Do our elite universities prize academic merit? Or are they more concerned to achieve diversity? Most of us assume that these values are incompatible. But in my lifetime, elite universities have intensified their concerns about academic merit and diversity—simultaneously. The logic lies in the changing social conditions of our country. By my reading of our history, most of our elite universities have been rigorous about merit from their inceptions. What’s changed is what counts as merit.
Take Yale circa 1900. It sought the right sort of man. Good family (WASP). Athletic. Intelligent, perhaps, but not bookish. Church-going, but not too pious. “A leader,” as someone might say. The industrial revolution had made technical knowledge more important, and so the criteria for the “right sort of man” had shifted a bit. The ruling class needed some members who had aptitudes for the sciences and not just football. WASP elites saw the need to cast the net more widely (but not too widely). Soon, Jews (not too many). Always, they prioritized “merit.” The “best” men were those most likely to stand astride society in their maturity.
Then came World War II. It turned out to be impossible to send millions of men from Irish, Italian, and Slovak backgrounds into battle and then expect them to return to the old regime of WASP-dominated elites. So the net was cast more widely still. Harvard president James Bryant Conant (a non-elite striver himself) invented the SAT. The “best” men needed to be supplemented with smart kids from Kokomo.
The Cold War intensified the emphasis on academic merit. Conant, who had overseen the Manhattan Project, saw our competition with the Soviets as a technical challenge, not just in the development of weapons but in the scientific management of a free society. To win this global conflict, America needed “the best and the brightest,” not just the pedigreed. The country would still be run by white men, but not uniformly by scions of the old-stock families. We needed high IQs.
This phase, which ran from the GI Bill through the 1960s, is often remembered as a golden age of meritocracy. The universities grew rapidly. The sons of working-class fathers went to college. A rapidly growing economy (and government bureaucracy) absorbed the growing cohort of new meritocrats.
Then came the explosions of the 1960s. Yale’s Brahmin president, Kingman Brewster, and other grandees recognized that the legitimacy of America's ruling class was in peril. Dramatic steps were needed to shore up the system. The elite consensus: Our ruling class needed to look more like the people it ruled. Elite colleges first tried a crude, mostly covert quota system, designed to recruit talented students from minority backgrounds. The Supreme Court’s 1978 Bakke decision forced a more indirect approach to racial preferences in college admissions. “Diversity” was born.
That takes us up to today.
These were dramatic and important changes. Yet Harvard, Yale, and other elite universities have maintained a continuous mission. They have always sought to educate those with the most merit, where “merit” means “ability to occupy the top positions in society.” Since 1970, “merit” is no longer defined by a WASP system—rather, it is defined by a diversity system oriented to renewal of the ruling class by ensuring its demographic legitimacy in a democratic culture.
I’m quite sure that the vast majority of students admitted to Harvard today merit admission, where “merit” is defined in this way. Harvard has an incentive to admit only those who will sustain its super-eminence by graduating to the ranks of the super-eminent—a feat that depends on all sorts of cultural factors, not just intelligence. No ruling class can live on good test-takers alone. These days, identity politics strongly correlates your “diversity” to your social status. Harvard attends to that kind of merit, not the older metrics of WASP pedigree.
LGBT issues have been a boon in this regard. No ruling class signs its death warrant, at least not knowingly. Diversity was always meant to shore up the legitimacy of our elites, not to overthrow them. Sexual “minorities” bring diversity in ways much less disruptive to our still largely white (and, of course, well off) ruling class. This is a not inconsiderable advantage, and it goes a long way toward explaining why these issues have achieved such prominence within elite institutions.
Many of my friends believe that the push for diversity in higher education has led to a decline in emphasis on academic achievement. They are mistaken. The last fifty years have seen a trend toward greater emphasis on both diversity and IQ. I went to a fancy-pants college in the late 1970s. It was far less preoccupied then with the fine distinctions of academic merit than it is now. At the same time, it has become far more preoccupied with diversity. As most professors will tell you, today’s student culture is fixated on identity politics and is terrified of anything less than an “A.” In sum: diversity and academic achievement, with “merit” defined as the maximization of both.
These days we seem to be entering another crisis of legitimacy, one very different from that of the 1960s but felt acutely by those at the top of society. Perhaps diversity is losing its power to legitimate, just as three generations ago WASP patrimony lost its power to legitimate. Diversity’s group-identity approach does not suit our individualistic culture, so there’s been a lot of cover-up and double-talk. Or maybe the academic-achievement side is in crisis. It’s become a terrible burden for young people (and their ambitious parents).
My intuition is that our problem runs deeper still. There can never be an entirely rational justification for the super-eminence of a ruling class. It always needs an element of aristocratic charisma, which is to say a quasi-sacred and mysterious source of legitimacy. The old WASP elite reflected the glow of our glorious past—Plymouth Rock, the ride of Paul Revere, Bunker Hill. That’s why overcoming the old system of legitimacy has required the active promotion of historical illiteracy, with the exception of instruction in America’s sins.
Some quasi-sacred sources of legitimacy remain. Warfare mints new elites. Some survive. Some triumph. In the dark mysteries of warfare, we sense the hand of providence. Diversity also trafficks in charisma. The cult of victimhood anoints some with special public roles. The very announcement of “diversity” has the capacity to inspire, a quality any ruling class needs if it wishes to rule. Even the grind of academic achievement participates in the aristocratic charisma of genius.
Our culture is modern, individualistic, and democratic. But we are human, and our desires, however much we analyze them with the tools of reason, are timeless. We want to be ruled by something higher. We half-believe in the anointing power of diversity and academic achievement. But only half-believe.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.