Last week, we invited readers to submit questions to be asked at an event featuring our editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel and Nation editor-at-large and MSNBC host Chris Hayes. The response was enthusiastic and we ended up with a number of thoughtful and challenging questions. A video of the event is available here and a vibrant conversation can still be found in the comment threads of Chris’s article.
On top of questions for the event, our readers also shared their thoughts this week on the NBA Finals, the student protests in Quebec and our Islamophobia issue. Let us know what you think—in the comments!
Cory_Panshin: I’m interested in Chris’s arguments, but I see a few flaws in his assumption that our society has been acting as an effective meritocracy. Perhaps the most obvious is that the people he references as rising to the top of the heap through brains and hard work are all men.
But to take it a little further, I need to say a few things about myself. I attended Hunter College Elementary School (class of ’57), but I always had a painful sense of being out of place among my classmates, who were mainly the children of wealthy East Siders or Columbia professors. I knew that I was smarter than most of them—in that environment, it was hard not to be aware of such things—but instead of being praised as the best of the best, I’d have people asking me if it was true I was the principal’s niece (which I wasn’t, by any stretch) because they’d heard I was receiving special privileges. In a society where even the kids with brains assume it’s not what you know but who you know, there doesn’t seem to be much basis for talking about meritocracy.
And then we all graduated and some of my classmates went off to finishing schools in Switzerland while I went to Hunter High School (class of ’63) and found myself in a much more egalitarian environment where I fit in better—but perhaps because the school was still all-girls at that time, nobody I knew ever went on to rule the world.
And because I was very smart and very good at taking standardized tests, I eventually wound up at Harvard (class of ’67), where I was as out of place again as I had been in elementary school. It took me many years, however, to figure out that the meritocratic myths I’d been sold by my guidance counselors were hogwash and that Harvard was never meant for people like me. Instead, it was about grooming the children of the elite, with a certain number of super-bright public school students tossed in as window dressing, and an even smaller number of those outsiders allowed to become insiders if they played the game just right.
But that outside-turned-insider route was never for me — and never could have been. Maybe because I was a girl. Or because I was a stereotypical geek with more interest in writing an Elvish glossary than in playing the power games of the elite. Or because there was just enough 1930’s intellectual Jewish radicalism still hanging about my parents and their friends for me to feel it would be a kind of treason to even think about wanting to claw my way to the top of some imaginary social heap.
Granted, this is just my own experience—but I believe it’s a lot truer to the facts of our society than Chris’s picture of a world in which the best and the brightest automatically bob to the top and then pull the ladder up after them. That just isn’t how it works or has ever worked.
In response to Chris Hayes’ “Why Elites Fail.” June 6, 2012