Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

The Myth of Meritocracy

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

The Myth of Meritocracy

Article excerpt

Education should be a great leveler, but the state of California is getting rid of its bulldozers. By voting last week to abolish affirmative action in admissions and hiring, the University of California regents provided Gov. Pete Wilson with a big boost in his presidential ambitions; at the same time, they took a giant leap backward for fairness and equality. The vote also perpetuates a favorite mirage of the opponents of affirmative action: the myth of meritocracy.

That myth is routinely trotted out by those who piously claim it is time for a truly colorblind society. In their ideal world, any decision - on admitting students to a university, choosing someone for a job, awarding a contract or granting a promotion - is made solely on merit. Factors like race, gender, age, ethnicity and other variables that make one person different from another are extraneous.

Such a model sounds good, but it isn't found in the real world. A university, for example, wants to admit students who would make up a diverse class and could learn from each other. It wouldn't choose 100 female English majors from Missouri, for example, to fill 100 slots, even if they had the best academic qualifications. Diversity - in academic major, home town, gender and, yes, even race - is invariably a factor in admissions decisions.

In business, companies deciding whom to hire or promote rarely rely on merit alone. The veterans' preference for hiring by the federal government is just one example of a widespread practice. In most cases, the old saying, it's not what you know but who you know, may be unfair, but it is true, to a significant degree.

Left to their own standards, people in authority will rarely cast the widest net to bring in the most diverse pool of applicants, then make a choice based on objective standards. They will pick people they feel most comfortable with - primarily, people who most resemble themselves. …

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