Tuesday, September 16, 2003

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David Brooks goes for the meritocracy's jugular

On Saturday, David Brooks' NYT op-ed discussed what's been lost with the decline of noblesse oblige and the WASPocracy:

Unlike today's top schools, which are often factories for producing Résumé Gods, the WASP prep schools were built to take the sons of privilege and toughen them into paragons of manly virtue. Rich boys were sent away from their families and shoved into a harsh environment that put tremendous emphasis on athletic competition, social competition and character building.

As Peter W. Cookson Jr. and Caroline Hodges Persell write in "Preparing for Power: America's Elite Boarding Schools," students in traditional schools "had to be made tough, loyal to each other, and ready to take command without self-doubt. Boarding schools were not founded to produce Hamlets, but Dukes of Wellington who could stand above the carnage with a clear head and an unflinching will to win."

As anyone who has read George Orwell knows, this had ruinous effects on some boys, but those who thrived, as John F. Kennedy did, believed that life was a knightly quest to perform service and achieve greatness, through virility, courage, self-discipline and toughness.

The Protestant Establishment is dead, and nobody wants it back. But that culture, which George Bush and Howard Dean were born into, did have a formula for producing leaders. Our culture, which is freer and fairer, does not.

Needless to say, this poke at the meritocracy has prompted some vigorous reactions in the blogosphere, particularly from David Adesnik, Greg Djerejian, Innocents Abroad, and Adesnik yet again.

As someone who's generation is roughly between Brooks and these bloggers, let me chip in my two cents:

  • If you read Bobos in Paradise -- and you really should -- it's quite clear that Brooks believes that on the whole the rise of the meritocracy is a good thing. So don't take this section of his article as a generic statement saying that things were better in the previous era.

  • I laughed out loud at Brooks' assertion that the private schools of yore were such harsh environments that they built character and greatness. Has Brooks ever visited an inner-city public high school? Even a garden-variety suburban public school? Surviving those environments takes a healthy dollop of the qualities Brooks admires. All high schools are harsh environments -- they just manifest harshness in different ways.

  • I think Brooks had an interesting point -- one that Belgravia Dispatch picked up on -- but Brooks expressed it awkwardly. The key difference between the WASP generation and the meritocratic generation is that a necessary condition now for joining the leadership caste is ambition. For a prior generation, being born into a brahman family was all one needed to get noticed. Thankfully, that no longer holds. However, Brooks' point is that ambition crowds out other cultivated qualities, such as chivalry.
  • That's a seriously debatable point. But it is an interesting debate.

    posted by Dan on 09.16.03 at 11:14 AM


    Having survived a highly-rated public school of the sort that produced the Blair Hornstine case, and then having gone on to Dartmouth at roughly the time that W was at Yale, I would say that it's possible to overanalyze the whole situation. In my and W's time at the Ivy League, many of the people there were self-made "Resume Gods", and indeed, mediocre. About the only instantly recognizable name from my class, or those on either side of me, is Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor and unsuccessful Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate. Most of my classmates are living closely circumscribed lives of quiet desperation, and I would assume that my contemporaries at Harvard and Yale are largely occupied that way as well. I think being born rich or clawing your way up through the meritocracy produces about the same end result at these schools.

    Brooks is affable and says many worthwhile and intelligent things, and people have to eat, so he's perhaps creating a social situation here that doesn't really exist insofar as I've seen it -- but it's something interesting to write about. I know plenty of well-bred Episcopalians who are in 2003 still preoccupied with their forebears and their addresses -- W and Dean probably broke with the same constraints that a member of the Yale Class of 2004 would still need to break with to accomplish something in life.

    posted by: John Bruce on 09.16.03 at 11:14 AM [permalink]

    Daniel, your argument about inner-city public schools has an obvious flaw: yes, many high schools are "tough", but a harsh environment that emanates from a menacing student body is not the same thing as an excessively stern faculty with a deliberate program for guiding and build character.

    Fareed Zakaria's book "The Future of Freedom" at one point makes the same argument about WASP prep schools that Brooks is making here, albeit in the context of a larger thesis. Zakaria's arguments are well-reasoned and I highly recommend his book.

    (And he, too, thinks that meritocracy is a good thing on balance.)

    posted by: Pliny on 09.16.03 at 11:14 AM [permalink]

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