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Review | Merit By Joseph F. Kett

Posted by Rebecca G. Aguilar, M.Ed. on January 18, 2013

Merit by Joseph F. Kett

ISBN-13: 9780801451225
Publisher: Cornell University Press
Publication date: 1/22/2013
Pages: 344

Anyone tuned into publishing will have read of recent changes to the National Book Award. A long list of 10 nominees for each of the four categories will be released in advance of a short list of five finalists.

Plus, the pool of judges will now include critics, booksellers and librarians. According to the Associated Press, the National Book Foundation cited Britain’s popular Man Booker Prize as a model and announced the new rules to broaden their award’s reach and appeal.

Can awards become more egalitarian and participatory? What do we know about bestowing deserved rewards or merit?

Americans have never liked sieves or scythes for eliminating candidates deemed unworthy of merit. According to University of Virginia history professor Joseph F. Kett, we prefer to select in rather than out. In other words, recognizing untapped talent and increasing the number of winners in competitions is preferable to unfettered rivalry and ambition.

In his new book, Merit: The History of a Founding Ideal from the American Revolution to the 21st Century, Kett lays out an exhaustive analysis of rewards versus privilege in civil service, schools, colleges, corporations and the military. He writes how the ideal of merit has been held as incompatible with other Founding values of equal rights and popular consent.

In absence of an aristocracy that relied on privilege and patronage, Americans at the start put their faith in Jefferson’s “coherent portrait of a natural aristocracy based on merit and identified and elected by the unclouded vision of an informed public.”

Yet achievement for most of the history of the United States has been regarded with suspicion. Do winners come by their merit unfairly? Through connections? From inheritance? By cheating?

Kett is puzzled by this controversy. (Headline: Lance Armstrong lies about doping and disappoints everyone!)

The book plods along nicely until Kett dismisses our quest for egalitarian outcomes with a bit of unnecessary finger-wagging and some facile snark.

“Merit is under siege in our society not only from the relativism that long has permeated the intelligentsia. It is also being subverted by a popular culture in which high-decibel blogs and reality television offer not just visibility but also the prospect of fame and fortune to people who nominate themselves for the spotlight.”

“If everyone can be famous, we ask, does anyone deserve fame?”

Then, the real narrative seeps out of this ugly generalization about the constitutionality of actions to make things fair and just:

“Cheryl Hopwood, a single mother with a severely disabled child who outscored favored groups on the scholastic measures required for her admission to law school, would appear to be more deserving than the anonymous blacks and Mexican Americans admitted over her without any consideration of their desert.

What is not transparent about this statement of reverse outrage is whether “anonymous blacks and Mexican Americans” actually were admitted to a Texas law school in consideration of their merit. Did our anonymous minorities have to show they were twice as deserving? Three times as deserving?

Doubting the most progressive ideas, Kett wrongly writes off experiments in public education, government employee ratings and affirmative action because he claims they encourage mediocrity. With all the incredible reading references at his disposal, including John Gardner’s Excellence (1961), the author does not understand how we can have achievement and égalité, too?

Kett also questions whether measuring merit with science can erase “barriers to advancement based on accidents of birth—race, ethnicity, sex, religion, region and social class.”

“What Americans have come up against, however, is the realization that no matter how many categories they use to rate each other, in the final analysis they cannot avoid making a judgment: yes or no. And as is characteristic of Americans, no sooner do they make that judgment than they begin to question its fairness.”

As is customary when people think about rating things.

Read Merit by Joseph F. Kett despite my objections. The book’s well-appointed index and endnotes alone might offer a dissenting history of merit from that of its author.

Category: Nonfiction, History

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