Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The Cult of Smartness: How Meritocracy Is Failing America

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Conor Friedersdorf wrote a thoughtful review in the Atlantic of Chris Hayes’s book Twilight of the Elites: America after Democracy back in June 2012. It’s worth reading now. It begins:

In an engrossing passage from Twilight of the Elites, a new book about the American meritocracy and its failures, author Chris Hayes directs our attention to an all but forgotten moment in 2009, when debate raged about who President Obama should appoint to a Supreme Court vacancy. Sonia Sotomayor was widely thought to be on his short list. But various liberal commentators, including The New Republic’s Jeffrey Rosen and Harvard’s Laurence Tribe, argued that she should be passed over for alternative candidates who they regarded as observably smarter. “Keep in mind the person under discussion is someone who, from humble beginnings in the Bronx, had gained entry to Princeton, graduated summa cum laude, and gone on to Yale Law, where she edited the Yale Law Journal,” Hayes observed. “She had checked off every box on the to-do list of meritocratic achievement. Apparently it wasn’t enough.”

In his telling, that’s one example of the “Cult of Smartness” that has taken hold in American life, a pathology characterized by the mistaken assumption that intelligence is an ordinal quality — that it is possible for observers to accurately rank intelligent people in order from most  to least smart, and that the right person for a job is always the one deemed smartest. “While smartness is necessary for competent elites,” Hayes retorts, “it is far from sufficient: wisdom, judgment, empathy, and ethical rigor are all as important, even if those traits are far less valued.”

Throughout Twilight of the Elites, the reader is presented with similarly specific, thoughtful critiques of what’s gone wrong with America’s ruling class. The elites who run things, having advanced to the top of various hierarchies, are performing miserably, Hayes argues, citing failures as varied as Enron, the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, the Catholic Church molestation scandal, the financial crisis, and the steroid scandal in Major League Baseball. A striking quote from a man named Thomas Day is marshaled to dramatize the parade of failures that helped to inspire the book. “I’m 31, an Iraq War veteran, a Penn State graduate, a native of State College, acquaintance of Sandusky’s, and a product of his Second Mile Foundation,” Day wrote after Joe Paterno’s firing. “And I have fully lost faith in the leadership of my parents’ generation.”

Aside from “The Cult of Smartness,” why are present arrangements — lets call ourselves an “aspirational meritocracy” — failing us? . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, including some suggested remedies.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 March 2020 at 9:48 am

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