Meritocracy, Public Service, and the People's University

Kevin Guskiewicz

Daniel Markovits doesn’t think the meritocracy is broken; he thinks it works far too well. 

“Training works, education works,” said the Yale professor and author of The Meritocracy Trap, during his guest appearance at my American Professoriate class last week. “That means elite children dominate meritocratic schooling, they dominate meritocratic university admissions…Meritocracy has now become a new kind of aristocracy based on schooling rather than breeding.”

It was a tough message to deliver at “the people’s university,” which is how I’ve always thought of Carolina. The whole point of a public institution like ours is to deliver a world-class education to students of all backgrounds, to insist that a first-generation student from a rural high school can master chemistry or creative writing as well as any lawyer’s kid with a prep-school education. I see that happen every day at UNC, and I’m immensely proud that 1 in 5 of our students is the first in their family to attend college.

But Markovits is right that it’s getting harder to maintain such an idealistic mission. Not because of anything that happens in university admissions offices, but because of the bigger forces at work in the outside world. 
Rising income inequality means that some families have enormous sums to invest in their children’s education, creating gaps in opportunity that start from a child’s earliest years. A changing economy means the rewards to a high-quality education have grown larger, creating more pressure on students to land a spot at the ‘right’ college. And a wealth of political science research shows that some of the deepest divides in our public life break down along educational lines.

“This system puts enormous pressure on universities,” Markovits said. Higher education didn’t create the stratification in American society, but our credibility and our mission suffer when we’re seen as gatekeepers to the good life instead of institutions devoted to public service.

The students in our class had great questions for Markovits, some of them pushing back against the notion that higher education can somehow ‘fix’ the meritocracy. Shouldn’t public policy — taxes, school investment, zoning laws — play a bigger role? one student asked. Don’t we want strong rewards for academic achievement? asked another.

Where Markovits writes largely about university graduates who launch into “elite” careers like finance or consulting, the students in this class are mostly planning for careers in academia or public service. We have students who have devoted their young lives to studying global health disparities or improving the food supply chain to benefit small farmers. I don’t think anyone goes into a years-long PhD program, or signs up for a course like The American Professoriate, because they’re looking to strike it rich.

That ethos of service needs to be the norm for higher education. Markovits’ most compelling point is that a top-tier education is an enormous privilege, no matter what you did to earn it. That privilege carries an obligation to give back, an obligation even more obvious for the graduates of a public institution like UNC. The founders of this university, and the North Carolinians who have paid for it generation after generation, didn’t intend for its graduates to benefit only themselves. It was to benefit all.

“The position that you’re in now gives you more opportunity and makes you freer than 999 out of every thousand people who have ever lived,” Markovits told our class. “Do the work you care about in the way you want to do it.”

I would make one amendment. “Do the work you care about, and make sure it improves the lives and livelihoods of all those who are counting you.”

Kevin Guskiewicz is the Chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


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