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Merit - The Only True Standard

Joseph D. Schulman © 2010

Equitable opportunity for merit-based advancement is a vital element in maximizing benefits to individuals and societies. The individual develops through hard work and intelligent focus on matching innate abilities to their further enhancement. The personal results of successful sustained effort include inner satisfaction, objective achievement, and economic, social, and intellectual advancement. Society benefits from the innumerable accomplishments of a multitude of effectively functioning persons in widely diverse fields including science, the arts, sports, entertainment, and business. "Merit" even in its most elementary dictionary definition implies achievement and virtue, actions deserving of praise, honor, and esteem.

There is no shortcut to merit. The most naturally gifted athlete or innately brilliant intelligence requires years of dedicated hard work before their accomplishments can reflect their remarkable abilities. If this is true for the most talented, it is surely so for the rest of us. It is a universal truth that genuine merit must be earned.

Freedom and opportunity are the essence of the American dream. They offer the open doors through which merit may advance. Yet one need not be a great historian to recognize that for many years after what Abraham Lincoln called a "great civil war" in a nation "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal", opportunity was often denied to meritorious individuals on the basis of gender, race, religion, or simply being from the "wrong" social class.

Over a decade ago, I had the enjoyable privilege of a long private discussion with the late Betty Friedan. She explained that she wrote "The Feminine Mystique" because she was smart and mathematically gifted and people kept saying things like women couldn't be mathematicians. She wanted an equal career opportunity that was denied to her. She proudly mentioned one of her children who was excellent at mathematics. Our conversation took place at the Cosmos Club, a socially prominent organization in Washington, DC that in days gone by admitted only men, and where she was now a member. Mrs. Friedan also noted that the feminist movement she helped to start with the intention of declaring that women deserved equal opportunity had been captured by radicals with whose goals she no longer agreed. Her credo as she summarized it was simple and one with which I entirely concurred: Women should have the same opportunities as men for merit-based advancement in their occupations.

The civil rights movement in its early days was a reaction to egregious denials, both by law and custom, of equal opportunity for dark-skinned minorities especially Americans of African descent. Martin Luther King said in 1963, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." The memorable alliteration in that wonderful sentence does not permit substituting the word "ability" for "character." But good character is a type of ability, and it seems beyond doubt that his dream was for all children to be judged fairly according to their abilities. An assassin's bullet prevents anyone from now asking Reverend King if he feels, as Mrs. Friedan did, that the movement he so courageously led has been captured by radicals whose goals he would no longer share.


Prior to the 1950s, religious minorities also faced discrimination in America. Jews found it difficult to enter most "Ivy League" colleges and graduate schools. And it is worth remembering that rich Ivy League-educated John F. Kennedy was considered to be making history in 1960 by becoming America's "first Catholic President". In those days also prestigious private clubs, representing pathways for social and business advancement, closed their doors to membership from certain ethnicities.

Then too there was the long history of privilege, not just negatively defined ("not Black", "not Jewish", etc.) but actively utilized for educational, business, and social advantage by the most successful and well-connected families in our nation. They sent their children to the right prep schools, spent their summers socializing in communities effectively closed to outsiders, saw to it that their children got into Yale or its equivalent and the right clubs on campus while they were there, ensured that upon graduation they got a nice position in some business or law firm run by a relative or family friend. Every admission to college of a lazy or besotted preppy meant an educational opportunity denied to a more meritorious young woman or man. And such policies were obvious to see. People played games guessing how much Joe Kennedy paid to keep Teddy from being permanently kicked out of Harvard.

It is easy to recognize the gross injustices of the past after they have been identified and corrected. The obvious denials of legal equality and educational and career opportunities on the basis of ethnicity, gender, religion, and social class in America in the first half of the 20th century are of this type. And they have not only have been identified, but now largely eliminated. A smart, hard working female student who is both Black and Jewish will face no difficulties being admitted to a fine college in 2011. If she is poor, she will very likely be offered a scholarship or a low-interest student loan. And after she graduates, good jobs will be there for her. In fact, like Barack Obama who graduated from Harvard Law School, she might even become President of the United States. She would likely find it easier to become President than a white male bearing the name, for example, of Calvin Coolidge VI. She would also have a chance of becoming the CEO of, say, American Express or Time-Warner or Merck or Hewlett Packard. The same would be true if she were Hispanic or a productive person of any other ethnicity. And nobody will be envious of her success as long as it is based on merit. In fact, she will be even more admired than those whose success relied upon the assistance of family wealth or social connections.

Much harder than recognizing the injustices of the past are identifying the errors of the present. Errors persist in every age because there are people who believe, sincerely or otherwise, that these constitute justifiable attitudes. Read the literature of the past to encounter intelligent people who expressed support for slavery, for denial of the female vote, for "separate but equal" public places, for keeping "grasping" Jews out of their restricted communities. On November 23, 1863 the Chicago Tribune criticized Lincoln's Gettysburg address claiming that it libeled America's founders who "were men possessing too much self-respect to declare that negroes were their equals, or were entitled to equal privileges." These misguided practices all represent a single basic injustice, the denial of opportunity. The same type of error in a vastly different form persists today. And, as in the past, there are apologists and advocates for wrongful positions.

Today, while many educational institutions both public and private have opened their doors to meritorious persons of any background, some have misguidedly adopted policies that deny opportunities based strictly on merit and have instead substituted preferences based on personal characteristics that have nothing to do with merit. Race preferences are an egregious example of unfairness and error. The goal of "equal outcome" in employment or education attacks the very root of merit-based social advancement. Should American professional basketball players or Olympic track teams have the same ethnic mix ("outcome") as the general U.S. population? Should university departments of physics or mathematics have that same mix? My answer, and the answer of people dedicated to rewarding merit, is a resounding "NO". Frankly, we don't care at all what the ethnic distribution is in any of these circumstances. What we do care about is that the opportunities to compete be experienced on a level-playing field. Nothing but individual merit can command widespread respect as the basis for entry into a university, Olympic participation, or other meaningful accomplishments.

Those who say that race preferences or their equivalent are "necessary" to "correct" past injustices are simply wrong. Past injustices are not correctable, and by definition the past can never be changed. Shall American universities grant special admission privileges to Jews because of the Holocaust, to Armenians because of genocide, to Greeks whose nation suffered under Turkish occupation for hundreds of years, to Ukrainians whose ethic brethren were starved to death by Stalin, to Asians whose ancestors died doing frightfully dangerous work building the first transcontinental railway? My answer, and I am a member of one of these groups, is "NO." Every "deal" which substitutes a less meritorious for a more meritorious individual strikes at the essence of fairness, freedom, and opportunity and should be eliminated.

Consider an example of what happened when a merit-based educational system was abandoned. I attended Brooklyn College, now part of the City University of New York, in the late 1950s, years when it was filled with bright students who were mostly poor. The free education at BC was widely sought by youths from New York City. Admission was based completely on two strictly defined objective criteria - College Board examination scores and high school grades - with a fixed formula relating the two and determining final ranking. There were no interviews, no photographs of applicants, no ethnic or racial identifiers in the selection process. In those years, a higher percentage of BC graduates went on to gain advanced degrees from American universities than did graduates from any other college in the entire nation. Then political and administrative cowardice and the unrest of the late 1960s and 1970s led to "open enrollment." Under the new system, any New York City high school graduate, regardless of merit, was entitled to enter Brooklyn College. This change in standards destroyed academic excellence at the College for decades. Open enrollment has long since been ended, but the College's recovery from this disaster is still incomplete. Merit works. Open enrollment, preferences, quotas overt or disguised, don't work. They deserve no place at our colleges and universities, nor do they in employment, and they cannot form the basis for a healthy society. Preferences are deeply unfair, lack sound moral support, and are a dangerous form of spiritual and political corruption. Furthermore, any substitution of preferences for merit undermines fair appreciation of the genuine accomplishments by effective persons in "preferred" groups, marginalizing those who truly achieve and potentially weakening their self-confidence.

While I am especially concerned about the personal and ethical harms which are the inevitable consequences of substituting race, gender, or similar preferences for merit, the cumulative damage to our nation must also be considered. Every substitution of a less worthy employee for a more worthy one retards the productivity of our society. Every make-work job given to an undeserving beneficiary of preferences harms all of us. It is commonplace to hear concerns about America's global competitiveness. I remain confident that America is not standing still, and that we shall continue to contribute enormously to the progress of civilization and the economic well-being of our nation and of the world. But our ability to do so will be impaired to the extent we permit the substitution of a misguided focus on "diversity" for the far more important and infinitely more legitimate task of strengthening America as a meritocracy.

Our goal should be a merit-based society. Period. By rigorously adopting and adhering to this standard we shall be fair to all, reaffirm the elevated purpose of making America the land of opportunity, and truly provide for each individual equal access to the "inalienable rights" of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

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