Among the anxieties of adolescence, the Scholastic Aptitude Test ranks near the top.
Championed as a way of making determinations between grade point averages and class ranks earned in unequal high school environments, the SAT sought to identify students most worthy of admission to college. Many teenagers then spend hundreds of hours (and their parents spend thousands of dollars) on how to master this hazing ritual of adolescence.
Harvard University professor Michael J. Sandel would likely argue nothing was lost when COVID-19 compelled his employer, along with other colleges and universities, to announce the SAT would be an optional component of admissions this fall. In his latest book, Sandel convincingly questions merit or the belief that “with hard work and talent” anyone can receive their just due. What he proposes in its place, however, proves less convincing.
Sandel, known most widely for a course on justice that spawned PBS' “Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?” and a widely recognized book bearing the same title, begins by challenging whether merit truly exists. In particular, he poses merit rewards individuals indebted to others “in ways the competition obscures.” To that end, Sandel's work joins a growing circle of related titles stretching from Michael Young's “The Rise of Meritocracy (1958)” to Daniel Markovits' “The Meritocracy Trap (2019).”
In the case of students who score well on the SAT, Sandel asks, “What about the parents and teachers who helped them on their way? What about the talents and gifts not wholly of their making? What about the good fortune to live in a society that cultivates and rewards the talents they happen to have?” His fear is that “the striving so absorbs us that our indebtedness recedes from view.”
For Sandel, “College admission is not the only occasion for arguments about merit.” The SAT provides him with a concrete way of entering into wider discussions concerning “how we define success and failure, winning and losing – and about the attitudes the winners should hold toward those less successful than themselves.” According to Sandel, “reckoning with merit” is essential to“(f)inding our way beyond the polarized politics of our time.”
That reckoning occurs over the course of seven accessible chapters in which Sandel details how merit fashions such a powerful place within the American mythos, what social practices it endorses, and the results those practices produce. Buoying those details are batteries of statistics and engaging narrative examples.
For example, the SAT reemerges in Chapter 6, “The Sorting Machine.” Seeking to find a way beyond the allocation of admission to college based upon one's family and an ability to pay, a test presumably based upon aptitude emerged on a large scale in the mid-20th century. Contrary to its intentions, Sandel notes that “the SAT is coachable. Private tutoring helps, and a profitable industry has arisen to teach high school students the gimmicks and tricks to boost their scores.”
For Sandel, misplaced faith in the SAT means “higher education in the age of meritocracy has not been an engine of social mobility; to the contrary, it has reinforced the advantages that privileged parents confer on their children.” An elite based upon inheritance was simply replaced by an elite based upon the guise of merit.
To that end, Sandel notes, “If you come from a rich family (top 1 percent), your chances of attending an Ivy League school are 77 times greater than if you come from a poor family (bottom 20 percent).” Damage however, is not only incurred by students with little to no chance of social mobility. For students who succeed, Sandel contends, “(p)erfectionism is the emblematic meritocratic malady” manifested in rising rates of anxiety and depression.
If Sandel convincingly questions merit, he less than convincingly proposes what should take its place. In Chapter 7, “Recognizing Work,” he rightfully lobbies honorable work be granted equal social dignity. Part of how he deems work as honorable is the contribution it makes to the common good or “needed by those with whom we share a common life.”
Despite the differences in skills they demand, plumbing and dentistry, to name but two, prove honorable. Against the backdrop of a society that stubbornly places a premium on salary earned, how dignity is cultivated is where Sandel's argument runs thin.
When wrestling with what would replace the SAT, Sandel's argument also runs thin. In essence, Sandel proposes applicants bearing minimum qualifications such as grades be placed into “some version of (an) admissions lottery.” Beyond being short on details, selection by chance provides no greater guarantee than selection by merit of a concern for the common good.
Accelerated by COVID-19, colleges and universities may finally lay the SAT to rest. Prior to the pandemic, the credibility of the merit the test brokered was in question. Regardless, questions concerning who is most deserving will not rest in peace.
Assessing the potential of students to contribute to the common good is a valuable starting point. Filling in the rest of those details demands the best intentions, thought and practice. To that end, Sandel offers a commendable start.
Todd C. Ream serves on the higher education and honors faculties at Taylor University in Upland.
"The Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good?" by Michael J. Sandel (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) 288 pages, $28