Posted tagged ‘Higher Education’

“The Tyranny of Meritocracy” by Lani Guinier

August 5, 2017

When I was a student, the goal of finishing high school was getting into college. We focused on earning good grades and high test scores to make us more appealing to college admissions officers. When my son started school, I started to question the content and number of standardized tests that students are required to take, before they even reach high school.

I didn’t really question the validity of standardized tests themselves, until I read “The Tyranny of Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America” (2015) by author and law professor Lani Guinier. It made me realize that I had bought into the idea of standardized tests as measuring intelligence and future success, when in many ways standardized tests are a snapshot of a student’s parents’ success.

“The Tyranny of Meritocracy” challenges us to adjust our understanding of the value of test scores to college admissions, in order to better reflect what we want to value in a democratic society.  It advocates that we shift from promoting testocratic merit (prioritizing individualized testing and competition) to democratic merit (prioritizing group collaboration and community contribution).

According to Guinier, most American universities are admissions-driven. They focus on the single moment of admission, rather than selecting students who will be active citizens in a democratic society. The best illustration of this shift in thinking comes from Malcolm Gladwell’s “New Yorker” article titled “Getting In,” which compares the United States and Canada university admissions process: the United States selection process is like a modeling agency that recruits people who are already beautiful, while the Canada selection process is like the Marine Corps that is confident that basic training will turn everyone into a soldier.

Changing the college admissions process. Instead of relying on standardized tests, Guinier asserts that we should consider a holistic admissions review, one in which “any individual’s potential is told both in the context of race and class, as well as the important role of mentorship, and the ability to work together.” She advocates more peer-to-peer instruction (pairing up students to discuss problems, so that students learn concepts and not just formulas) and peer collaboration (creating smaller study groups so that positive peer pressure encourages everyone to learn).

Collaboration, not competition. Guinier concludes that society needs to shift its emphasis from the individual to the group, from working alone to working inclusively, and from intelligence to communication. The ultimate objective of universities is responsible and engaged citizens, not workers. “Meaningful participation in a democratic society depends upon citizens who are willing to develop and utilize these three skills: collaborative problem solving, independent thinking, and creative leadership.”

Counter to the traditional American belief in the self-made man and the ideal that we can succeed through hard work, determination, and courage alone, Guinier creates a compelling and thought-provoking argument about the need to emphasize hard work and group effort, instead of “innate” ability and natural intelligence.

What is your experience with the college admissions process? Do you think that it works or do you think it is flawed? What do we expect from university graduates and how should universities help them succeed?