Meritocracy and the “Real” America

May 6, 2009

Jeremy Beer over at Front Porch Republic has decided to tackle brain drain, and concludes the source is meritocracy:

 Meritocracy, in the definition I am using here, is an ideology that maintains that one’s place in society should be determined solely by one’s “merit” — by which is meant the tangible evidence of one’s talents, capabilities, intelligence, and, of course, will. This is an essential feature of any just society, meritocrats claim…

…Meritocracy is a project that is supported and advanced in numerous ways by powerful institutions and by deeply embedded practices and beliefs in contemporary American culture. Compulsory schooling, for instance, is justified by the meritocratic ideal. The right of individuals to maximize their talents and thus the consequent social rewards is held to be more important than the right of families and/or communities to decide how they wish to raise and educate their children. Were it not for the deeply anti-meritocratic Amish, even the most benign homeschooling would probably today be illegal across the land.

This, argues Beer, paired with a pile of federal and state level initiatives, has seriously compromised the integrity of Middle America. And he concludes we ought to take steps to reverse that trend.

As much as I agree that meritocratic economic pressures drain the lifeblood of small towns, and that there is much to be said for trying to halt it via economic means, the blame does not rest solely on the national class’s policies or economic liberalism. These kind of sustained social movements always have a reciprocal element to them; that’s a big part of why they last as trends and can create a culture war given long enough.

This is especially true of small-town America. There are many reasons why people leave small towns, some economic, some personal, but the key element here that is that the parochial culture of Middle America has in recent years mutated into a form openly hostile to brain retention. Speaking as someone who has lived in a small town in the past and would like to in the future, the tremendous hostility to learning and the learned in small town America can be suffocating, and to many who would otherwise stay (read: me) this proves to be the deal breaker.   Though cities are huge and anonymous, there is little outright distaste for intellectual life, and there is much less support for the fringe Right politics made possible by the palatable absence of educated opinion. 

None of this is really in contradiction with Beer’s thinking, but it should highlight that this is a reciprocal process, and solutions must proceed from that understanding. If the educated culture of small towns is to be salvaged, small towns will have to give up their bias against education at the same time policies are changed to their benefit. Neither approach can succeed alone, and in all honesty I’m doubtful that there’s much hope for the localism of the small town at this point. (Cities and neighborhoods, another story.) But if there’s to be success, just as in cities, culture, policy, and economics must work in tandem.

Edit: Some further thoughts on how this hooks up with mainline decline, here.

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9 Responses to “Meritocracy and the “Real” America”

  1. Josh Cooney said

    If more educated and intelligent people stayed in small towns wouldn’t that foster a more intellectual friendly atmosphere? And if small towns were more economically viable as a result of the young and talented staying put, then there would be less hostility towards people who read books and drink latte.

    There will always be a sort of anti-intellectualism in small towns and rural areas, but this never stopped Robert Frost and William Faulkner. Moreover, the sort of parochialism found in NYC, LA, DC, and most college campuses, leads to equally fringe left wing politics, don’t you think?

    • H.C. Johns said

      Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. My point is precisely that there’s a huge disequilibrium that shifting our educational demographics creates, and because the forces at play are mutually reinforcing its exceptionally hard to turn it around once it really gets going… It’s a chicken and egg sorta deal that leaves everyone impoverished.

      Still, you’re right, its a very interesting point to consider the reverse (campus extremism) as being a mirror image… And to try to think about what parts of campus politics would alter were they more rooted in place rather than transiency… One of the benefits of going to a smaller college in the middle of nowhere was that I saw far more concern for local level issues among students than I think my big city peers ever did, and the tone of student politics (limited, generally reasonable, characterized by real issues) really reflected that, as did the number of people involved (much higher than at large institutions.)

  2. […] small towns is at least partially tied to the decline of the mainline churches. If we accept, as I argued here, that cultural and educational decline goes hand in hand with economic outflow, then part of the […]

  3. Josh Cooney said

    “And to try to think about what parts of campus politics would alter were they more rooted in place rather than transiency… One of the benefits of going to a smaller college in the middle of nowhere was that I saw far more concern for local level issues among students than I think my big city peers ever did, and the tone of student politics (limited, generally reasonable, characterized by real issues) really reflected that, as did the number of people involved (much higher than at large institutions.)”

    Basically, all college professors are liberals but it seems that academics at, say, the University of North Dakota resemble real people, care about local and regional issues, and do not share the same resentment and snobbery as their colleagues in the Northeast, Chicago, D.C. California, etc.

  4. Josh Cooney said

    I was looking into the graduate program in English at Nebraska and I was encouraged by their interdisciplinary program in Great Plains Studies and a program in place based writing. I’m sure such programs come with the usual leftist coloring but I can deal with that.

  5. kurt9 said

    Small towns in the Pacific Northwest and Mountain states are doing just fine. Bend Oregon, Walla Walla Washington, and Hood River Oregon have no problem attracting the competent. Also, Bozeman Montana has over 15 optic/photonics technology companies. If a small town is an attractive place to live, it will have no problem.

    Instead of blaming the problem on the brains who seek opportunity, perhaps the blame is the failure to create more opportunities outside the major cities.

  6. […] The persistence of this mentality is troubling for the same reasons Jeremy Beer raised last week in relation to the economic prospects of small towns: The potential value possessed by creative people, just like that possessed by the intellectually and economically gifted, makes  remaining local vastly more undesirable, and the presence of a permanently speculative art culture dramatically worsens the situation. Their combination acts to upset locality, rewards a lack of genuine concern on the part of art buyers, and sucks away the cultural marrow of the rest of the country. […]

  7. […] written before about how the decline of localized culture fits into small town brain drain, and Beran’s article highlights one approach to this on the policy front.  The NEA is the […]

  8. […] is one of the great heroes of American music and a powerful exemplar of the importance of small-town culture I’ve been harping at over the last few weeks.  Instead of up and […]

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