The Endless Pursuit of Better

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett in The Hedgehog Review:

You shall know them by their aspirations. Or so one might think, judging by the manifold ways in which Americans brand themselves by the things they seek to acquire and the ideals they seek to live by. Americans of all classes and identities aspire to various things, of course. The pursuit of happiness remains a central element of their national creed. But the meritocratic class has become the aspirational class par excellence. Aspiration connotes movement upward, and the meritocrat lives proudly and ostentatiously (some might even say overbearingly) in tireless pursuit of better. Little wonder that meritocrats come to think that what they and their offspring aspire to is manifestly and even morally superior to what others strive after.

For all of the well-intentioned idealism of today’s aspirational elite—their politically sensitive wokeness, their belief in hard work and education over birthright, their environmental awareness, their earnest suspicion of the excesses and injustices of capitalism—there is a dark side of meritocracy that is never fully concealed in the strivers’ displays and proclamations of goodwill. The simple fact is that most people—if we consider 90 percent of the country’s population “most”—do not learn piano from the age of five, do not attend private school, do not have SAT tutors (even if standardized tests are falling by the wayside), do not attend a “top twenty-five” school, or earn PhDs or MFAs. Laudable as these activities and achievements may be, they are underpinned by both wealth and cultural capital. While about 35 percent of Americans go to college, less than 0.5 percent graduate from Yale, Princeton, and their ilk. Harvard economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues have found that students whose parents are among the top one percent economically are seventy-seven times more likely to attend an Ivy League university than those with parents in the bottom quintile. In short, you have to have the money and, just as important, know what to spend it on.

More here.