UC Berkeley News


Excerpts from The Chosen

[T]he admissions process at America's leading colleges and universities has striking affinities to the system of selection to a private club.… Yet though the system still bears the marks of its origins — in the response of the elite colleges to the "Jewish problem" — it has proved remarkably resilient. Its strength lies in its tremendous flexibility — a capacity, grounded in the tremendous discretion built into the system combined with the opacity that has shielded those exercising this discretion from public scrutiny. By emphasizing the inherently subjective character of admissions decisions, the new system of selection left the elite colleges free to adapt to changing circumstances by admitting — and rejecting — pretty much whomever they wished.…[T]he system could as easily be used for purposes of inclusion as well as exclusion — a potential that was most dramatically realized with the rise of affirmative action in the late 1960s.

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[The current admissions] system of ostensibly meritocratic selection . . . finds that "merit" is heavily concentrated among the scions of the privileged. Yet the apparent openness of the system — the availability of scholarships, the widely publicized efforts to recruit among the "disadvantaged," and the highly visible racial and ethnic diversity of the student body — gives credence to the American dream of upward mobility through education. Transforming hereditary privilege into "merit," the existing system . . . provides the appearance if not the substance of equality of opportunity. In so doing, it legitimates the established order as one that rewards ability and hard work over the prerogatives of birth.

The problem with a "meritocracy," then, is not only that its ideals are routinely violated (though that is true), but also that it veils the power relations beneath it. For the very definition of "merit," including the one that now prevails at America's leading universities, always bears the imprint of the distribution of power in the larger society. Those who are able to define "merit" will almost invariably possess more of it. . . .