BRAVE NEW WORLD
Despite the unpalatable facts that I’ve just reviewed, the word often used today to describe people who succeed in getting into and through college, especially our most selective and prestigious colleges, is “meritocracy”—a name for those who get to the top because they are intelligent, hardworking, and ambitious. It’s a word with an interesting genealogy. It sounds as if it were derived from the ancient Greek along with such words as “aristocracy” or “oligarchy,” but in fact it is little more than fifty years old, coined in 1958 by an English social critic named Michael Young, who meant it not as an approving name for outstanding people but as a description of a nightmare social order that he feared was becoming reality.
Young’s book, The Rise of the Meritocracy, was not a work of history. It was a futuristic fiction that imagined, from the vantage point of the year 2033, a gruesomely competitive society based on the formula “I + E = M” (intelligence plus effort equals merit), in which, by means of standardized testing starting early in child-