Our democracies are governed by elites

But my central contention is that our near-religious fidelity to the meritocratic model comes with huge costs. We overestimate the advantages of meritocracy and under appreciate its costs, because we don’t think hard enough about the consequences of the inequality it produces. As Americans, we take it a a given that unequal levels of achievement are natural, even desirable.

-Chris Hayes, Twilight of the Elites.

Our desire to be ruled by elites is most on display in our highest ranked universities and the students who attend. Jennifer M. Morton, writing in Aeon, argues that the US, UK and France are governed by those educated in their respective select universities.

All of the current Supreme Court Justices in the US attended either Harvard University or Yale Law School. In the UK, 41 out of 54 of the country’s past prime ministers received their education at the University of Oxford or the University of Cambridge. Seven recent French presidents and 12 prime ministers attended the Paris Institute of Political Studies, commonly called Sciences Po. These universities pride themselves not only in offering superb educational opportunities, but in educating those who will go on to hold influential positions.

As Morton points out, these schools not only teach our elites: they teach people how to be elite.

Another key difference between universities such as the CCNY, where I teach, and Princeton, where I did my undergraduate degree, is that they offer quite different social environments in which that learning takes place. A student attending an Ivy-plus college acquires her skills and knowledge in an environment dominated by the cultural capital and norms of the very elite. A City College student, in contrast, can gain similar professional or technocratic expertise, but will do so amid many other working-class and low-income students. The different social experiences are bound to influence a student in ways that go beyond professional expertise.

And this is precisely the problem. Diversity debates ring shallow when talking about mere ethnicity of undergraduates. You also have to talk about experience. Morton, again:

If we are concerned with creating a representative elite, we shouldn’t just look at the racial or economic background of its future members, but also at their educational experiences. If, for example, we want to foster policy discussions that include a broad range of perspectives, we must do better than turning to a room full of Ivy League or Oxbridge graduates. Instead, fill that room with graduates from places such as CCNY or the University of Hull. These students are much more likely to have educational experiences that can contribute different insights for a more representative elite.

These debates didn't mean much to me until I first went overseas and met Americans from outside my social and educational milieu. In our little teaching program of young graduates from all over the country, I learned that I could handle myself on an intellectual level with my peers. But from a social level, I could not hold any water. There were things they know that I just didn't. This became more acute as I met more people who attended elite universities and I began understanding what doors they could walk through that I barely knew existed.

Listening to the arguments of Hayes in Twilights of the Elites, this is precisely how we would like it. Create a class to lead our most important institutions in many fields and let them employ and lead the others. Regardless of the outcome.