist plans. It was also naive, and reality tends to smash those notions. There is never going to be a selfless class of guardians, no matter what Plato may have imagined. One of the nice things about Lemann’s story is the way it moves from Conant’s lofty writings down to the gritty struggles of politics and campaigns, showing how the original idea–sorting people by scientific tests–was twisted by events.

I finish this exchange more aware of the limitations of our current meritocracy, but not moved to support radical changes to it. The SAT has opened up opportunity for millions of people (Lemann would not disagree). But I think it would be pushing things too far to make the sorts of changes Lemann hints at in his conclusion. That would be to try to impose an overly egalitarian plan onto a society that is interested in opportunity and striving. If there’s one thing we have learned this century, it is that you can’t force-feed egalitarianism on human beings.
Anyway, it’s been an honor chatting with you about this, but now I’ve got to toddle off and work on a review I’m writing on Frederick Law Olmsted for a journal called The Public Interest. The editors there will skin me alive if I miss my deadline.

All the best,