Meritocratic winners debate whether the world is getting better and better,
or whether it is getting worse and worse.
or whether it is getting worse and worse.
Tomorrow's anticipated World Series opener between the Philadelphia Phillies and the New York Yankees carries an interesting twist. The starting pitchers, C.C. Sabathia for the Yankees and Cliff Lee for the Phillies, each won Cy Young awards* in 2007 and 2008, respectively, while playing for the Cleveland Indians.
In other words, if you're a Cleveland baseball fan, you probably want to kill yourself.
I'm struck by how similar this situation is to a more widespread and more consequential phenomenon in our country. I witnessed it as a student at Penn, a university which boasts an acceptance pool from all fifty states and many countries besides.
People entering Penn may come from all over, but graduates are not nearly so far-flung. They tend to congregate in the major metropolitan areas of the Northeast and of the West Coast. My dear friend Ben, who returned to his native Minnesota for law school in Minneapolis, is by far the exception.
The result is what some have called the "Problem of Meritocracy:" the nation's smartest are drawn from all over to the coasts, leaving the "flyover states" desolate of leaders and thinkers with perhaps the highest potential. This article puts it aptly, likening the SAT to strip mining:
For the meritocratic system is a method that uses impersonal technology (e.g., the SAT) to help us identify valuable natural resources (bright kids), and then pitilessly removes them from their ecological contexts (local communities), never to return them, thus creating cultural landscapes just as ravaged as the denuded mountainsides of Kentucky coal country.I am not sure what I think about this issue. If you ask me, the principal advantage in going to the University of Pennsylvania compared to the much-cheaper Penn State University, where one could ostensibly learn the same facts and study the same subjects, is in being surrounded by brilliant friends and classmates. This grouping would not have been possible had we not been brought from hither and yon to the same twelve square city blocks.
In addition, my primitive understanding is that the "knowledge-based economy" into which the United States continues to develop requires collections of really smart people. Take a company like Google for example, whose achievements have made significant improvements in daily life for just about everyone who uses the Internet. Those achievements were all developed by groups of very smart people who likely came from all over.
Yet I also know that a great deal of this coastal congregation amounts to selfish gain rather than the greater good, as a large stack of currency trading books I saw today reminds me. The University instills certain values, but duty and responsibility are not among them, nor anything that acknowledges anyone is responsible for students' success but themselves.
Perhaps the great danger in meritocracy lies here, in the easy bridge it offers to entitlement. Those who have conquered meritocratic establishments do so by definition according to their own achievements. That is probably a better system than the old standby of heredity, but it hides the many factors that students have no control over yet which play crucial roles in their successes.
Since students are led to feel entitled to their standing, nothing inhibits them from adding to that privilege rather than sacrificing for others' benefit. Notable losers in this exchange may be the communities which poured their resources into raising these children to begin with, or anyone not blessed with the same kind of golden ticket.
I have pride in my hometown of Phoenixville, which is doing just fine without me, but to which I would love to contribute meaningfully someday. I know there are countless other locales which are not so lucky, and which could be enlivened greatly by the devoted attention of their native sons and daughters.
Make no mistake. I will be rooting for Cliff Lee to absolutely topple the Yankees hitters, while I hope C.C. Sabathia is himself toppled by the Phillies' bats. But lurking in the back of my mind, as I watch the game with many friends who are lucky in the same way I am, will be a feeling of loss for the Cleveland fans and the large swaths of America which they represent.
*The Cy Young award is given annually to the American League pitcher and the National League pitcher deemed to be the best in his respective league.