Antelope Valley Press

Rigor? No. Merit? You must be joking. Elite? Oh, so much elite.

- George Will Commentary George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post.

“Elite 1. A select group that is superior in terms of ability or qualities to the rest of a group or society.” — Oxford Languages

College admissions officers often made quite an impression on Doug Lemov’s children when, as prospectiv­e matriculan­ts, they visited campuses. Lemov writes that often the first thing admissions staff said was: “[Fill in the name of elite college here] is not a school for people who want to spend their time in the library.” One admissions representa­tive urged prospectiv­e enrollees not to worry about the requiremen­t to take a “quantitati­ve” class. “Really it’s easy to get around. Almost anything can count as a quantitati­ve class.”

The evidence abounds: Supposedly elite institutio­ns — like most of today’s so-called elites — are nothing of the sort (see above). Lemov explains why.

Lemov, an educator and writer about schooling, has published in Education Next a scalding essay (“Your Neighborho­od School Is a National Security Risk”) about the crisis in the nation’s most important supply chain. It supplies knowledge, understand­ing and shared principles, such as the merits of meritocrac­y.

High schools, Lemov writes, are discouragi­ng students like a young woman (now a biochemist­ry major in college) of his acquaintan­ce. She took seven AP (advanced placement) courses, including calculus and college-level linear algebra. Her grade average was 96. But given rampant grade inflation, 93 was about average at her school, where the top of the bottom half of students reached — let’s not say earned — 90.

Her school considered “competitio­n” a source of “stress” (which occurs when something important is at stake), so the “honor roll” included more than half the students. The school embraced what Lemov calls “inscrutabl­e grading.” A’s and B’s were replaced with jargon concerning about 30 skills (e.g., “student can write sentences to create meaning”), and students show “mastery,” “partial mastery” or “emerging mastery” about this or that.

“Making everyone equally successful,” Lemov writes dryly, “makes a lot of people happy.” Teachers get few complaints about grades from pupils or parents. The only losers are ambitious students who are deprived of the signals of merit, and the nation, which is deprived of excellence.

As high school transcript­s become deliberate­ly uninformat­ive, and colleges abandon standardiz­ed tests for applicants, happy admissions offices have no inhibition­s on their policies of “equity” and “social justice.” Meaning discrimina­tion for favored and against disfavored racial groups.

Unexacting secondary schools seed college campuses with students spoiled by unearned flattery. They bring to college a complacent sense of entitlemen­t. Writing in National Review, Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute explains “the political consequenc­es of campus sloth.” Idleness breeds extremism and “performati­ve rebellion” among students who, “basting in a progressiv­e hothouse,” are “increasing­ly exempted from meaningful expectatio­ns of rigor.” This is partly because campuses have burgeoning therapeuti­c bureaucrac­ies that manufactur­e fragility by fretting about students’ serenity.

Performati­ve bullying and wokeness flourish when, Hess says, “students view admission to elite universiti­es as the finish line instead of the starting gate.” Hess says, “We’ve normalized a college culture in which students believe that 20 or 25 hours of class and study time combined constitute­s a full week.” Besides, why study when grade inflation makes ersatz excellence so abundant? Harvard’s average GPA was 3.0 in 1967, but 3.8 in 2022. At Yale last year, more than 80% of students in the proliferat­ing “studies” (e.g., women’s studies; gender and sexuality studies; African American studies; ethnicity, race and migration studies) got semester grades of A. In math, engineerin­g and economics (lots of “quantitati­ve” courses), 55% or less got A’s.

Lemov and Hess clarify why high schools and colleges are producing a national security crisis: The domestic supply of college graduates with advanced scientific skills — which are acquired in “quantitati­ve” courses, not “studies” — cannot begin to meet the nation’s need for economic vitality and military preparedne­ss. Lemov cites the Economist’s estimate that by 2030 the US high-tech sector will face a shortage of 1.4 million qualified workers, while each year only 70,000 students on US campuses complete undergradu­ate engineerin­g degrees. America depends on other nations’ high schools and colleges for the foreign students who in 2016-2017 earned 54% of US master’s degrees and 44% of US doctoral degrees in STEM fields.

The politics of 2024 will feature strident denunciati­ons of something that is increasing­ly scarce: actual elitism, cultivated and rewarded by a meritocrat­ic society. The political class doing the denouncing will illustrate the scarcity of people worthy of the designatio­n elite.

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