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An Episcopal, co-educational 100% boarding school in Middletown, Delaware for grades 9 – 12

A Talk on Meritocracy and Polarization with Author and Political Analyst Ross Douthat 
Liz Torrey

On Friday, December 10, St. Andrew’s enjoyed a visit from New York Times columnist and political analyst Ross Douthat. Douthat has served as senior editor of The Atlantic, and became the Times’ youngest regular op-ed writer in 2009. He is a conservative voice on the paper’s editorial page, and has authored a number of books on politics, religion, education, and morals. Douthat addressed the school community in Engelhard Hall, and spoke on American political polarization and his theory that the root of this polarization lies in our society’s current structure as a meritocracy.

“The future of our democracy depends on St. Andrew’s students debating, understanding, and addressing the roots of polarization in the United States,” said Head of School Joy McGrath. “Ross Douthat’s presentation helped us comprehend the dimensions of the problem of polarization and its history. I know our students will act on his suggestion that they put down their devices and engage in direct and nuanced conversation with each other, avoiding echo chambers and seeking out viewpoints different from their own—both at St. Andrew’s and when they go to college.” 

In drawing a quick sketch of American political history, Douthat explained that until about half a century ago, America was “a quasi-aristocracy, where power in American society, even though it was obviously a democratic society, still moved through channels of family and birth and breeding”—a society in which institutions and networks of power were more regional. “The idea that you would have a national elite—that everybody would be taking the same tests, and trying to get into the same set of schools, wherever they lived in the country, was not something that was a feature of American life for most of our national history,” he noted. A system of meritocracy—in which any individual could be a member of an elite institution, be it school, company, or social club, provided they had an adequate level of aptitude—seemed to solve all the inherent unfairness of this quasi-aristocratic society, in which only white men born to certain families were given access to these positions and institutions of power and influence. But, Douthat argued, this merit-based system has recreated the hierarchies it set out to dismantle. 

“There was a danger here from the beginning,” Douthat said. “You could end up with a society that commits itself to the idea of meritocracy, but ends up stratifying itself in this radical new way; you end up having an elite that is convinced that it deserves to be in charge—because after all, it has passed all the tests, right? It can prove, to anyone who wants to know, just how intelligent and hard-working it is.” On the other side of the equation are those not only who feel excluded from and looked down on by the meritocracy, but who also feel the meritocracy has failed the country, or them personally, in myriad ways over the last two decades or more—failed in the negative domestic economic impacts of globalism, for example, or in the opioid epidemic, or in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is this bifurcation, Douthat argues, that is causing our current political stalemate. 

Douthat went on to suggest that some of the possible paths out of the stalemate are, first, to elect or promote leaders who are skilled in statesmanship—that is, the ability to lead and include not only one’s supporters, but one’s opponents—second, to open the opportunities afforded by the meritocracy to more people, keeping in mind geographic, religious, and political diversity; and third, to re-regionalize, or de-nationalize, our power structures.

“Mr. Douthat challenged us to think about the paths people feel are open to them to the top of careers that are considered elite—finance, government, law, medicine, and so one,” reflected Religious Studies Department Chair Terence Gilheany after the talk. “He noted that there are people who feel excluded from these paths on both sides of the stereotypical political divide—on the left, he pointed to racial, gender and other inequities; and on the right, he pointed to rural people and middle-class people. He wondered if spreading out the paths to success—from, for example, a small number of colleges and universities back to a larger number of state universities and community colleges—and actually physically spreading out the elites—he jokingly mused on what it would take to ‘break up Brooklyn’—could help more people see themselves as on a track to leadership, success, or even respect.”

“Mr. Douthat's talk brought a riveting and thought-provoking discussion to Engelhard Hall, with students reflecting after the lecture through conversations on dorm,” said Jun Choi ’22. “His remarks on the historical and modern applications of meritocracy in America were engaging, and are sure to leave a lasting impression on the St. Andrew's community.”