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Is Meritocracy Worth Saving?

Is Meritocracy Worth Saving? | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

From left to right: Nicholas Lemann, Jennifer Lee, Adrian Wooldridge, and Malissia R. Clinton.

Moderated by Nicholas Lemann, New Yorker Staff Writer and Author of The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy

In 1958, the British sociologist-politician Michael Young coined the term “meritocracy” in a book in which he critiqued systems based on individual merit. But to Young’s chagrin, his book was widely interpreted as a celebration of the idea that people should advance according to their talents rather than their birth. More recently, the pendulum has swung back in Young’s intended direction, with meritocracy’s critics denouncing it as a false promise and pretense. Why are we so conflicted over meritocracy and the related ideals of open competition and equal opportunity? Do today’s profound social inequalities reflect a fundamental failure of the idea of meritocracy, or a corruption of an ideal that needs renewal?

The Aristocracy of the Talented author and The Economist political editor Adrian Wooldridge, Columbia University sociologist Jennifer Lee, and Malissia R. Clinton, vice president, general counsel, and secretary at The Aerospace Corporation, visit Zócalo to explore the real meaning and origins of meritocracy, and how the systems based on it have shaped different cultures and societies.