Meritocracy and Its Discontents: New From The Hedgehog Review This Summer

A-1, by Robert Indiana (b. 1928); private collection, photograph © Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Images, © 2016 Morgan Art Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

What could possibly be wrong with meritocracy? Isn’t it a vital part of the American Dream, and the only system that allows the talented and capable to rise to the top, regardless of birth? What other scheme of elite selection could better suit a democracy in which equality of outcome is a cherished ideal?

If only it were so simple. 

As the current electoral season is revealing, more and more Americans (and citizens of other democracies as well) have grown wary and distrustful of their leaders, many of whom they perceive to be arrogant, selfish and disconnected from the concerns of real people and the best interests of their nation. But what does this loss of confidence in our elites have to do with the system that selects and shapes them? Why has meritocracy itself come to be seen as a big part of the problem? And what, if anything, can be done to fix a broken system?   

In its summer issue, The Hedgehog Review, an interdisciplinary journal published by the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, explores the many challenges to the meritocratic ideal. As editor Jay Tolson writes, “The fault of meritocracy … may lie far less in the system than in the attitudes it fosters among our meritocrats.”

Concerns about the possible shortcomings and flaws of the meritocratic system are not entirely new. In her timely contribution, Helen Andrews, a policy analyst at Australia’s Centre for Independent Studies, traces the history of meritocracy from Britain’s Northcote-Trevelyan Report of 1854 to present-day America. The best thing that can happen to our meritocrats, Andrews argues in “The New Ruling Class,” is for them to face up to their own considerable limitations (including an often humorless overestimation of their own abilities) and acknowledge what they truly are – a new kind of aristocracy.

Another problem with meritocracy is our understanding of “merit” itself. In “A Distant Elite,” historian Wilfred M. McClay considers the multiple meanings of the word. Today, merit is largely based on test-taking skills and credentials, rather than, as in the past, on on accomplishments or achievements. “We need,” McClay writes, “to find ways to restore and preserve a less regimented, less class- and status-stratified, less school-sorted, more open-ended America, one more respectful of men and women of all stations and educational levels.”

In addition, it would benefit both our elites and society as a whole if the former were more willing to recognize the role that luck plays in their own success. As the economist Robert Frank points out in “Just Deserts,” even the most diligent workers have enjoyed the advantages of good fortune and favorable circumstances. But largely thanks to the “rhetoric of meritocracy,” many successful people are loath to acknowledge that success – or failure – may result from forces well beyond their control. If people can be persuaded to credit the role of luck in their lives, Frank contends, they may become more public-spirited and willing to help those without the benefit of such lucky breaks.

The summer issue also includes a special symposium, “On the Business of Philosophy,” which features a never-before-published essay by the late philosopher Richard Rorty (1931-2007). In “Universalist Grandeur and Analytic Philosophy,” Rorty reflects upon the limits of his discipline – what philosophers should get on with and which pursuits they should cede to others. Three distinguished philosophers – the University of Miami’s Susan Haack, the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture’s Matthew B. Crawford and the University of Chicago’s Robert B. Pippin – respond to Rorty’s argument, finding that perhaps the great man gave up too quickly on some of philosophy’s grander ambitions.

Rorty’s essay, an excerpt from his 2004 Page-Barbour lectures at UVA, will be published this autumn by the University of Virginia Press under the title “Philosophy as Poetry.”

Also in the Hedgehog Review’s summer issue are three essays on a range of topics. In “A Word on Behalf of Good Haters,” philosopher Jeffrie G. Murphy offers a moral defense of what is generally thought to be an unacceptable emotion.  In “The Unhappiness of Happiness,” essayist William M. Chace considers how the pursuit of happiness makes happiness harder to achieve. And, finally, in “The Murderer’s Mother,” John J. Lennon, a convicted felon and writer currently serving time in the Attica Correctional Facility, recounts the travails borne by a mother whose son “broke bad,” yet came to seek his own rehabilitation, and a kind of redemption, through his soul-baring art.

Books reviewed in this issue include Rita Felski’s “The Limits of Critique,” Mark Edmundson’s “Self and Soul,” Michael Patrick Lynch’s “The Internet of Us,” Mustafa Emirbayer and Matthew Desmond’s “The Racial Order,” Rogers Brubaker’s “Grounds for Difference,” A.O. Scott’s “Better Living Through Criticism” and Yuval Levin’s “The Fractured Republic.”

In this issue’s Signifiers column, editor Jay Tolson muses on how the concept of branding has not only endured but prevailed. “The power of branding is only a product and symptom of the profoundly destabilizing metaphysics that informs our culture,” he writes.

The Hedgehog Review is published three times a year. The fall issue (out Nov. 1) will examine crises in modern science.

To subscribe, visit The journal is for sale ($12) at select Barnes & Noble bookstores, UVA’s main bookstore and online.

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