Commentary Magazine

On Merit

To the Editor:

In “McGovern, Nixon & the Jews” [September], Milton Himmelfarb, arguing that Jews should support Nixon, uses my essay, “Open Admissions: Toward Meritocracy or Equality?” (Change, May 1972), as a “concrete illustration of what is at stake” in the 1972 election. He alleges that I am an advocate of quotas, though he fails to document this assertion. Instead, he begins with an ad hominem attack: “No doubt [Karabel] thinks of himself as nonconformist and anti-establishment, but in matters of this sort, can anything be more establishmentarian than an article by someone on the staff of his organization?” The organization he refers to is the American Council on Education’s Office of Research, where the article was written, but Mr. Himmelfarb does not bother to explain how my organizational affiliation affects the substance of my arguments.

In my article, I maintain that merit criteria such as test scores and grades, which were once progressive in that they provided channels of mobility for excluded immigrant groups, now serve mainly to transmit and justify privilege. Mr. Himmelfarb dismisses this statement, complaining that my reasons for making it are “not explained very clearly.” Though I thought my reasons were clear, I will elaborate upon them here since the point is an important one. When social status and academic achievement were sharply discrepant, as was the case with certain immigrant groups (particularly Jews and Orientals), the emphasis on uniform academic standards served to increase equality of opportunity. At that time, the struggle for equality of opportunity was more closely linked to the larger struggle for equality. Jews, who suffered acutely under a system of ascription (reliance upon birth rather than merit), were prominent in this struggle; at the same time, many of them recognized that a grossly unequal distribution of rewards, however “neutral” the process of allocation, was itself unjust. Now, however, as Mr. Himmelfarb’s article itself demonstrates, equal opportunity and equality are seen by some as inimical rather than complementary. In the present social context, this seemingly disinterested commitment to “merit” enables the privileged to justify their own status and to transmit that status to their children.

The “second thing of interest” in my article, according to Mr. Himmelfarb, is the assertion that “as long as some colleges are academically more selective than others, there will be unjust inequality.” This interpretation again grossly distorts my position. I argued that the university virtually determines entry into the middle- and upper-level positions in the occupational hierarchy and thus is a key distributor of privilege. Since the way in which a society distributes its rewards is a profoundly political matter, the admissions process has an inherent political component in addition to its more overt academic component. My emphasis was on the consequences of selectivity in a society which uses its system of higher education as an agent of social selection. In a previous article (Educational Record, Winter 1972), I made this point as follows: “Clearly, if the modern university conferred no benefits on anyone and consisted solely of people so interested in the discovery and transmission of knowledge that they were willing to take a vow of poverty, there would be little clamor for universal access.”

The problem, as I suggested in the Change article, is that the tracking system implicit in higher education, which uses academic selectivity as its primary sorting device, increasingly reflects both class origin and occupational destination. A growing body of evidence shows that students who attend selective schools, most of whom come from affluent backgrounds, receive certain “fringe benefits” independent of their academic ability or their achievement in college. The “ivory tower” that Mr. Himmelfarb defends is, in reality, one of the primary channeling devices in modern America. It is peculiar indeed that a man supposedly concerned with the purity of the university does not recognize that this sorting function may itself interfere with genuine education.

The main point of my article was that the present system of higher education is structured less to serve educational or broad societal needs than to serve the demand of a quasi-meritocratic class structure. In place of the current policy of picking winners (students who have already demonstrated superior cognitive achievement), I proposed emphasizing the student’s educational growth in college, regardless of his level of performance at entry. A recent study by Edward Denison of the Brookings Institution reports that we spend $5,811 of public funds for the higher education of the white high-school graduate who made at least an A—average but only $666 for the high-school graduate with an average below C—. As Denison himself states: “Presumably we must take differences in natural ability as given, but no law of nature requires us to provide the most and best education to those already blessed with the greatest natural ability, and thus to accentuate their initial advantage.” That we do this reflects not the conscious application of an educational philosophy but rather the extent to which matters of social class have intruded into the educational process. The underlying question posed by my article was whether we want our system of higher education to serve a highly competitive and inegalitarian economic system or to help us construct a more cooperative and egalitarian society. Mr. Himmelfarb does not discuss these matters though they are much more central to the article than the issues he raises.

Following his reference to “Podunk A. and M.,” Mr. Himmelfarb accuses me of being against “distinction” and against the university as a “place where Mycenaean studies can be cultivated.” His tone is such as to present me as an enemy of culture while he himself is its guardian. A vigorous assault on a non-position, his words are designed to discredit my arguments by associating them with a viewpoint I do not endorse.

Mr. Himmelfarb’s own conception of culture is disturbingly elitist. Apparently, “culture” is something more suitable for the few students at the “University of Chicago” than for their counterparts at “Podunk A. and M.” He is more concerned with preserving than extending culture and does not consider that an open and democratic system of higher education might broaden and enrich the cultural level of all members of society. His conception of culture, then, is primarily defensive, a viewpoint which R. H. Tawney criticizes in his book Equality. Observing that “culture is not an assortment of aesthetic sugarplums for fastidious palates,” he argues that:

It is necessary, not only to preserve intact existing standards of excellence, and to diffuse their influence, but to broaden and enrich them by contact with an ever-widening range of emotional experiences and intellectual interests. The association of culture with a limited class . . . may achieve the first, but it cannot, by itself, achieve the second. It may refine, or appear to refine, some sections of a community, but it coarsens others, and smites, in the end, with a plight of sterility even refinement itself.

A university system dedicated to Tawney’s enlightened view of culture might well, in the end, do far more to preserve culture and to extend it than would Himmelfarb’s narrower conception.

Jerome Karabel
Vineland, New Jersey



To the Editor:

One statement by Milton Himmelfarb, nearly echoed by Nathan Glazer, bothered me above all else in the articles on “McGovern, Nixon & the Jews.” It is the assertion that if—God forbid—Israel should cease to exist, American Jews effectively would cease to exist. Why? Prior to the establishment of Israel American Jews prospered, both as Americans and as Jews. What evidence is there to make us believe that conditions have changed so drastically as to call into question the potential viability of American Jewry without Israel?

It may be argued that in many respects American Jewry has abdicated leadership, even of its own affairs, to Israel. But that is only because Israel is there, and has demonstrated a desire to assume leadership of Jews throughout the world, and we have not chosen to resist. It does not mean that we do not have leadership capability within us, now dormant, which would reassert itself should the need arise. Moreover, the morale and cohesiveness of American Jews has, if anything, increased, which is no evidence that such cohesiveness, or the effect on us of the inspiriting example of Israel among the nations, would diminish should Israel—God forbid—cease to exist.

Dr. Jacob Neusner put it even more strongly in Judaism (Summer 1970): “The chances for survival of the Jewish people have surely been enhanced by the dispersion of the Jews among differing political systems. Until World War II Jews had stood on both sides of every international contest from most remote antiquity. Now, we enter an age in which the fate of Jewry and destiny of Judaism are supposed to depend on the fortunes of one state and one community alone. That, to be sure, is not a fact, for even now the great Jewish communities in the USSR, Western Europe, Latin America, and North America, as well as smaller ones elsewhere, continue to conform to the historical pattern.”

Increasingly in recent months I have encountered the proposition offered by Mr. Himmelfarb. It is fallacious, and it must not be allowed to become an unchallengeable truism.

Eliot D. Bernat
Board of Directors
The American Council for Judaism
New York City



Milton Himmelfarb writes:

Let me first dispose of the flourishes at the beginning and end of Jerome Karabel’s letter. I dealt with him not ad hominem but as representative of the “Best People,” the “advanced and educated,” whose present definition of justice and equality—Fair Shares for groups rather than No Discrimination against individuals—I called “bad for the Jews, and bad for America as well.” I further noted that the advanced and educated Best People now tend to think Fair Shares require quotas, however queasy some of them may be about using the word. (A recent internal document of the American Civil Liberties Union likes “benign quotas.”) Mr. Karabel says that I only allege but do not document that he favors quotas. While the word does not appear in his article, his argument necessarily implies the thing, and he does not say, “I am against quotas.”

He calls Tawney to witness against me and other selfish and misguided people who would limit culture to the classes and bar it to the masses. Mr. Karabel quotes me about Mycenaean studies. Does he really suppose I believe the cultured person is someone who can read Linear B? My mention of Mycenaean studies had nothing to do with culture and everything to do with disinterested scholarship. Washington and Lincoln, Disraeli and Churchill; Conrad, Hemingway, and Agnon; John Stuart Mill and Ahad Ha’am—none attended a university. To listen to Mozart, look at Picasso, or read Dickens, you don’t need to go to college. If tomorrow accounting or law or engineering or business administration or medicine were expelled from the university, on the day after tomorrow government and industry would see to their teaching and cultivation by other means. But if not in the university—or rather, in those relatively few universities where relevance has still to establish its tyranny—where are Mycenaean studies to be cultivated? To anyone who asks, What is the use of such useless scholarship?, the only answer is another question, What is the use of such useless things as art and philosophy? (Once, to someone who asked, What is the use of philosophy?, a philosopher retorted, What is the use of a baby? In those days it had not yet been proclaimed that a baby, especially an American one, is a disaster.)

If in 1940 a son of poor immigrants managed to leap over the barrier of discrimination into medical school, Mr. Karabel applauds that man’s merit. But for Mr. Karabel the son of that son of poor immigrants can have no merit: if the grandson does well in exams, it is evidence not of merit but of privilege. And if the father continues to favor non-discrimination, now he is only rationalizing in order to justify his children’s privilege. It is all rather odd.

There is the awkward fact that America is more democratic today, less discriminatory, than it was a generation ago, but a little verbal shift takes care of that. Instead of “more democratic” or “less discriminatory,” simply say “quasimeritocratic.”

Now Christopher Jencks and his associates tell us that the way to redistribute income is to redistribute income. Trying to do it through the school doesn’t work. What do they think, I wonder, about Karabel’s strategy for redistributing income?

The theory of the value-adding function of higher education is charming. What it means is that Juilliard or Eastman or Curtis should concentrate on people like me, because raising us musically from grade Z to grade X would make a greater change in us than raising the talented from B to A would make in them. It is almost as good an idea as Samuel Butler’s, about who should be in hospitals and who in jails.

For Mr. Karabel my “Podunk A. and M.” proves I am an elitist—whatever that may mean. Would he have preferred the actual names of the universities shielded behind that trite alias? The names can be found in a publication of the American Council on Education, Roose and Andersen’s Rating of Graduate Programs, 1970.

Has there ever been another American intellectual and statesman as democratic and egalitarian as Thomas Jefferson? In a famous letter Jefferson wrote to John Adams:

. . . there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents. . . . There is also an artificial aristocracy, founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents. . . . The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature, for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society. . . . The artificial aristocracy is a mischievous ingredient in government, and provision should be made to prevent its ascendancy.1

I have been bemused by a problem Mr. Bernat raises inadvertently.

A member of the board of directors of the American Council for Judaism, writing on its letterhead, makes a public declaration:

. . . the morale and cohesiveness of American Jews have, if anything, increased with the advent of Israel. . . .

The problem is this: When something so extraordinary happens, what is the right blessing? Sheheheyanu—“Who has kept us alive and sustained us to reach this season”? That seems too ordinary. We say it on every festival and even, we are instructed, on buying new clothes. I have concluded that the best of several alternatives is to praise Him “Who wrought a miracle for me in this place.”

That article by Professor Neusner is exceptionally fine—dialectical and supple in a way that Mr. Bernat’s heavy-handed manner of citation does not begin to suggest. The passage cited is part of a meditation about the continuing legitimacy of the Diaspora, and I daresay that most Israelis would agree.

One can imagine Hasidim of the Satmar kind persisting after a destruction of Israel (absit omen); but other Jews? The blow would be too crushing, too mortal to our spirit and our very will to live. Such survivors would be no less—how shall I say?—paleontological than the Samaritans of our own day, who are also survivors. Can that give us hope and consolation?




1 See also Paul Seabury’s “The Idea of Merit,” on p. 41.—Ed.

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