Third Order Thinking:
The Testable Élite
May 2019

The matter that I am going to discuss here is nowadays generally called “the meritocracy.” I avoid it for two reasons. The simpler one is that it is a vogue word, used by different people to describe somewhat different groups of people. The role of luck is usually overlooked, the thinking being, apparently, that while luck may land you a job, it won’t enable you to hold it — nonsense. So is the impact of parentage, a factor that has emerged as the class of able-minded knowledge workers has married within itself, and, not surprisingly, produced able-minded children. (Who are also, of course, lucky. The same thing happened at the dawn of Europe, when the sons of big, strong horsemen often turned out to be big, strong horsemen themselves, creating the hereditary nobility of warriors.) Finally, in a democracy, there is always the possibility that powerful officials may have no merit whatsoever, beyond that of appealing to voters. The ancient Greeks disliked democracy for this reason.

My second objection has to do with the implications of “merit.” A moment’s thought — well, perhaps more than a moment’s — suggests that “merit” is meant to substitute, as a relatively straightforward term, for the more complicated “virtue.” The root of “merit” lies in the idea of wages, whether positive (reward) or negative (punishment). Merit is earned — it is a property to be exchanged for other property. Virtue, famously, is its own reward; it has neither price nor compensation. Merit, being transactional, is necessarily objective, while virtue is necessarily not.

There is an idea that merit is pursued as a skill — practice, practice, practice, as the signpost to Carnegie Hall says. It is therefore felt to be more worthy than the position that one might acquire by the luck of birth. But birth is no more virtuous and no less objective than a gift for quadratic equations. It is a no less suitable basis for transactions. There is actually no good reason for not regarding a society governed by the well-born as a meritocracy. The problem with birth as a valuable property, well-recognized prior to 1789, was not so much that it advanced the careers of otherwise unsuitable persons — I question the frequency of egregious examples — as that it kept those who didn’t possess it out of the running. After 1789, of course, a numerous if proportionally small crowd of those born in the Third Estate launched itself into the newly enfranchised, highly interrelated classes of Those Who Rule and Those Who Trade. But with the passage of time it came to be felt that, among the children of rumps, much talent was going undiscovered. By 1945, it was also felt that even those well-born individuals who were unquestionably skilled often possessed retrograde social views as well. The solution that the higher institutions of Western society hit upon, and which was nowhere more aggressively touted than in the United States, was the universally deployed standardized examination. This examination, or type of examination, produced what is now called “the meritocracy.” I think greater modesty is in order: it produced what I call “the testable élite.

Which is to make very clear at the outset that there were virtues that this new élite might lack, for the simple reason that they cannot be tested by standardized examinations. The most important, if only from a functional point of view, may have been the ethos shared by the well-born. It does not matter what the elements of this ethos were, nor how honorably the well-born actually observed it in their personal conduct. What matters is that it was shared by the “meritocracy” that was composed of well-born people. Had the ethical principles of this class been printed on the walls of every room in which two or more gathered, they could not have been clearer to those concerned. Many of these principles were high-minded, even sacred, deriving from Scripture. Many were frivolous or mean-minded, important only because they enforced the exclusion of non-members. We must reflect for a moment on the extent of confusion about what is done and what is not done that this ethos prevented.

The standardized examination also accomplished another one of its advocates’ goals, by putting an end to any question about the desirability of schooling. Professionals, of course, had always prioritized schooling (although even into the late Nineteenth Century it was possible in America to “read law” — to become an attorney by apprenticeship rather than the completion of an academic program). But Those Who Trade were not so sure. They were inclined that the best way to learn about business was to do it. Advocates of the new dispensation conceded that this was all very well so far as business was concerned, but that it left unaddressed the more philosophical, less definable mental skills that participation in a liberal democracy was thought to require. Indeed, businessmen were reproached on all sides, even by themselves (by those, that is, in other lines of business) for their small imaginative horizons. The standardized examination was called “the Scholastic Aptitude Test.” It was billed as a predictor of how well an examinee would fare in a course of general studies — a sort of verbal IQ test. In fact it indicated the ability of a student to process the information imparted in the classroom. It also indicated the student’s ability to resist distraction.

Nor were businessmen the only ones with reservations about schooling. I find it richly ironic that the architects of the new dispensation, the “meritocracy” to come, chose the word “scholastic” for their label. How could they have forgotten the animus borne by the great figures of the Enlightenment toward the hair-splitting, intellectually vacant exercises of the scholastics, the schoolmen of the later Middle Ages? Wasn’t it settled that the very last thing any school ought to be was “scholastic”? Did it occur to no one responsible for the new test that, in decoupling measurable knowledge from immeasurable understanding, they were risking a recurrence of the decadent syllogisms of the Fifteenth-Century, a perversion of learning that the luminaries of the Renaissance had been determined to destroy?

Famously, the new examination did not require the study of any “specialized” knowledge. The student need not have read any great novels or intermediate history books in order to excel. In fact, we were assured, it was pointless to study for the test. For a generation or so, we took their word for it. Then the crammers, such as Princeton Review and Kramer’s, cropped up, making investors rich. For it turned out that you could improve your test score if you studied the kind of questions that were asked, not to mention the variant of English upheld by the examiners. Needless to say, studying for the test did not involve anything that could honestly be called “learning.”

In short, the SAT detached schooling from education. There is nothing testable capable of testing the validity of the test. For that, you have to reach above and beyond the testable. But who, in a testable élite, is going to do this reaching? Who is going to choose untestable values for testable values to encourage? The answer: many people — none with a better claim than anyone else’s. One result: a valuable but theoretically unnecessary book containing all the information that well-schooled — educated? — people ought to know: E D Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy.

The new dispensation created a galaxy of experts with little or nothing in common — beyond, of course, a certain kind of proficiency. The doom of this highly intelligent dust cloud ought to have been obvious from the start, but hope is a great blinder. So I want you to imagine a large, moon-sized weapon, identical to the Death Star made famous by a motion picture that, regrettably, I need not worry about naming. My variant is the Whiz Star. Instead of killing people, it knocks out bigotry and political incorrectness. It enacts (but without enabling) such wonders as social justice and economic equity. Touring the known universe in search of noxious targets, it trumpets itself as a force for the good.

Its day of doom is not market by violence. There are no explosions. The Whiz Star is not attacked by a Third-Order-Thinking Luke Skywalker who penetrates a vulnerable patch of the weapon’s exterior. Rather, in a room within the Whiz Star — it matters not whether this hall is near the core or close to the surface — we find the leaders of Whiz gathered together in darkness. As the lights are turned up, these men — there may be some women — rise up, stretch, and smile at one another. “Gee,” they say, “Star Wars is one awesome movie!” There is nothing in their training to prevent them from having been richly entertained.