Widgets Magazine


The Merit of Meritocracy

Meritocracy is a word that we view with reverence and pride in our modern society — celebrating the idea that virtually any qualified individual can rise to the top of his or her field.

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck ‘12 received a lot of attention from the media a few months ago as a champion of meritocracy on the football field, once telling his teammates at Stanford: “Football is the great meritocracy in our society…You will be judged on merit.”

Luck’s statement is not a pure and unreserved defense of meritocracy, but a reminder to us that football provides a pure way to judge someone based on merits in a way that may be difficult to replicate elsewhere. In college and the NFL, players who can consistently catch touchdowns or record sacks will earn more playing time. Evidently, football has clear parameters for identifying merit and rewarding the right players. The real question is: How does the rest of society do?

In recent years, many prominent voices have questioned the nature of meritocracy in America. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, for example, argues in his book “Twilight of the Elites and the End of Meritocracy” that many of the problems facing America in the past decade — particularly the financial crisis — stem from the erosion of our old meritocratic and democratic system in favor of a plutocracy in which the extremely wealthy manipulate the system for their own benefit.

On the other side of the criticisms levied against meritocracy, writer Joseph Epstein argues in a Wall Street Journal essay, “The Late, Great American WASP,” that the ineffectual state of the United States government stems from a crop of “self-involved, over-schooled products of modern meritocracy” as opposed to the dignified, selfless leadership of America’s WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) ruling class of previous centuries. David Brooks put it more bluntly in his headline in The New York Times: “Why Our Elites Stink.” Brooks argues that meritocracy has lost sight of its original principles: in his words, “The language of meritocracy (how to succeed) has eclipsed the language of morality (how to be virtuous).”

While I disagree with Epstein and Brooks’ glorification of an insular, WASP-dominated America, they do make a powerful point (one that ties with Hayes’ argument) that maybe our modern meritocracy fails to properly define merit. Today’s top government officials and business leaders are largely graduates of elite universities, many of whom have earned Rhodes Scholarships and other prestigious honors. Epstein writes: “Having been a good student, in other words, means that one was good at school.” But that statement is more important for what it delicately leaves out: Doing well in school is not necessarily the same as getting a good education and having the merits of a good citizen and an effective leader.

That’s where I think Hayes’ and Epstein’s views come together. We have replaced true merit with exclusivity.

This fundamental misunderstanding between merit and exclusivity is an extremely important question to consider at Stanford. I believe that an education from a world-class institution with an unfathomable amount of resources is extremely valuable, but we need to be careful about what exactly it means to have a Stanford education.

Venture capitalist Peter Thiel B.A. ‘89 J.D. ‘92 frequently argues that the only benefit of schools like Stanford is in their “artificial exclusivity.” Students from elite universities are destined to rise to top positions because they have already earned an exclusive position; there is very little need to focus on the actual learning experience (beyond doing what it takes to earn good grades) while in college.

As Winston Shi addressed in his column earlier this week, Stanford admitted a new record low percentage of applicants at 5.07 percent, furthering this idea of exclusivity — and perhaps an unapproachable one. My message to the class of 2018 — and to all college students — is to not be complacent but rather to seek out a transformative education that transcends what goes on a transcript. You have the freedom, as surprising as it may seem, to challenge your professor’s ideas if you disagree, question your values and seriously consider what it means to have good character. Success in life is not reduced to a salary or to the square footage of a home. But in today’s society, the difference may not be so apparent.

While football may nudge us to think that life reduces to a series of easily interpretable statistics, the truth is never that simple (and it isn’t that simple for football either). All our lives, we have been presented with a series of achievable objectives on the path to Stanford, with our statistics and our measurables and our numeric goals and dreams. But it takes effort to see the forest through the trees.

By being fortunate enough to attend Stanford, we are certainly in a special position, but exclusivity does not equal merit. We still need to work to develop knowledge and character — the real merits of a meritocracy — to have what it takes to make a positive impact on the world and find the real value of a Stanford education.


Contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan@stanford.edu.

About Vihan Lakshman

Vihan Lakshman's journey at The Stanford Daily came full-circle as he began his career as a football beat writer and now closes his time on The Farm in the same role. In between, he has served as an Opinions columnist and desk editor, a beat writer for Stanford baseball, and as a member of The Daily's Editorial Board. Vihan completed his undergraduate degree in Mathematical and Computational Science in 2016, and is currently pursuing a master's in Computational Mathematics. He also worked as a color commentator on KZSU football broadcasts during the 2015 season. To contact him, please send an email to vihan 'at' stanford.edu
  • Hunter Stevenson

    I think it’s elitist for a Stanford article to automatically call on Stanford’s “special position” as defense for meritocracy. A meritocracy depends upon the innate ability of a person in question, not the “special position” one is in. But I guess that’s the common mentality of a Stanford, or any Ivy graduate as well- that they have a “special position”. Maybe next time the author should be a little more sensitive to the idea that true meritocracy is not the making of age-old stigma relating to one’s affiliation, but rather, that of one’s true potential. A Stanford degree, let alone any degree from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Cornell, Brown, or any other elite school is not a mark of this ability, and the author should tread carefully when using such language.

  • Candid One

    Your sentiment seems honorable–and ideologically on target. Stanford, along with its peer institutions, is renown for incubating self-generated imperatives. However, you propose an ideal for meritocracy that’s inapplicable. “True meritocracy” is an artificial construct. Lifetimes are spent at assessing “one’s true potential”, never mind the actualization of that intangible, and that’s primarily a first person exercise.

    Meanwhile, life happens. Those with the prestige tags and labels are shortcutting the second and third person assessments, using a virtual shorthand of meritocracy.

    Inherently, via ideal or practical means, any form of meritocracy is a pyramid scheme. “Elite” fits in there somewhere at the top. Elite is as elite does, by intention or otherwise. It’s pretentious to idealize the inapplicable form of meritocracy; in any form, it naturally conflates with elitism. Naturally, this author’s concoction is rife with such conflation.