If not, then I think "being against the meritocracy" is too easy and will hold out on the median of ambivalence until compelled to one side of the road or the other. I have nothing against Helen's suggestion of professing monarchism while you're perched at Yale or Harvard (where, indeed, the main current of campus conservatism did seem to be Catholic monarchism merged with Austrian economics - a phenomenon for which I would still appreciate an explanation), except that it precisely doesn't serve as an antidote to meritocratic thinking or meritocratic doing. Everyone is already against the meritocracy, and the monarchists just allege a different evil consequence. Undergraduate monarchism is another species of looking around at your peers and concluding that their deranged, possibly Adderall-fueled productivity has caused them to grow into twisted things, all lacking some aspect of character that would conduce to your preferred image of human wholeness--compassion or (ugh) "real passion," self-direction, depth of inquiry, correct use of otium (the latter being the monarchist contribution).
But all of these ways of thinking about what's wrong imply that, whatever it is, it's them and not you. Everyone else has been deformed by the competitive machine that miraculously left you untouched. Meritocracy's bunk, sure, but you basically deserve to be where you are because you get what it's really about - (insert here: passion, self-direction, deep inquiry, otium, whatever your priority) - while everyone else is just in it for the money/status/girls. So you have real merit, and everyone else is a fraud. When actually, if you got what it was really about, you'd do what naturally follows from Helen's claim that, "Politics works best when there are many different centers of power, but meritocracy concentrates power in a single ivied pipeline": that is, you'd take your big brains and enroll them at Eastern Tennessee State.
This kind of condemnation is only too natural to college students, who are young and unsure about how they measure up because they have only seen vague indications of their own and everyone else's potential, and it never straightforwardly addresses the basic problem: that there is presently no other basis for hierarchy and distinctions of rank except "merit" (whatever we choose to make that mean) which Americans - including the monarchists - will accept. I've posted this exchange between an old aristocrat and a modern reformer from War and Peace here before, but it conveys the real aristocratic-democratic chasm without mincing words:
"I ask you, Count--who will be heads of the departments when everybody has to pass examinations?"Our monarchist undergrads would not blink at this response. They get the joke because they passed the examinations. The confusion of "the old man" about how passing an examination could be related to being head of a department is incomprehensible to them, to me, to all of us except as an artifact preserved by Tolstoy, and this is why whatever image of monarchy they've painted in their imaginations is not "an alternative mental landscape in a way that is three-dimensionally vivid," but rather a contemporary society that's sublimely pious, dressed in petticoats, and resident on country estates. Whatever the benefits of gazing at such a landscape occasionally, until our monarchists embrace the image of themselves living as serfs on those same estates because their genealogies would likely assign them to it, they haven't really understood the alternative world they're trying to imagine any more than the most naive cheerleader of universal social progress. (And I'm not singling the monarchists out for any particular blame since I too experienced this failure of comprehension in a different but related way in college.) We can study the hierarchies of the Middle Ages, but we can't really justify them, not even by pretending to be eighteenth century High Church Tories from Moline, IL. Because no matter how many allowances (poor high school education!) and exemptions (legacy admit!) we might be willing to extend to the takers of the examinations, we all still know that you can't possibly be a competent department head if you can't even pass an examination. (I mean, ok, you don't have to get a perfect score, but how could you not even pass?) This is Tocqueville's democratic revolution that swept the entire world, sparing not even the most fervent historical re-enactor.
"Those who pass the examinations, I suppose," replied Kochubey, crossing his legs and glancing around.
It's true that we need not go back to the 18th century to find alternatives to the meritocracy in higher ed because, as Helen points out, it's only existed for 50 years. Nonetheless, the mindset that preceded it even in America is also obscure now. Some people use the example of the "gentleman's C" at Harvard to describe the Aristotelian gentleman who doesn't strive to be expert at everything, and the undergrads become perplexed because, clearly, if you aspire to a C at Harvard, the only thing this describes is that you don't deserve to be there. So, naturally, there are hardly any C's at Harvard or anywhere like it. Similarly with our recent crop of cheaters, who complain that they are the real victims - the course was supposed to be easy, they needed an easy class for respite from the pressures of ball-throwing and poor-serving and problem set-solving, and then the prof goes and makes it hard on them without even so much as a warning. Which is all to say of course that they needed not an easy class, but an easy A, and when threatened with an equally easy B instead, they saw it as a breach of contract. They of all people would benefit from the world of the gentleman's C, the brief respite from high standards that doesn't come at the price of collapsing those standards, only they can't imagine such a thing.
And opposite the Harvard monarchists hovering over the scene, you have Phoebe's YPIS-ers: the enforcers of meritocracy from the bottom. They emphasize that whatever you are, it better be entirely self-created, or else you can't take credit for what you're passing off as merit. This of course denies the merit of everyone presently enrolled or graduated from any university, since they probably had parents who fed them as infants (privilege!), whereas the bottom-dwellers had to feed themselves from birth and so their own less apparently impressive attainments are in fact more meritorious because harder-won. So the short story: criticism of meritocracy reinforces meritocracy.
And why does this happen? Because, as I said, we have no alternative principle of selection except that the best outcomes should be reserved for the best people, and the only fair way to find out who has potential to be the best is by administering examinations. There is a kind of Aristotelian flute-logic to this: the best flutes for the best flute-players. But Aristotle makes distinctions between the kinds and purposes of knowledge that we refuse to make, and flute-playing is a distinct techne whose principle of selection is not necessarily the one we'd use to judge, say, our rulers or our scientists. He does not suggest we reserve the best flutes for the best people as though they are just blue ribbons with no purpose, not to say the best outcomes for the best people, which requires no distinctions of kind or purpose at all. That is why it makes sense that, as Helen says,
"You might suppose that young people with world-class potential would aspire to different colleges depending on whether their expertise is finance, short fiction, or figure skating. Today, all these different prodigies are being funneled to the same places."That's also why these criticisms of meritocracy tend to run in circles, sometimes setting up new hurdles for aspirants to clear based on an expanded faith in our ability to discern complete human excellence from application essays and resumes (as when it was no longer good enough to get many A's, so we dutifully signed up for soup kitchen shifts and cello lessons), and sometimes removing old hurdles found to be rickety (as when we decide that the SAT is no longer a reliable measure of the above-mentioned complete human excellence), but never undermining the principle of selection - the best schools, the best jobs, the best everything for the best people.
David Brooks's criticism is somewhat more promising, though it still does not undermine the justice of the principle of selection. He suggests only that those who pass the examinations don't make very good heads of departments, not because the examinations were flawed, but because the ethos of examination-taking creates a situation where positions are too insecure to permit the development of institutional loyalty. Here is where all the beneficiaries of meritocracy like Miss Self-Important start to get nervous. This criticism is better than the various quibbles with the form of the examinations because it doesn't permit back-patting self-exemption. You might believe you truly deserve your job based on whatever criterion of merit you most prefer, but it's still true that unless that job involves some kind of tenure guarantee, you stand a very good chance of losing it or leaving it in the near future, and almost no one, not even those in tenured-type positions, can pass them on to children or even be assured that the institution will exist beyond their generation. So, even if it's them, those other bad people - bankers, politicians, lawyers, etc. - who abused their power and position whom you want to blame for national problems, you can see how, to recycle Withywindle's favorite saying in a non-mass murdering context, there but for the grace of God...
Still, Brooks suggests no change in the selection principle, just a new, more robust ethos of stewardship which is supposed to grow up from what seems to be very thin soil. So, haters of the meritocracy, tell me: what is the alternative with which we will be replacing our much-maligned "merit", and if you make a good case, I may join your cause.
UPDATE: Helen responds.
UPDATE II: As do Nick and Withywindle.