I’m not a big fan of much of David Brooks’s writings, as he is often too Manichean to be useful (here’s a good parody). But in the opening pages of Bobos in Paradise, Brooks does a nice job of describing the shift in American culture from a class structure based on lineage or money to one based on education and achievement. The opening chapter of that book is a sendup of the New York Times weddings page. Here’s a snippet:
“When America had a pedigreed elite, the [NYT weddings] page emphasized noble birth and breeding. But in America today it’s genious and geniality that enable you to join the elect. And when you look at the Times weddings page, you can almost feel the force of the mingling SAT scores. It’s Dartmouth marries Berkeley, MBA marries Ph.D., Fulbright hitches with Rhodes, Lazard Freres joins with CBS, and summa cum laude embraces summa cum laude (you rarely see a summa settling for magna — the tension in such a marriage would be too great). The Times emphasizes four things about a person — college degrees, graduate degrees, career path, and parents’ profession — for these are the markers of upscale Americans today.
“Even though you want to hate them, it’s hard not to feel a small tug of approval at the sight of these Resume Gods. Their expressions are so open and confident; their teeth are a tribute to the magnificence of American orthodonture; and since the Times will only print photographs in which the eyebrows of the bride and groom are at the same level, the couples always looks so evenly matched. These are the kids who spent the crucial years between 16 and 24 winning the approval of their elders. Others may have been rebelling at that age or feeling alienated or just basically exploring their baser natures. But the people who made it to this page controlled their hormonal urges and spent their adolescence impressing teachers, preparing for the next debate tournament, committing themselves to hours of extracurricular and volunteer work, and doing everything else that we as society want teenagers to do. The admission officer deep down in all of us wants to reward these mentor magnets with bright futures, and the real admissions officers did, accepting them into the right colleges and graduate schools and thus turbocharging them into adulthood.
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“For members of the educated class, life is one long graduate school. When they die, God meets them at the gates of heaven, totes up how many fields of self-expression they have mastered, and then hands them a divine diploma and lets them in.”
Brooks is clearly onto something here. When I moved from Utah to Manhattan in 1998, one of the bigger culture shocks was confronting the ascendancy of the meritocracy. During cocktail parties with classmates at the beginning of my first year, conversations inevitable focused on pre-law school careers (Peace Corps, Teach for America, graduate school), undergraduate colleges (Swarthmore, Brown, Princeton), even prep and high schools (Choate, Phillips Exeter, Stuyvesant). These were people who would be on the New York Times wedding pages in the coming years. By contrast, I had come straight from BYU, where, until I starting taking philosophy classes, I had performed at a mediocre level, at best. I had hardly heard of Swarthmore, and don’t think I’d ever even met a kid that went to a private secondary school. Though I was a solidly middle-class Utahn, my college summers had been spent working in a fabrication plant (making wood blinds and drapery) and as a waiter at Chili’s, not fighting for human rights or taking cultural tours of Europe. But I had soon imbibed of the dominant culture. I set my sights on getting good grades, making Law Review, becoming a research assistant for a respected professor, getting the right summer internship, the right clerkship, the right job. It wasnâ€™t a conscious choice, really, I just fell in with my new peers and assumed many of their values and goals.
The rise of meritocracy has greatly benefitted many Mormons, just as it did me in many respects. A hundred years ago, or even fifty years ago, a public-school-educated kid from the rural intermountain west (which is what most Mormons were at that point, and what most American Mormons still are, to some extent) had very little chance of getting into a prestigious university, or of working for an elite investment bank, or generally attaining social standing in the secular world. If you read about exceptions, like J. Reuben Clark, you see that he felt out of place, for the most part, in the higher echelons of government and society. Back then, it was who you knew, or who your parents were, or how well you could assimilate the manners and culture of the elite, that mattered. This is no longer true, thanks to the contemporary emphasis on individual achievement, test scores, grades, and diversity. Legacies certainly remain, but for the most part if you have the right grades and test scores and other life experiences that impresses admissions officers, you have a shot at getting into a Berkeley or Brown. If you have enough resources or tolerance for debt, you can even attend such a school. And with a good school on your resume, you are well on your way to being part of the new meritocratic elite. I suspect that a fair amount of those that participate on T&S have followed this path.
But I wonder what we are giving up by giving into the current emphasis on a slick education and achievement. The meritocracy generally rewards devoting one’s time to study and work above all else. It generally encourages people to delay marriage and childbirth until the necessary educational and professional credentials are attained. It encourages “how will it look on my resume” as a decisionmaking tool. It seems to push folks toward a sort of “enlightened consumerism,” which is a consumerism nonetheless. And it tends to make parents worry, above almost all else, about the intellectual development of their kids. (As though ensuring that our children attain an equal or higher social status than us is the primary obligation of parenthood.) I’ve fallen prey to some of these, and I think they are all on the rise among us. My question is, How well do they fit with Mormonism? As the Mormon diaspora continues, itself fueled by meritocracy (the English-speaking Manhattan wards are growing at an incredible pace, and I would guess that the new folks are not primarily native converts), the values of the meritocracy will likely become more and more influential in the lives of many Mormons. Is this to be embraced? Resisted? Accepted with resignation?
Of course, I am hardly the first to ask these kinds of questions. Bruce C. Hafen wrote an essay, reproduced here (scroll down) challenging contemporary notions of excellence and achievement. And Hugh Nibley frequently wrote polemics against the ethic of personal improvement. I don’t mean to suck up to a fellow blogger, but one of my favorite writers on this issue is our own Russell Arben Fox. His post, “Slackerdom, Religion, Temporality, and the Kids,” along with other of his writings he links to, is necessary reading on the topic. He argues that religious belief (theoretically) equips one with the conceptual framework that enables detachment from the treadmill of modern life. Or, as he calls it, “slacking.â€? It’s a cogent account that makes me interrogate my own values and choices. But then I look at my three-year-old son and infant daughter. I know that, for better or worse, their quality of life will likely be determined by how well their brains and ambition stack up to that of their peers. And even now, my son’s peers are securing places in highly regarded pre-schools, taking extra-curricular â€œclassesâ€?, learning second languages (from a parent or nanny), and generally getting a head start in filling out their resume. It seems ludicrous, but it is the natural progression of a society where class is largely determined by education and achievement — and upward class mobility is a fundamental doctrine of our national religion. So I worry that I am failing them if I refuse to carefully research what is the “best” preschool in the city, or if I am unable to afford a home in a “good” school district, or if my wife and I cannot muster the incredible dedication and energy required to homeschool. What’s a Mormon meritocrat to do?