Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Iron Law of Meritocracy

Hunter College High School in Manhattan, USA, sounds just like one of our premier schools, for which parents will change addresses and run their kids through the torturous circuit of tuition centers to ensure a place after the Primary School Leaving  Examination.

Hunter embodies the meritocratic ideal that kids are not created equal, some are smarter than others. The benchmark is an entrance exam which accepts 185 out of the 3,000 to 4,000 applicants. About 45 who test into Hunter Elementary School kindergarten are automatically admitted. In 2007, Wall Street Journal identified Hunter as sending a higher percentage of its graduates to the nation's top colleges than all but one  of its peers.

In 1982, a Hunter alumnus profiled the school in a New York magazine article called "The Joyful Elite" and identified its "most singular trait" as the "exuberantly smug loyalty of its students". Justin Hudson, the 2010 commencement speaker (Hunter does not rank its students, has no valedictorian) was not one of the smug ones.

"More than happiness, relief, fear, or sadness," he told the audience of peers and parents, "I feel guilty." He continued:
"I feel guilty because I don't deserve any of this. And neither do any of you. We received an outstanding education at no charge based solely on our performance on a test we took when we were eleven-year-olds, or four-year-olds. We received superior teachers and additional resources based on our status as "gifted," while kids who naturally needed those resources much more than us are wallowed in the mire of a broken system.  And now, we stand on the precipice of our lives, in control of our lives, based purely and simply on luck and circumstance.
... We are talking about eleven-year-olds... We are deciding children's fates before they even had a chance. We are playing God, and we are losing. Kids are losing the opportunity to go on to college or obtain a career, because no one taught them long division or colours. Hunter is perpetuating a system in which children, who contain unbridled and untapped intellect and creativity, are discarded like refuse. And we have the audacity to say they deserved it, because we're smarter than them."

The majority of students who make it into the school these days are the product of some kind of test prep regimen. The rationale sounds so similar, "They're doing the right thing to get  the the prize we promised at the end of the process. That's what we told them to do: do well on tests."

The evil that the prescient Hudson espied is what the author refers to as "The Iron Law of Meritocracy". The Iron Law of Meritocracy states that the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will eventually grow large enough to subvert the mechanism of social mobility. The anointed few who ascended the ladder will find devious ways to pull it up after them, or to selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies, cronies and kin to scramble up surreptitiously. And give cause to curse the elites.


  1. At least in ancient China, you can sit for the imperial exams at 60 years of age if you have the stamina.

    This "meritocracy" of elite schools for the rich is the defining setting societies and mankind backwards because choosing a country's leeders at 11, 12 or 18 is absurd. Most of us won't trust our 18-year olds with our car! And those under 21 cannot even vote, so how come society can designate president and other scholars at 18? But of course when you have arrived via this route, you will reinforce the barriers of this system so your children will have an advantage over those who won't be able to afford the tuition, coaching or the old boys' network. Btw, why aren't there any academics brave enough to do a study on social mobility in Singapore?

  2. How come Obama did not ensure that his wife is appointed as head of some Govt Investment Corp since his wife is equally qualified if based on meritocracy ?

    How come Mah Ying Jeou never appoint his banker wife as Finance Chief since she is fully qualified as a banker ?

    How come ours is appointed instead without due regard consideration for possible conflict of interest ? And ours is still called meritocracy not nepotism ?

  3. "The Iron Law of Meritocracy" was written by self serving PAPigs.
    And dumb Sinkies pay the PAP Ministers millions in salary to perpetuate the system that benefits only an undeserving few.
    The undeserving but lucky few who emerged from the "correct" vagina.

  4. That's true. They are creating a loophole or backdoor through the integrated programme and the whatsoever sports programme to allow academically weak students with rich parents to donate their way into the schools. So much for meritocracy. It is actually who is your father that decides your future.

  5. But Singapore is still much better than North Korea.

    1. Using rock bottom examples, then N Korea is better than Somalia. N Korea unlike Singapore instills fear to those around. They can rock Japan's economy and cause severe collateral damage to this tiny island. By the way, while N Korea deters invaders, Singapore has allowed itself to be invaded by 2 million people from 3rd world.
      At this rate, trueblue citizens will lose their country....courtesy of LKY and son meritocratic system.

  6. "Meritocracy" is overrated and self-serving. Everything being equal (e.g. IQ), a child with better resource (private tuition, better home environment, network, test prep) will "outperform" his/her peers.

    Many in western countries have found out that "gifted" students, based on IQ tests, are overrepresented by Asians (Korean, Chinese, Indians) because of test prep.

  7. Christopher correctly points out that the system we currently have is not functioning properly and that intelligence-based meritocracies seem to inevitably degenerate into oligarchies.

    The reality of 50yrs of meritocracy is that 'merit' is assessed by the ability to take and hold power. Is it still a meritocracy when the "winners" alter the system to maintain elite status for their own mediocre children instead of more deserving but less privileged folks? Social dominance is a product of aggression complemented by a collection of other traits that allow aggression to be carefully refined, key amongst them being intelligence. This model of meritocracy is biologically determined, a natural consequence of our genomic programming. We see it manifest throughout SG history and it fits LKY's model of in-born biological intelligence, thus he and his cohorts deserve to dominate and hold power.
    In short, the oligarchy comes first, and then costumes itself in an illusion it calls "merit" as a means of self-justification.
    until such time as resources are exhausted and part of the in-group becomes the new out-group. In an environment of ever-diminishing fuel for social capital, a society eventually cannibalizes itself into chaos, and sometimes extinction.

    Welcome to Soylent green.

  8. Late bloomers like Einstein would never be famous in SG. A lot of so called best pupils in our schools are just rote learners. To give a real example, at a inter-class competition at a school, the representatives from each class were asked this common IQ question:

    Join 9 dots arranged in a 3x3 format using 4 straight lines but the person forgot to add the additional requirement of without taking the pen off the paper while drawing the 4 straight lines.

    The answer from the best class gave the typical correct answer of drawing an arrow whereas the representatives from the second best class realised this is easier than the original question so the answer provided was simply an asterisk.

    If you are wondering why any answers you get from this government seems to be a standard reply playing like a broken player that doesn't seem to fully address anything specific you asked, this is the reason why.

  9. Problem here with the new pap generation of leaders or whatever they call them these days...they are really not original thinkers (even if some insist other-wise)...and worse lack true real wisdom...

    as to their humanity...they just need to look at a mirror and ask the mirror "am i still a human being mirror mirror on the wall?"...

    What we have here are intellectual midgets trying to be intellectual giants...but failing badly in the public sphere...

    No wonder Obama just tolerate PAP leechers in his presence...zzz