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  • Writer's pictureEvan Warfel

On Meritocracy, Admissions and the Purpose of Education

It is currently in vogue to (non-ironically) debate the merits of meritocracy. And so I thought I'd join the fray.

Many discussions about the real vs. perceived benefits of meritocracy boil down to a contest of definitions. In particular, some people take meritocracy to be "letting the people who have demonstrated aptitude for the thing they profess to be good at have important jobs and responsibilities." Others take it to be "the current system of society that promotes some at the expense of others." Cue the many think-pieces that use the latter definition to a) point out that society could be better, and b) make normative points about who's abstract values framework is more correct.

For the record, I agree with the common sense propositions that surgeons should be good at surgery and structural engineers should be good at making sure buildings don't sink. I also agree that living shouldn't be hard for anyone, and that educational standardized tests miss plenty.

But instead of discussing "shoulds" I want to focus on a mechanism that engenders some not-always-positive "meritocratic" aspects of the society we currently observe.

Particularly, let's take a look what I call the rich-get-richer selection effect, which you can see in a few places:

1. Startup accelerators accepting startups that have already demonstrated past results.

When selecting from a pool of potential startups, if accelerators look for "the best" or "companies with great potential" they will likely fall back on common metrics of success like indicators of user interest (including number of monthly active users or retention rate), indicators of potential profitability (including market size), and indicators of growth. Of course, standing out from the crowd in terms of having a clear and concrete vision, high user interest as well as high potential profitability means that the startup is likely to succeed on their own, without the help of an accelerator.

2. Universities who admit students who are already doing well.

When selecting from a pool of potential students, universities are often oriented towards selecting students who have done almost everything necessary to prove they are self-starting, hungry to learn, passionate, and care about the world. These are also the exact things you'd expect from someone who

doesn't need a structured education, because they seem to have the skills and curiosity to figure things out on their own.

3. Needing collateral and good credit to secure a lone.

When selecting from a pool of potential applicants, banks will prefer individuals who have good credit scores and can put forth something else of value as collateral.

In each of these three cases, the best way to achieve the goal (getting funded or into an accelerator, getting accepted into college, or getting the lone) is to essentially prove you don't need it. And, for the stated goals of these systems (accelerators, universities, and banks), this type of rich-get-richer selection mechanism makes sense for pursing said goal.

I suspect that at its core, people who take an anti-meritocracy position are reacting to the perceived unfairness generated by rich-get-richer selection mechanisms. (As opposed to "anti-meritocracy" meaning agreeing with claims like pilots of questionable skill should fly the plane you are on, or that grants for cancer research should be given to groups that don't have a concrete plan informed by the latest theories and knowledge.)

The good news is that a business as usual, rich-get-richer selection scheme isn't the only way to do it. Instead, let's consider the following three alternatives (ordered from least to most radical), which might help ameliorate the unfair aspects of a meritocracy as well as preserve the whole "people should be competent" idea.

1. We could develop new or private ways of measuring merit.

Warren Buffet and Benjamin Graham (et al.) advocate for "value investing" or finding undervalued companies that have potential. In other words, they look for companies where their personal estimate of merit is much higher than the consensus estimate of merit. For this to work, the companies the value investors select must look bad on paper to other people and good on paper to them. Finding strikingly undervalued players was also Billy Beane's famous strategy of fielding a cheap but good baseball team, made famous in Moneyball.

In other words, instead of relying on the common indicators of merit, perhaps we, as metaphorical Buffets and Grahams, can find better methods of evaluation.

Though we could certainly use better things to measure, the shortcoming of this alternative is that everyone is constantly looking for better ways to assess and discriminate merit. Thus as soon as one's method of assessment becomes public knowledge, everyone else will do it. Unfortunately, this means that any prior undervaluedness will disappear.

2. We could apply private ways of measuring merit to populations of people that, for various reasons, aren't normally considered.

Paul Graham once wrote that some of the most consistently under-valued people in the hiring market are young 20-somethings with little work experience. His point was that most employers were unaware of the variation in merit of 20-somethings because, in part, the individuals haven't had a decade of work experience to demonstrate past success. Early 20-somethings are thus one of many different populations that are overlooked for various reasons.

Combine (1) with (2) and one of the natural suggestions, if one is trying to build a competent labor-force on a budget, would be to look at individuals who were formerly incarcerated.

Taken together, these solutions imply that meritocracy is too focused on that which is easy to measure. It's like that old joke about the man who lost his keys in the dark but is looking for them underneath the streetlamp, because "the light is much better here."

"The light is much better here" is an apt way of describing what can happen in a personnel selection process. The mere existence of good metrics, good grades, good test scores or good credentials can cause people to over-focus on them, and to think that their questions of merit have been answered. (Perhaps this is because most of us are cognitive misers, meaning that our brains often substitute an easier to solve problem for the problem we are actually trying to solve because it saves resources.)

Both of these solutions implicitly imply that what is needed is just a 'better meritocracy.' (And hey, as long as we have one, let's improve it.)

But there is another thing we could do, which leads me to the third idea.

3. We could select a different goals in the first place.

There is a difference between "needing competent performers as well as having an corresponding accountability system" for things like surgery, and other domains like education. For things like education and startup selection, focusing on a bigger goal has the promise of improving the educational system and making "meritocracy" more fair.

Instead of accelerating or developing only people or companies already at the top, the goal could be to help develop each person or company to the next "stage" of their development. Instead of judging an educational program by the successes of its graduates, we could take a leaf from the "value-added" approach used to evaluate teachers and schools.

In essence, a university could let in students according to a pre-specified distribution of merit, and then seek to produce a large mean shift in the distribution. (Such a shift could be measured and quantified by said university, as it would be one of the ways they could use a data-driven approach to evaluate their internal progress.)

In other words, the rich get richer, and so does everyone else. This "everybody-gets-richer" scheme would help ameliorate selection effects where the metrics of success are due to weeding out people who might pull the average post-educational results down. More practically, if such an institution were to pull this off, they'd have to be rather competent -- the institution couldn't coast on the high quality of incoming students, nor could they tolerate "b.s." courses. This would then raise the overall quality of the institution, which would then make it more attractive to donors, etc. (Admittedly this idea works much better if the university makes a profit on each additional student they admit.)

"Everybody-gets-richer" is a harder thing to accomplish, and the advantage of pursuing this strategy is that the institution will likely become better at educating than if they pursue a "rich-get-richer" strategy.

But why stop there?

Previously, I mentioned that there is a relatively well reputed model of ego-development (Loevinger's stages) that also comes with a handy objective measurement scheme. While it certainly isn't the last word on 'how people develop', it's a useful simplification for purposes of this post.*

If universities were to let in a distribution of people and were to use some model of personal development as part of an "everyone-gets-richer" scheme, "admissions" would be more about "assessment." Part of this (multi-dimensional) assessment could include a plan of education for the applicant's personal growth. This plan would likely detail where and how the individual could grow both within the university, as well as what the individual could do if they chose not to go to said University.

If the student disagreed with the assessment, or the intended decision-tree of action, they could go somewhere else. If the university did not have the resources or ability to help the applicant develop, they could say so.

This leads to all sorts of interesting ideas.

For instance, you could imagine a university where the "standard" for admission was the speed of relative growth and development. Every year, or every semester, students would "reapply" or be reassessed -- if they weren't developing quick enough, they'd lose their spot for the next period.

I admit that on it's own, this idea is silly and impractical -- it's a disguised rich-get-richer scheme where the dimension of merit is something like self-improvement itself.

But you could imagine a system of colleges where the salient difference was either 'mean speed of development' or 'minimum speed of development'. If you get into one, and not only do you develop but you also develop your skill at developing, you can transfer to the next one. Or transfer back down as needed, because sometimes life happens.

Further, as one moves to the "higher" colleges, education ceases to become limited to a period of time -- at the top are individuals who are lifelong scholars of themselves, working to make society a better place. The difference between teacher and student becomes a blur, replaced by something more like a scheme of monks. Maybe those at the later stages of development could teach those at the immediately prior stage.

One barrier to this idea is that the course of personal development is understudied. But presuming that one of the fields of study said everyone-gets-richer University would offer would be psychology, then it seems that the psych department could develop more detailed models and better tests as a first order of business. Assuming this objection is one of the "could be figured out if so chosen" type, using a personal-growth based rich-get-richer scheme could sit nicely on top of an environment where people are already experts in their chosen fields, and where there is plenty of room to explore more specific interests (like musical composition, poetry, etc.) that lead towards something like "self actualization."

Already, most people major in things that have no immediate relation to entry level jobs. What's the harm explicitly pursuing personal development along the way?


* There are (at least) four considerations one should keep in mind when working with Loevinger's model. First, the data the theory was based on suffered from selection bias (e.g. all initial respondents spoke english). Second, the "later" stages could be more detailed. Third, all of the stages are set along a single dimension, and it is highly likely that any decent model of human development is multi-dimensional. Fourth, in part because of the uni-dimensionality, many people seem overly attached to using this simplified model to explain variation in human behavior (something similar applies to non-academic models like the Myers-Briggs, the Enneagram, as well as the collected writings of Ken Wilber).

If anything, our models of ourselves are not complex enough, and we should be thinking of frameworks that can be expanded, in addition to those that can become more detailed. For example, a more interesting model might equate "stage of growth" with "relative 'size' of thing that an individual can take 100% responsibility for" (aka: a plant, a pet or a project, aspects of oneself, oneself, and then increasingly large aspects of society and one's children, etc.)

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