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.