Evan Ramstad
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A friend who works for Microsoft recently told me one of its marketing contractors received 800 applications for an opening as a writer who would work with the software company. And that was just on the first day the job posted.

When I heard that, I thought that marketing firm and Microsoft will never know if they got the best person for the job.

This summer, the Supreme Court's ruling on affirmative action involved Harvard University but affects all colleges. Many questions have since been raised about whether, and how, elite institutions will maintain diversity in classrooms.

But those questions are rooted in a belief that I don't hold: that the elite universities deliver far superior educations.

Higher education isn't a commodity entirely, but the undergraduate experience at Harvard or Princeton just isn't that much better than at Carleton or Macalester. And those schools are not that much better than the University of Minnesota or Bethel or Gustavus Adolphus or anyplace else.

And those hiring managers for that Microsoft writer job will realize the same thing: Beyond a certain threshold, there's really not that much difference between the applicants they're considering.

We are conditioned to think otherwise, just as we are to pay more for a handbag by Louis Vuitton than by Marc Jacobs or more for a box of cereal at Target than at Walmart. People strive and sacrifice and turn cutthroat because of this conditioning. But they also get upset by it.

We've all looked at someone else doing a job for a lot more money and thought: I could do that.

In the realm of higher education, Michael Sandel, a Hopkins native who is a professor of political philosophy at Harvard, has long worried about the toll that Americans' obsession with rankings and merit is taking on students and society at large. Sandel became nationally known after his course "Justice" was televised on PBS in 2009.

In his 2020 book "The Tyranny of Merit," Sandel examined admissions processes, including the role of affirmative action. He suggested that elite schools like Harvard or Carleton should enroll students by lottery instead.

That makes sense to me and it happens already in other education settings. For instance, Minnesota state law requires charter schools that are under high demand to admit by lottery. Years ago, I saw private elementary schools in South Korea do the same.

In an interview this month, Sandel told me that he still believes strongly in admission by lottery. Some excerpts from our conversation, edited for length:

Q: How soon will you teach about the Supreme Court's ruling on affirmative action?

A: In a few weeks. I've been teaching a new general education course called "Meritocracy and its Critics." It's based on the book "The Tyranny of Merit." And it's an opportunity for the students to debate these questions and to think them through. We will be doing it again this fall semester and we will be taking up questions of affirmative action, including the recent Supreme Court decision.

Q: Have you thought about how you teach it will be different from last fall?

A: When I was teaching my course "Justice," we also took up the question of affirmative action in college admissions. We've long debated the question of whether it's just or unjust to consider race as a factor in admissions. But I think, in the wake of the court's ruling on race, there will be growing debate about so-called legacy admissions giving an advantage or preference to applicants who are children of alumni.

Q: It must be a very interesting thing to be teaching this in the actual place at the center of the court case.

A: Certainly for the students the issue has an immediacy and a personal resonance. That's undeniable and that's palpable in the classroom. That personal stake that students have energizes this classroom discussion. And as for myself, I've been leading discussions of these topics going back to the 1980s. I personally disagree with the court's opinion. But when I teach about it, my goal is not to persuade students of my view of affirmative action. It's to invite students and encourage them, whatever their opinion, to explore the philosophical ideas and the competing conceptions of justice.

The drive for credentials harms the educational mission of colleges and universities, says Michael Sandel, who grew up in Hopkins and teaches political philosophy at Harvard.
The drive for credentials harms the educational mission of colleges and universities, says Michael Sandel, who grew up in Hopkins and teaches political philosophy at Harvard.

Stephanie Mitchell, Harvard University

Q: You mentioned that you disagree with the court's ruling. Why?

A: The court rejected the diversity justification for race-based affirmative action. The diversity justification was the only one that earlier courts had accepted and embraced as constitutionally permissible. And because the diversity rationale was the only one that the court allowed, colleges and universities justified not only in court, but also in public and to themselves, affirmative action in the name of diversity. And I think there is something to be said for the diversity argument. It certainly does enrich the classroom experience to have students from a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives.

I think it was a mistake for the court to claim that this is morally equivalent to the kind of racial discrimination that prevailed during the era of segregation. I think that's just a false analogy.

I also think it's unfortunate that, because the court only accepted the diversity rationale, other morally compelling rationales for considering race in admissions fell by the wayside. In particular, the idea of reparative justice, or ensuring the admission of well-qualified students from underrepresented groups as a way of redressing past injustice.

The court didn't accept that and as a result, the universities did not emphasize that reason, even to themselves. I think this unduly limited the range of reasons for considering race to be important in our society and in higher education.

Q: In "The Tyranny of Merit," you call colleges "sorting machines." What did you mean?

A: The credentialing function of universities has become so pronounced that it crowds out our educational mission. The intense competitive pressures which college-bound young people are subjected to have converted the adolescent years into a stress-strewn, pressure-packed meritocratic gantlet. I think this has become oppressive and corrosive of learning for its own sake.

And for the kids who do win admission, by the time they arrive, they're injured in emotional and psychological terms by this grind, by this intensely competitive battlefield of merit and credentials. One way they're injured is that we see alarmingly high rates of mental health issues. I call them the wounded winners.

The other problem is that those who don't win admission to the place where they hoped to enroll feel as though their rejection is a very heavy, decisive judgment on them being unworthy.

So the tyranny of merit exerts its oppressive weight on the winners and the so-called losers alike.

Q: You proposed in the book that elite colleges like Harvard turn to a lottery system for admission. Why?

A: Some of these competitive universities get far more well-qualified applicants than they can possibly admit. Harvard receives about 57,000 applicants for fewer than 2,000 places. A very large number of those 57,000 who apply to Harvard are well-qualified to do the work. So my proposal is to let the admissions office cull out those students who are not well-qualified. Then among the rest — and the rest would still be in the tens of thousands — to admit by lottery.

There are two reasons for this. One is to try to lessen, at least to some degree, the intensity of the meritocratic gantlet.

But it's also to remind those who are admitted and those who are rejected what is true in any case: that there's a lot of luck involved. Admission or rejection is not a definitive or compelling verdict on the merit of the student, or the moral worthiness of the student.

Q: Does the highly competitive admissions process reinforce the perception of differences between colleges that are greater than they actually are?

A: That's entirely right. And there's another element of hubris in the in the present system, which is the assumption that admissions committees — when faced with 57,000 applicants, many of them highly qualified — can make the kinds of fine-grained judgments and predictions that the system presupposes.

The example in the book of the folly of this assumption is the drafts in pro sports. I give the example of Nolan Ryan, who set the all-time record for most strikeouts and was a first ballot Hall of Famer, one of the greatest pitchers in the history of baseball. He was drafted number 295.

Sandel’s course “Justice” for years was one of the most popular at Harvard and was turned into a PBS series.
Sandel’s course “Justice” for years was one of the most popular at Harvard and was turned into a PBS series.

Justin Ide, Harvard University

Q: The Wall Street Journal recently had an article about the rather high spending of state land-grant universities across the country. Could you talk about the way that the tyranny of merit has spread beyond the elite institutions?

A: I would describe it as creeping credentialism. This is partly because of rankings. The U.S. News and World Report ranking system was one of the most consequential of the various ranking systems. This has motivated colleges and universities, public and private, into a kind of arms race. It does not necessarily serve students well. It does not necessarily make for a better education. But it does fuel massive spending, much of it on layers upon layers of administrators. There's also a good deal of it on facilities of ever-escalating lavishness.

I think this largely accounts for the spiraling expenditures that the article describes. And it's an example of how the converting of higher education into a sorting machine has unleashed the same kinds of competitive pressures that one would find in the private economy. And this too is a misplaced emphasis.

The main point that I make in 'The Tyranny of Merit,' when I write about the sorting machine, is that we need to rethink the mission and purpose of higher education. We need to scale back its sorting and credentializing function, so that colleges and universities can refocus on their intrinsic reason for being, which is teaching and learning and research.

Q: Early in the book, you write that our common good is chiefly understood in economic terms and suggest that's not good. I write about things in economic terms all the time and I wonder if you could elaborate on that idea.

A: The dark side of meritocracy is that it is corrosive of the common good. It's corrosive of the common good because it invites us to think of ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient. And therefore it invites us to forget the luck and good fortune that help us on our way. It invites us to forget our indebtedness to those who make our achievements possible — family, teachers, neighbors, community, country, the times in which we live.

So my worry springs from concern with citizenship. What does democratic citizenship really mean? And what and how should we understand ourselves?