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Zócalo Public Square
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Is There Still Merit in a Merit-Based System?


November 16, 2021 • 12:00 pm PST

Stream Online

Calls are growing for the dismantling of the meritocracy—educational systems and economic structures that claim to elevate individuals based on merit, but instead favor those with wealth or racial privilege. As elites turn against the very merit-based systems that elevated them, governments, corporations, schools, and other entities are extending old policies—like affirmative action—and embracing new initiatives for equity and inclusion. But as we rid our society of standardized tests, “gifted” schools and programs, and traditional corporate hierarchies, finding new methods of evaluation and promotion is proving difficult. What value, if any, do the ideas of merit and merit-based decision-making retain in this moment of reassessment? What were the origins and intentions of those who created merit-based systems for scholarships and federal employment, and how have those systems and others like them fallen short? Do today’s profound social inequalities reflect a fundamental failure of the idea of meritocracy, or a corruption of an ideal that needs mending?

The Aristocracy of Talent author and The Economist political editor Adrian Wooldridge, Columbia University sociologist Jennifer Lee, and Malissia R. Clinton, vice president, general counsel and secretary at The Aerospace Corporation, visit Zócalo to explore whether there is any merit left in meritocracy.

Moderated by Nicholas Lemann, New Yorker Staff Writer and Author of The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy.

Image credit: Courtesy of Zócalo Public Square. From left to right: Nicholas Lemann, Jennifer Lee, and Adrian Wooldridge.