Meritocratic Experience & Modern Culture

“Oh, God,” a friend wrote to me after a previous post, “I hope that’s not me.” Over the last five years, I’ve seen a significant shift in the way friends and people my age, in their early 20s, talk about themselves. Back then, at the beginning of college, you never would have referred to yourself as a “young professional,” yet more and more I become aware of apartment complexes, blogs, dating services, and companies that market themselves to this demographic. They’re well-educated, love to wear sweatshirts and baseball caps from their alma mater, and tend, as far as I can tell, to find self-expression in expensive exercise wear, jogging, healthy foods, microbrews, and wine, and they’re often ambitious, too. To some extent, I fall into this category. Most of the readers of this blog will either be themselves or know who I’m talking about: friends working as consultants, pre-professional graduate students (MDs, JDs), analysts, or, to a lesser extent, bankers, mostly in places like Boston, DC, Seattle, and Chicago. At the top of the pyramid of this power elite stand institutions like the ones that surround my life: the Rhodes, Oxford University, Ivy League undergraduate institutions, Google, and Harvard and Yale Law School. And I’m sure we’ve all met people who represent the worst of this value system: insistent on their imminent rise to “leadership” in the absence of demonstrated merit or achievement; good-looking, confident, athletic, and insistent on their rise … except they never bothered to ask anyone else whether they might be bothered to vote for them; boasting CVs with all the right marks on it, yet if you’re a scholar, you never see these people write anything that seems impressive.

When we have discussions like the above, we’re really trying to sketch an outline of the meritocratic class today. We like to trash on the people engaged in leadership studies because they represent the most grotesque outline of the power élite that we’re mostly a part of. To try to get into a bit more depth here on this topic, I thought I’d approach it from maybe an unusual angle. This past term, I took a course with Robin Briggs, a wonderful historian, on ancien régime France (i.e. France from around 1580 – 1720). One of the books we covered in that class was a tome hitherto unknown to me by Jonathan Dewald, a professor at the University of Buffalo, entitled Aristocratic Experience and the Origins of Modern Culture . Sound abstruse enough? It’s actually quite interesting. In the book, Dewald is interested in finding out where a lot of the elements of the modern, Western personality came into being. We tend today, especially in the United States, and especially among the (mostly white and Asian meritocratic class) to assume that we exist as individuals (not extensions of a dynasty), and that, some exceptions aside (racism, sexism), social hierarchy doesn’t objectively exist. We might revere celebrities to an utterly unhealthy extent, and there’s often respect due the President or a Supreme Court Justice, but most people I know wouldn’t consider the Governor of their state to be a higher-order human being than them, somehow inherently different. Instead, we tend to think in terms of merit – the idea that there exist mechanisms in the world by which you can prove yourself and earn a reputation. One is the market, embodied in the saying, “If you’re so smart, then why aren’t you rich?” Others are tests, élite universities, or fancy fellowships. Many people who shouldn’t apply to, and sometimes take, jobs with consulting firms, investment banks, or fellowship offers that don’t actually correspond to their own needs for personal development or expansion, simply because they want to feel the emotional satisfaction of having done a good job, of having been meritorious.

François de la Rochefoucauld, Aristocratic par Excellence

Dewald contends that this individualistic mode of thinking, far from being inherently ingrained in human psychology, emerged in part in the early modern period. He focuses on France, his area of specialty, and contends, primarily on the basis of a close reading of several nobles’ memoirs and recollections, that the seeds of our notions of individuality and merit emerged out of nobles’ anxieties about merit in the 17th century. (To add some crucial context here, 17th century France featured a system called venality of office, whereby administrative offices in, for example, the judiciary, which often came with noble titles, could be purchased for money. The Crown financed much of its war operations by selling offices and hence expanding the nobility, and the offices could – for a fee – be passed down.) This was, in Dewald’s telling of the story, a society deeply interested in lineage and provenance. The entire concept of a nobility depended on the idea of nobility of the blood. But, he contends, by the later years of Louis XIV, the sons of this so-called “robe noble” class (as opposed to “sword nobles,” older noble families who had earned titles by serving the King in war earlier in the past) began to seek ways to distinguish themselves beyond just sitting on their noble laurels. In the 17th century, subordination to the Church, state, and family was intense, and nobles wanted ways to evaluate their success or failure in life. Hence, as Dewald sees, it, not only did more nobles turn to the profession of arms as one way to distinguish themselves in public life (leading small armies to victory in battle was certainly a good); they also took greater interest in the lives of children (this is a controversial point in the scholarship), whom they began to see less as brainless, soulless … things within a familial tree, than as semi-autonomous little individuals. Diaries and memoirs became more widespread, too, as an ability for eloquence and self-expression of the emotions became part of the package to reflect on, judge, and prove one’s merit in the competition of life.

Merit Today? From the most recent Yale Law School Admissions Brochure ...

How might we apply some of Dewald’s criteria for the French aristocracy to our emerging meritocratic class today? A couple of points of comparison jump out to me.

One is that the field of action (as I would like to say it in German, Spielraum, “play room”)  seems to have narrowed, often in constricting ways. This one I discuss all the time with friends at Oxford. Many of us have, I think, the sense that there are few legitimate options if you want to build a successful life in America beyond law, medicine, consulting, banking, government work, or, maybe, academia (the latter being increasingly uncommon). Sure, as I investigated for myself more this April, there are loads of young people in Silicon Valley attempting to replicate what seems, as I write, the success of LinkedIn. But Mountain View, CA, one of the major cities in Silicon Valley, is a bizarre place: Mexican and Central American immigrant families, groups of young men (few young women) in their mid-20s working their butts off to implement and sell their ideas, and, yes, nice restaurants, but entrepreneurs are almost by definition people taking risks (the security of the “young professional” lifestyle) for a chance to hit it big. Not only that, but there are plenty of has-beens, grifters, and tag-ons in the startup space in a way that would be hard to replicate in the élite institutions. You may be able to find a way to show up to the startup party in SF, but you’re either a student at the university or you’re not. The broader point is that the possibilities for legitimate adventure and experiences that are both educational and formative as well as respective seem to have narrowed. Recently, I spoke with a friend, a graduate student at Harvard, and asked him what I should do. His advice was to go to Afghanistan and travel around. Was it possible that I might be killed or kidnapped? Certainly. But would I learn more than from sitting in a classroom in Oxford, or an archive in Berlin or Moscow? Almost certainly. Yet what does one do, when applying to the State Department, if you tell them that you decided to go on an unsupervised trip to Afghanistan because you felt like it and had nothing better to do? Friends involved more in the entrepreneurial space, at least within business, criticize me sometimes for leading an overly programmatic life: language program rather than living in ___stan, studying and writing about ___ rather than living it and doing, etc. In part, they’re right. But the actions of myself and others reflect, I think, a belief, that experience and learning have to be packaged and CV-ified if they’re going to be seen as legitimate components of the marketed personality.

Not sanctioned meritocratic experience

Maybe this is the source of my own and others’ discomfort with ‘leadership studies’ as evinced by some of the attendees of the de Klerk talk last week. On the one hand, anyone who has been involved with élite institutions or HR departments is familiar with the caprice of these institutions. You know that there are certain moves you make for the sake of your CV, even if they didn’t have great educational value, and that some things you did which had enormous educational value (in my case, working in the Bodleian Bibliography Room ) won’t show up on the résumé, at least without creative reframing of your skills. To study ‘leadership’ in the abstract seems presumptuous to me and, maybe, others, because it seems to be ducking the question of what good meritocratic experience can be. We may hear talks about the qualities required for leadership, but we don’t get as many talks on what kinds of experiences we can seek out to develop ourselves as worthy meritocrats, or experiences that will test us in ways that we know are more visceral and honest than an admissions form or a standardized test. Nor our are current institutions (big firms and graduate schools) capable of reassuring us that talking the walk in Afghanistan will indeed lead to us getting the great position at Goldman. Indeed, a close friend was once upset upon learning he had been turned down from the CIA. He had lived for long stretches in Russia and spoke the language at a high level, but many of the people who ended up joining the Agency had spent several summers in Middlebury, VT (a pleasant place, but not Russia, and not quite as demanding / testing an environment as life in Moscow or, even harder, a provincial Russian city), but never actually been to the country itself. Perhaps what we need, more than more talks on ‘leadership studies’ or technical solutions that allow us to break out of the CV mold, are changed attitudes about what legitimate meritocratic experience constitutes.

Winter in Yakutsk, Russia - legitimate meritocratic experience?

More than that, it strikes me that the élite institutions of our day deeply encourage us to be memoiric, but only in structured ways. Over dinner a few nights ago, speaking to a friend who grew up in a tough environment, but was able to win scholarships to élite institutions (and is now doing fine), he expressed his frustration over the limitations of the 1000-word scholarship essay, or of the personal statement that so many élite institutions demand. “Keep it to one good story,” was the advice that Princeton’s fellowship office gave me when I was applying for the Rhodes. We’re told to avoid the clichéd, to tell admissions committees something original about ourselves, but it strikes me that because the acceptable realms for excellence and merit have been so institutionalized, so have the legitimate possibilities for memoir. We’ve developed institutions that encourage deep reflection – but often only in paragraph or, maximum, page-length bursts. Some of our younger writers in America today, such as Keith Gessen in All the Sad Young Literary Men or Elif Batuman in The Possessed, have written works of fiction and non-fiction, respectively, that give us some insight into the intellectual and spiritual formation of Brooklyn writers and Turkish-American grad students of Russian literature. But where are the memoirs of Harvard undergrad, Yale Law School, Oxford, etc.? There must be an enormous amount of personal statements written, in the archives of these institutions, that will be a gold mine for future historians, but the amount of extended-length memoiric literature seems limited.

The memoirs of our times?

In other news, there should be some more exciting content up on the site in the next few days. I aim to get the podcast series rolling with two sets of interviews. First on the docket is Niksa Spremic, a Weidenfeld Scholar at Exeter College, Oxford, whom we’ll be interviewing on Yugoslav history in the 1970s and 1980s. Niksa is (assuming his continued progress on his dissertation!) in the process of completing an M.Phil. in History here at Oxford, and intends to enter training to become a Jesuit priest, based out of England, following his graduation. I hope that it turns out to be a wide-ranging conversation: from Yugoslav history to Church-state politics today.

Niksa Spremic

Second up, we should be having a conversation on Pakistan and development today with two super-knowledgeable people about the country: Willy Oppenheim, a D.Phil. student here at Oxford in Education who has recently carried out field work among Saraiki-speaking populations in the Punjab in Pakistan; and Dr. Mohammad Rai, also a D.Phil. student, in Clinical Medicine, who did his medical training in Islamabad and is currently engaged in research on HIV-AIDS.

Dr Mohammad Rai

The aim throughout should be to find a sweet mix between the personal – investigating how smart people doing neat work got there – and the scholarly / intellectual: having an intelligent discussion of issues that are outside of the range of most well-read people, but should still be interesting. Again, I hope to have both interviews done by the conclusion of next week.

Willy Oppenheim


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