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Reaffirming Merit

We shouldn’t expect much to change from the Supreme Court ruling, but it is at least a decent start to a different debate.

SCOTUS Affirmative Action
(Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

“It’s not about being colorblind. It’s about being blind to history, blind to empirical evidence about disparities, and blind to the strength that diversity brings to classrooms.” So sagely opines America’s vice president, whose qualification for high office seems to be the fact that she brings diversity to the cabinet. 

I am not sure what other qualities she possesses that my flawed mortal eyes cannot detect.  It is certainly not English grammar, syntax, or linguistic ornamentation, or rhetorical flourish, or timeless historical wisdom. Her ode to empirical evidence doesn’t count for much. Arguments for empirical evidence that fail or refuse to consider cultural variables that contribute to group failures or group successes are, by definition, not very empirical. Harris’s tweet was prompted by the recent Supreme Court ruling in the cases brought by a group representing Asian American students against Harvard and the University of North Carolina. The court ruled that affirmative action is basically illegal and discriminatory. Naturally, Harris, among others, was livid.


Consider the academic standards at the founding of the republic. When Alexander Hamilton entered King’s College (now Columbia University), he could read Cicero and Virgil in the original Latin. Likewise, James Madison during his time at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) had already mastered Virgil, Horace, Justinian, Caesar, Tacitus, Lucretius, Phaedrus, Herodotus, Thucydides, and Plato. 

Standards remained relatively high until the end of World War II and the beginning of the current “diverse” regime in the mid-1950s. One can see the question papers set by Hannah Arendt for students during her professorship. Nowadays, we have David Hogg in Harvard taking the place of some smart hard-working Asian. Noticing the steady declension in quality of higher-education question papers for the past six decades, give or take, one should be at least cautious in opining about “empirical” evidence in the presence of such strong observable patterns and correlations.

But the ruling brought forth a governing conundrum. The core function of higher education, in a republic, is not simply the creation of an imperial meritocracy. It is maintaining stability between competing factions of the citizenry and to foster an elite core that reflects the country; to create a detached and smart national governing elite, as well as to promote a competitive meritocracy that pushes the polity forward. 

Our universities, for the most part, now fail in both charges. To think that the state has no interest in the creation of this national elite through education and that higher education will not be used to shape an elite is not only idiotic, but also in fact futile and makes space for chaos. One of the first acts in Massachusetts was an education bill known, perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly, as the “Old Deluder Satan Law of 1647.“

Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote an interesting essay on the topic recently.


Our top colleges know that their admissions process is a significant force shaping the nation’s governing class. But the fact is, in a democracy, representation is an essential principle. And if Harvard, Yale, and Princeton are curating our elite, then it makes perfect sense—for reasons of political stability and fairness—to make sure that African Americans and Hispanics are well represented in those classes. This is a consideration that is perennial in government and in life—it’s why English kings once contemplated giving out peerages to loads of Labour members and Catholics, to balance an overly Tory and Protestant body.

That is, of course, correct in principle. Social equilibrium and stability are some of the highest conservative virtues. Pure meritocracy cannot simply exist without an imperial governance system. There will be some form of selective representation, and the state will interfere in some ways to decide that. 

That said, where I disagree is the assertions that affirmative action in its current form is leading to that formation of a competent national elite and that torching the quota regime will lead to complete disaster. First, there is no evidence that the current elite is either competent or nationalistic, or in fact republican in spirit. Second, the Asian or Indian kids who study for 12 hours a day and learn to play Chopin and to spell some of the most exotic English words by the time they are 13 will simply learn how to write a good admission essay, adhering to the new social norms and using the new normative lingo that any colleges impose. The cream always rises to the top, as the great philosopher Macho Man Randy Savage once said.

The point is that the colleges have simply given up on excellence. There’s now an elite consensus that any form of blindly tested merit—or anything that goes against an egalitarian orthodoxy or enforces some boundaries or hierarchy—is equal to “white supremacy.” Yes, of course a republic needs social equilibrium, but a republic will not survive at all if members of the governing elite are all ideologues or imbeciles. 

This incredible essay by Rupa Subramanya, published immediately prior to the ruling, showed what was at stake. It showed the parallel story of one Calvin Yang, who was a party to the lawsuit, a university swimmer and rugby player, debate-club champion, and a speaker of six languages. He scored a 1550 out of 1600 on his SAT, and was then rejected by both Harvard and Yale. On the other hand, there was Sonia Green, a 19-year-old black woman who was “accepted almost everywhere, including Harvard—despite scoring a 28 on her ACT, much higher than her public high school’s average of 12, but lower than the average at the most competitive schools.” In the end, she ended up at Duke with a full scholarship, where her mother is an administrator in the university’s African and African American Studies Department. 

That is both indefensible and unsustainable. Likewise, Chesa Boudin, Lori Lightfoot, Jacinda Ardern, and Anthony Fauci getting tenure at top universities is not the formation of an elite reflective of the values of the country. This is not lending a hand to the hardworking underprivileged in order to have an elite reflective of the national milieu, either. This is the reverse of that, a form of nepotistic kakistocracy. 

In the short term, not much is going to change, for as long as America is haunted by its original egalitarian dogma of collective group excellence. A republic is not designed to have caste systems, strictly based on quality or professions, nor should it be that determined in its hierarchy. A republic is likewise not an empire (or a certain dictatorship ruled by a certain vanguard party geared towards hegemony) with a ruling elite that picks and chooses winners and losers in a system and enforces brutal meritocracy. 

But any functioning republic is a polity in need of a patrician class, often decided by its institutions of state-building: in our times, the universities. This affirmative action ruling improves the law, but will not change much, as long as we have thousands of universities churning out hundreds of thousands of credentialed bureaucrats designed for an ever-growing Soviet-style administrative state. The sheer mass opposes any form of genuine meritocracy. 

The colleges will continue to take in a mass of superficially diverse midwits who will look different but with the same social values and internalized dogmata—a very similar group to the range of students representing all the way from Syria to Kazakhstan at Moscow State University in 1982. The way to a superior national elite, as well as proper meritocracy, is not some court ruling, but shrinking the current bloated higher education model altogether in favor of more hands-on work, trade education, and apprenticeships. But we are not having that debate yet.  


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