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Missing The Merit in Meritocracy

20-May-09 08:30 pm EDT Leave a comment Go to comments
Author Walter Kirn, chatting on with Steve Colbert on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report”, May 19, 2009.  Kirn believes that “higher education” is overrated and that society places too much emphasis on the brand name colleges rather than more useful soft skills that would ground the nation’s leadership alongside the every-day American.

uch like utopia, the word meritocracy derives a meaning from an inherently unachievable concept – or at least one immeasurable in absolute terms.  Yet the guest on last night’s Colbert Report, an author named Walter Kirn (who’s just finished writing “Lost in the Meritocracy”), judges the leadership of his country – the United States of America – as having deviated from some collective notion of meritocracy.  His is a commentary that expresses apparent shock that graduates of America’s noted institutions of higher learning (like Princeton, Harvard and even MIT) aren’t always the over-achieving elite that most Americans assume them to be.  He goes on to cite specific examples from the Bush administration – including ex-President Bush, himself – as lacking the mettle to govern even a mediocre National League baseball team properly, much less the most powerful nation on Earth.

Speaking as an alumnus of a Canadian institute of higher learning, I can sympathize with some of Kirn is saying.  But in Kirn we have another example of what I don’t like about the Colbert Report; the occasional mediocrity of Colbert’s guests.

Kirn isn’t saying anything radical or new here, of course.  That Universities (or Colleges as they’re known in the U.S.) don’t include world geography, or internal combustion engine repair in every curriculum is hardly breaking news.  That such institutions often judge students by metrics that are entirely subjective and that society, in turn, pays the degrees and the system of academic awards too much respect too often scarcely qualifies as an epiphany to anyone in the audience.  While it might well speak to certain deficiencies in the American education system that there’s barely an American alive who could correctly answer that Ottawa is the capital city of Canada or that Iran is adjacent to Iraq on a map when asked, it doesn’t suddenly mean that graduates of MIT are no more technically savvy in their chosen disciplines than Mr. Kirn or other average Americans off the street.  Nor does it mean that the knowledge acquired by economics majors at these or other ivy-league schools is entirely worthless, simply because the decision-makers failed to prevent this past year’s economic meltdown.  Kirn is only doing what his fellow armchair economists and pundits on Fox are doing: generalizing and over-simplifying a complex problem using incomplete data brokered largely by television in a vain effort to first believe and then express understanding they simply don’t have.  Conversely, it should surprise anyone that I can truthfully say I personally know a major of political economy who wrote a thesis a few years back wherein she correctly predicted much of the calamity confronting us in the markets today.  And she wasn’t entirely alone in her analysis either, I might add.

The key element missing from Kirn’s invective on The Colbert Report (and, I’ll wager, is also missing from his book) is what, exactly, ought to be done about his complaint.  Again, speaking from first-hand experience, I can tell you it would be rather difficult to eliminate all of the subjective metrics from the grading systems used in judging your average paper in Legal Philosophy.  Indeed, it would be hard to eliminate subjective grading from the average examination in Object-Oriented Programming theory – a technical discipline, most would agree.  For that matter, what exactly is the merit in the meritocracy Kirn is vacillating about?  Because, in the end, it’s going to be very difficult to measure success here, given that meritocracy itself is as achievable as it is different for everyone.

Kirn’s book might be entertaining.  It might even give some kind of insight into the Homeresque perspective of the average middle-aged American; or at least those in the demographic who are alike disgruntled about their Princeton experience.  Beyond this, I’m at a total loss not only to understand what Mr. Kirn might contribute to the discussion concerning contemporary U.S. economic and political leadership, but also of the 9½ minutes I spent watching Colbert’s interview with him.

And I desperately wish I could get it back.

Maybe I should simply stick to Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show and quit while I’m ahead from now on…

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