This article is adapted from Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, © 2012 by Christopher Hayes and published by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House Inc.
In 1990, at the age of 11, I stood in a line of sixth graders outside an imposing converted armory on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, nervously anticipating a test that would change my life. I was hoping to gain entrance to Hunter College High School, a public magnet school that runs from grades seven through twelve and admits students from all five boroughs. Each year, between 3,000 and 4,000 students citywide score high enough on their fifth-grade standardized tests to qualify to take Hunter’s entrance exam in the sixth grade; ultimately, only 185 will be offered admission. (About forty-five students, all from Manhattan, test into Hunter Elementary School in the first grade and automatically gain entrance to the high school.)
I was one of the lucky ones who made it through, and my experience there transformed me. It was at Hunter that I absorbed the open-minded, self-assured cosmopolitanism that is the guiding ethos of the current American ruling class. What animates the school is a collective delight in the talent and energy of its students and a general feeling of earned superiority. In 1982 a Hunter alumnus profiled the school in a New York magazine article called “The Joyful Elite” and identified its “most singular trait” as the “exuberantly smug loyalty of its students.”
That loyalty emanates from the deeply held conviction that Hunter embodies the meritocratic ideal as much as any institution in the country. Unlike elite colleges, which use all kinds of subjective measures—recommendations, résumés, writing samples, parental legacies and interviews—in deciding who gains admittance, entrance to Hunter rests on a single “objective” measure: one three-hour test. If you clear the bar, you’re in; if not, you’re out. There are no legacy admissions, and there are no strings to pull for the well-connected. If Michael Bloomberg’s daughter took the test and didn’t pass, she wouldn’t get in. There are only a handful of institutions left in the country about which this can be said.
Because it is public and free, the school pulls kids from all over the city, many of whom are first-generation Americans, the children of immigrant strivers from Korea, Russia and Pakistan. Half the students have at least one parent born outside the United States. For all these reasons Hunter is, in its own imagination, a place where anyone with drive and brains can be catapulted from the anonymity of working-class outer-borough neighborhoods to the inner sanctum of the American elite. “I came from a family where nobody went to college. We lived up in Washington Heights. We had no money,” says Jennifer Raab, who as president of CUNY’s Hunter College oversees the high school as well. “It was incredibly empowering.” When she surveys the student body, “it gets me very sappy about the American dream. It really can come true. These kids are getting an education that is unparalleled, and it’s not about where they come from or who they are.”
But the problem with my alma mater is that over time, the mechanisms of meritocracy have broken down. In 1995, when I was a student at Hunter, the student body was 12 percent black and 6 percent Hispanic. Not coincidentally, there was no test-prep industry for the Hunter entrance exam. That’s no longer the case. Now, so-called cram schools like Elite Academy in Queens can charge thousands of dollars for after-school and weekend courses where sixth graders memorize vocabulary words and learn advanced math. Meanwhile, in the wealthier precincts of Manhattan, parents can hire $90-an-hour private tutors for one-on-one sessions with their children.