Can a Good Mormon be a Meritocrat?

November 4, 2004 | 41 comments
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I’m not a big fan of much of David Brooks’s writings, as he is often too Manichean to be useful (here’s a good parody). But in the opening pages of Bobos in Paradise, Brooks does a nice job of describing the shift in American culture from a class structure based on lineage or money to one based on education and achievement. The opening chapter of that book is a sendup of the New York Times weddings page. Here’s a snippet:

“When America had a pedigreed elite, the [NYT weddings] page emphasized noble birth and breeding. But in America today it’s genious and geniality that enable you to join the elect. And when you look at the Times weddings page, you can almost feel the force of the mingling SAT scores. It’s Dartmouth marries Berkeley, MBA marries Ph.D., Fulbright hitches with Rhodes, Lazard Freres joins with CBS, and summa cum laude embraces summa cum laude (you rarely see a summa settling for magna — the tension in such a marriage would be too great). The Times emphasizes four things about a person — college degrees, graduate degrees, career path, and parents’ profession — for these are the markers of upscale Americans today.

“Even though you want to hate them, it’s hard not to feel a small tug of approval at the sight of these Resume Gods. Their expressions are so open and confident; their teeth are a tribute to the magnificence of American orthodonture; and since the Times will only print photographs in which the eyebrows of the bride and groom are at the same level, the couples always looks so evenly matched. These are the kids who spent the crucial years between 16 and 24 winning the approval of their elders. Others may have been rebelling at that age or feeling alienated or just basically exploring their baser natures. But the people who made it to this page controlled their hormonal urges and spent their adolescence impressing teachers, preparing for the next debate tournament, committing themselves to hours of extracurricular and volunteer work, and doing everything else that we as society want teenagers to do. The admission officer deep down in all of us wants to reward these mentor magnets with bright futures, and the real admissions officers did, accepting them into the right colleges and graduate schools and thus turbocharging them into adulthood.
* * *
“For members of the educated class, life is one long graduate school. When they die, God meets them at the gates of heaven, totes up how many fields of self-expression they have mastered, and then hands them a divine diploma and lets them in.”

Brooks is clearly onto something here. When I moved from Utah to Manhattan in 1998, one of the bigger culture shocks was confronting the ascendancy of the meritocracy. During cocktail parties with classmates at the beginning of my first year, conversations inevitable focused on pre-law school careers (Peace Corps, Teach for America, graduate school), undergraduate colleges (Swarthmore, Brown, Princeton), even prep and high schools (Choate, Phillips Exeter, Stuyvesant). These were people who would be on the New York Times wedding pages in the coming years. By contrast, I had come straight from BYU, where, until I starting taking philosophy classes, I had performed at a mediocre level, at best. I had hardly heard of Swarthmore, and don’t think I’d ever even met a kid that went to a private secondary school. Though I was a solidly middle-class Utahn, my college summers had been spent working in a fabrication plant (making wood blinds and drapery) and as a waiter at Chili’s, not fighting for human rights or taking cultural tours of Europe. But I had soon imbibed of the dominant culture. I set my sights on getting good grades, making Law Review, becoming a research assistant for a respected professor, getting the right summer internship, the right clerkship, the right job. It wasn’t a conscious choice, really, I just fell in with my new peers and assumed many of their values and goals.

The rise of meritocracy has greatly benefitted many Mormons, just as it did me in many respects. A hundred years ago, or even fifty years ago, a public-school-educated kid from the rural intermountain west (which is what most Mormons were at that point, and what most American Mormons still are, to some extent) had very little chance of getting into a prestigious university, or of working for an elite investment bank, or generally attaining social standing in the secular world. If you read about exceptions, like J. Reuben Clark, you see that he felt out of place, for the most part, in the higher echelons of government and society. Back then, it was who you knew, or who your parents were, or how well you could assimilate the manners and culture of the elite, that mattered. This is no longer true, thanks to the contemporary emphasis on individual achievement, test scores, grades, and diversity. Legacies certainly remain, but for the most part if you have the right grades and test scores and other life experiences that impresses admissions officers, you have a shot at getting into a Berkeley or Brown. If you have enough resources or tolerance for debt, you can even attend such a school. And with a good school on your resume, you are well on your way to being part of the new meritocratic elite. I suspect that a fair amount of those that participate on T&S have followed this path.

But I wonder what we are giving up by giving into the current emphasis on a slick education and achievement. The meritocracy generally rewards devoting one’s time to study and work above all else. It generally encourages people to delay marriage and childbirth until the necessary educational and professional credentials are attained. It encourages “how will it look on my resume” as a decisionmaking tool. It seems to push folks toward a sort of “enlightened consumerism,” which is a consumerism nonetheless. And it tends to make parents worry, above almost all else, about the intellectual development of their kids. (As though ensuring that our children attain an equal or higher social status than us is the primary obligation of parenthood.) I’ve fallen prey to some of these, and I think they are all on the rise among us. My question is, How well do they fit with Mormonism? As the Mormon diaspora continues, itself fueled by meritocracy (the English-speaking Manhattan wards are growing at an incredible pace, and I would guess that the new folks are not primarily native converts), the values of the meritocracy will likely become more and more influential in the lives of many Mormons. Is this to be embraced? Resisted? Accepted with resignation?

Of course, I am hardly the first to ask these kinds of questions. Bruce C. Hafen wrote an essay, reproduced here (scroll down) challenging contemporary notions of excellence and achievement. And Hugh Nibley frequently wrote polemics against the ethic of personal improvement. I don’t mean to suck up to a fellow blogger, but one of my favorite writers on this issue is our own Russell Arben Fox. His post, “Slackerdom, Religion, Temporality, and the Kids,” along with other of his writings he links to, is necessary reading on the topic. He argues that religious belief (theoretically) equips one with the conceptual framework that enables detachment from the treadmill of modern life. Or, as he calls it, “slacking.â€? It’s a cogent account that makes me interrogate my own values and choices. But then I look at my three-year-old son and infant daughter. I know that, for better or worse, their quality of life will likely be determined by how well their brains and ambition stack up to that of their peers. And even now, my son’s peers are securing places in highly regarded pre-schools, taking extra-curricular “classesâ€?, learning second languages (from a parent or nanny), and generally getting a head start in filling out their resume. It seems ludicrous, but it is the natural progression of a society where class is largely determined by education and achievement — and upward class mobility is a fundamental doctrine of our national religion. So I worry that I am failing them if I refuse to carefully research what is the “best” preschool in the city, or if I am unable to afford a home in a “good” school district, or if my wife and I cannot muster the incredible dedication and energy required to homeschool. What’s a Mormon meritocrat to do?

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41 Responses to Can a Good Mormon be a Meritocrat?

  1. Times and Seasons » The Incredibles, a good flick on November 15, 2004 at 1:49 pm

    [...] lug for meritocracy. It didn’t work. Maybe the writers should have read our two recent posts on the subject, dunno. But it didn’t work. It even got odious. The writers were try [...]

  2. [...] will continue in that tradition. The title of this post imitates a recent post of Greg’s, which–along with another post from Ryan Bell–asked ha [...]

  3. Times and Seasons » Mormons and the professions on January 14, 2005 at 8:28 pm

    [...] Yuppies; Adam Greenwood on Family Businesses: In the World but not of It; and Greg Call on Can a Good Mormon be a Meritocrat?. But I’d like to raise the topic again – espec [...]

  4. samuel on November 4, 2004 at 3:50 pm

    Unfortunately, this isn’t much of a change. If you are wealthy, you can afford the good schools and other resume builders. If you aren’t, its much more difficult.

    Why are we so concerned about making it big in a world where you can buy anything for money, rather than working to build a world where we are all of one heart and one mind and there is no poor among us?

  5. Matt Evans on November 4, 2004 at 4:05 pm

    Nice post and thoughts, Greg. I am probably as conflicted about achievement and excellence as anyone on earth. Next time I’m introspective I’ll write down my doubts and share them with T&S for advice.

    One of your sentences caught my attention: “I know that, for better or worse, [my kids] quality of life will likely be determined by how well their brains and ambition stack up to that of their peers.” I know lots of people who aren’t especially smart or ambitious who nonetheless have great lives, and know some brilliant, ambitious friends who slave at jobs they hate, not being able to leave because it will ruin the carefully crafted career path they’ve been planning since they were knee-high. I don’t know exactly what you meant to say here.

  6. Ashleigh on November 4, 2004 at 4:06 pm

    I get glimpses of this meritocrat world when I pick up parenting magazines, and sometimes when I’m reading around here. It feels very foreign to me, and I generally disapprove, though I’ve not thought it through well enough to know if I’m justified, hum. I’m really uncomfortable with elitism in any form, frankly, and it all makes me greatful to live in the West. Although we have different pressures I suppose.

  7. Steve Evans on November 4, 2004 at 4:18 pm

    Greg, you’re right to be worried about it — we’re living in a shallow, materialistic society, and our jobs are at the most shallow end of the tide pool.

    Fundamentally, what you seem most worried about is that your kids (and you) feel happy, accepted and welcomed by the community. Unfortunately, it’s easy to be tricked into thinking that the only way to accomplish this is through high-level education and significant amounts of money. You will indeed be a failure if you don’t provide your children with the best you can do, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to slaving away to provide them with lots of disposable income.

    I’m a fine one to talk about this, of course. But more and more, I’m convinced that money somehow doesn’t guarantee happiness. Strange…

    p.s. Does anyone else around here feel the urge to play some online poker?

  8. Greg Call on November 4, 2004 at 4:34 pm

    Matt, you’re right that “quality of life” is not really what I meant there. I guess my point is that you are more likely to have good health insurance, a good retirement plan, a good family leave plan, and good job security in the professional or managerial world.

  9. Larry on November 4, 2004 at 4:44 pm

    Life itself is a gamble.

  10. Greg Call on November 4, 2004 at 4:45 pm

    Steve, I’m interested in what you mean by saying “our jobs are shallow”. I think I know what you mean in a sense (we are parasitical, don’t add any value, etc — all the standard criticisms of corporate lawyers), but in a way isn’t this statement in itself buying into the meritocracy? In other words, isn’t it a sort of ranking of jobs (whether by salary or “coolness” or social utility) and identifying people closely with what they do for a living? When I meet someone new, usually their first question (and mine) are “what do you do?” When I am in Switzerland visiting family and I meet someone new, the subject of jobs rarely comes up — it’s usually family, hometown, hobbies, travels, etc.

  11. Glen Henshaw on November 4, 2004 at 4:58 pm

    “I know that, for better or worse, [my kids] quality of life will likely be determined by how well their brains and ambition stack up to that of their peers.â€?

    I think that one thing religion tries to teach us is that your quality of life can and should be divorced from both your social standing and your material goods; in fact,a society that defines quality of life in terms of social standing and wealth is disfunctional. So, like Matt, I have to disagree.

    Our kids’ quality of life will be determined by how happy they are, and that is affected by a lot more than getting into the right school. I have a friend who’s a patent lawyer. He has two kids, like me, but he makes about four times as much money and lives in an enormous home. I live in a small home and I’m still paying off my college loans. I don’t think he’s any more satisfied with his life than I am.

    ” It seems ludicrous, but it is the natural progression of a society where class is largely determined by education and achievement…”

    It *is* ludicrous, and not just because it overprograms the kids. Early forms of education have almost no bearing on future achievement when the parent’s level of education and income are adjusted for. At that age, there are basically two positive things you can do for your kids’ education: teach them that learning is a form of play, and then let them do it at their own pace and on their own time.

    Glen, who went to the wrong schools

  12. Greg Call on November 4, 2004 at 5:20 pm

    Glen, as I noted above in my comment to Matt, I regret the use of “quality of life.” I was using it as it is understood in the meritocracy (economic stability, benefits, tenure, flexibility), not in subjective sense (i.e. “happiness” or “satisfaction”).

  13. William Morris on November 4, 2004 at 5:36 pm

    In my experience, Mormons in the meritocracy are usually keenly aware of their status as insider-outsiders and the need to balance the demands of their faith with the requirements for admission in to and maintining of status in the meritocracy. No matter how much of a Harvard sheen one acquires or how meterosexual one’s image is or how fast one makes partner, although we’re seen as nice, capable, intelligent people, we’re also still seen as a little bit weird.

    I think that this is a good thing.

    Of course, I don’t live in Manhattan. Maybe things are different there.

  14. danithew on November 4, 2004 at 5:54 pm

    When encountering the beautiful smart wealthy people I can easily alternate between feeling various admixtures of admiration, envy, apathy and contempt. Part of this depends on how down-to-earth and humble these people are, because there are those who manage to have everything and are still wonderful people. But if I sense even the slightest waft of snobbery emanating from them I can move into “contempt mode” pretty quickly.

  15. Glen Henshaw on November 4, 2004 at 6:28 pm

    Sorry Greg- your comment got posted while I was writing mine.

    It seems to me that your point of view may be a little skewed by your social environment, though. There are plenty of people without the level of social standing you’re tlaking about and who didn’t go to the “right” school who have decent jobs, good health care and good housing. You don’t have to be in the Times social pages to live happily and be reasonably well off.

  16. William Morris on November 4, 2004 at 6:40 pm

    I don’t know, dani. Anyone who can toss out such words as “admixture” and writes poetry in Hebrew must be part of the meritocracy himself. :-P

  17. sheldon on November 4, 2004 at 6:43 pm

    The only problem with rejecting meritocracy is that it is usually replaced by mediocracy[sic]. And its unfortunate that religion is used to justify this. I was always bothered by the “God doesn’t like ambition” mentality of the some of the poor and lazy I met on my mission. Aren’t we supposed to be anxiously engaged in a good cause? Aren’t we as LDS supposed to shine in our fields to be an example of excellence to the world?

  18. Ivan Wolfe on November 4, 2004 at 7:11 pm

    sheldon –

    It depends. We are commanded to let our light so shine – but only to glorify God.

    If we are excelling in order to become praised of men, or so we can enjoy fine-twined linen whilst our brothers and sisters starve, then God would likely prefer we not excel.

  19. Yeechang Lee on November 4, 2004 at 7:19 pm

    When I moved from Utah to Manhattan in 1998, one of the bigger culture shocks was confronting the ascendancy of the meritocracy. During cocktail parties with classmates at the beginning of my first year, conversations inevitable focused on pre-law school careers (Peace Corps, Teach for America, graduate school), undergraduate colleges (Swarthmore, Brown, Princeton), even prep and high schools (Choate, Phillips Exeter, Stuyvesant).

    I suppose I fit the above description to a T. I grew up in NYC, graduated from Bronx Science and Columbia, joined a bulge-bracket investment bank out of college, and now work for another bulge-bracket firm.

    But I wonder what we are giving up by giving into the current emphasis on a slick education and achievement.

    I don’t see an inherent contradiction. Don’t we Latter-day Saints talk about how much emphasis we as a people put on education? Isn’t our symbol the beehive for a reason?

    In the Manhattan family ward I grew up in, yes, it indeed was taken for granted by one and all that the youth would go on to do great (as measured on the David Brooks/NYT wedding page type of barometer) things. And, by and large, we have lived up to those expectations. Not all of us have remained active in the faith, alas, but overall we have a solid track record there, despite the meritocratic temptations pulling at us from all directions, and I suspect any falling away would have occurred no matter the environment.

    I want my kids to grow up in Nu Yawk, and not because of the lame cliches involving “cultural diversity” and “lack of Utah Mormons” I so often heard (and still hear on Times and Seasons) from the BYU grads new to the big city who liked nothing more than to knock their home environments, so often before retreating to them after a few years. I want my kids to have the same chances that I’ve had, darn it. To compete agains the best and the brightest, to shoot for the stars, while also learning how to put these attributes in their proper context alongside the Gospel. My fellow Primary and Young Men and Young Women classmates and I came to maturity this way in the Big Apple. I can’t think of a better way to raise children, and I certainly don’t see any inherent contradiction with Gospel principles in doing so.

    So, from this particular participant in the American dream (and native-born participant in the American religion), three cheers for meritocracy.

    Yeechang, whose high school just gained its sixth Nobel alum

  20. Rosalynde Welch on November 4, 2004 at 9:53 pm

    Hmmm… I’ve always thought of myself as a part-time member of the meritocracy, but since I’ve never lived in or around NYC, perhaps I’ve only been fooling myself.

    I’m conflicted about the issue. I take all your criticisms, and I feel them too. But the meritocracy has served me well, affording me an education that has brought me great satisfaction and, maybe, will allow me to build the kingdom somehow (unlikely, I know). And I haven’t found it to be as demanding a task-master as you have; aside from some personal regret, nothing prevented me from bowing out after the PhD to stay home with my children. Chances are I’ll do all I can to put my children on a similar track.

    About the various money-does-not-equal-quality-of-life comments: this perspective betrays our middle-class assumptions. Deep or even intermittent poverty detracts greatly from quality of life, and from more subjective values like happiness and satisfaction, too.

  21. Bryce I on November 4, 2004 at 10:00 pm

    I should preface this comment by saying that I know Yeechang, and like him, so don’t take any of what I say as being aimed at him. I’m talking mostly about the kids I went to high school with.

    I grew up not far from Manhattan, in Scarsdale, and have no desire to raise my own children in a similar environment. My peers were the children of the meritocrats, who went to Ivy League schools before entering the investment banking world or law school or medical school.

    When I graduated high school, I chose to go to BYU rather than follow my classmates to their elite private universities. My close friends reported to me that at graduation, rumors were going around that I was going to BYU because as a Mormon, I had to. They could think of no other explanation for why I would make such a choice.

    Part of the reason was that I wanted to get away from the kids I went to high school with. The kids who flew to Florida to take the SAT because the grading curve was reportedly more favorable there. The kids who knew what everyone else’s GPA was, even though our school officially didn’t recognize rank in class. The kids who measured social status in much the same way that Broder describes. I didn’t feel like a part of that group.

    Perhaps it was because I saw what kind of sacrifices such success demanded of the families that aspired to it. Perhaps it was because in my experience, professional and educational acheivement is a relatively poor indicator of how interesting I am likely to find a person. Perhaps it was because I had perceived a corrosive impact of striving after external measures of happiness and success on the lives of those who sought them. At any rate, it’s just not me.

    This is not to say that you can’t make it in New York and still be happy and have a good relationship with your family. It requires a certain temperment, though, and I already know I don’t have it. Fortunately, I didn’t have to find out the hard way.

  22. Steve.Evans on November 4, 2004 at 10:24 pm

    Greg, it’s interesting that you would think my view of corporate lawyering to be a form of ranking. I confess I hadn’t really considered it in that light, but I suppose you’re right. It’s more of a subjective evaluation in any event.

    That being said, is it wrong to judge professions in light of their social merit? I don’t think we’re comfortable saying that ALL jobs are equal, are we? Some are clearly more desirable/constructive — it’s just a matter of laying out the criteria for evaluation.

  23. Ethesis (Stephen M) on November 4, 2004 at 11:04 pm

    I was in a ward with a guy who was always dropping factoids that remind me of the above whose high school just gained its sixth Nobel alumhttp://narcissism.homestead.com/ … and which touches on my mixed feelings about meritocracy claims (not to indicate that the poster is such a person or should be labeled that way — it just brought him to memory).

    My mother’s father was a member of a group that felt it was a meritocracy. Quite frankly, if you weren’t of the right ethnic and family background, a PhD and a millionaire, his group consigned you to the hoi polloi (http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~brians/errors/hoipolloi.html). I remember the one time I met him (yep, only got to meet him once, over a couple days visit at Mycenae http://www.culture.gr/2/21/211/21104a/e211da01.html), when he briefly brushed on getting me into Harvard or Yale (instead of BYU) and I mentioned I had already turned down Stanford and MIT.

    Looking back, should I have gone to BYU instead of a real school with merit? Did I doom myself by that choice? Heck, did I make a mistake by staying at CalStateLA instead of moving to UCLA as soon as they processed my paperwork and accepted me? Sure, I was learning, but ….

    I remember a partner of mine, a family of prep school grads and Ivies (and a good, decent guy, so there), and the multigenerational issues. I meet people with those markers still, especially those who go to schools where 55% of the students or better get laude of one kind or another …. you can tell I’m ambivilent, especially when I think of goals and thoughts and pathways that are closed to me (absent luck) that would otherwise be open.

    I’ve got my daughter in a high school that runs 25-30 national merit scholars a year (and whose college fair draws Yale, Harvard and others) — but no Nobels … its less than 20 real years old though. I’m encouraging her, and her younger sister.

    So, at heart am I just a wannabe? Someone who wants to point people to a signpost with the label: “Where are additional details available on this immensely talented, stupendously gifted, and astonishingly modest individual?”

    Should I be thinking of leaving my job for one that pays better, with more status (albeit much longer hours and less time at home, either inside the company I work for or with an outside law firm)? Have I lost merit by being one of the three guys they have teaching in the primary right now (one who was in the bishopric, my old elders quorum president and me?)? Not much of a credential, is it, though my daughter really needs me teaching her and thrives on it (and is much, much better behaved).

    I comment because I think on these things when I read posts like this. Here I am, in Plano First Ward instead of Plano Ninth (with the normal people instead of the heads of the legal departments for JCP or Alcatel) and wonder that now that we can afford to move, have I made the right choice in not moving and joining the annoited meritocracy of God and instead staying with those who obviously have lesser lights and will be consigned to a lesser glory? Of course, if you’ve seen the movie Mean Girls moving would put my daughter back with the plastics or the popular girls — groups she has already abandoned before, and groups I would rather she wasn’t a part of.

    Of course, I don’t live in Manhattan. Maybe things are different there made me smile ;)

    Class issues are still very, very important. Clothing, bearing, word choice, all lead to status markers that make a real difference. Acculturation is very important. http://www.puddlejumping.com/acculturation_coaching.htm

    When my sister came back to California, she didn’t test well enough to be allowed into the honors classes. At the end of the year, after she had acculturated, she tested second highest in the school district. M. Kristine Knapland and Richard H. Sander, The Art and Science of Academic Support, Journal of Legal Education Vol 45, No. 2 (June 1995) reflects that there was a unitary link between participation in study groups and not being on academic support — that the core issues in law school were as much acculturation as anything else.

    The BYU MBA profs who did their study on wealth and its co-factors were depressed to discover it was not intelligence or hard work or anything put together that had as much of an effect as family connections and acculturation markers.

    The meritocracy is a cultural group … not one of exceedingly fine merit. But don’t I want to be a part of it, tall, dark and handsome?

  24. Ethesis (Stephen M) on November 4, 2004 at 11:18 pm

    Bank robbery leads to running gun battle (KLTV Texas)
    PLANO, Texas A bank robbery in a northern Dallas suburb has led to a police chase and running gun battle today. Broadcast reports say the episode began with a midmorning holdup at the American First National Bank in downtown Richardson. Police arrived and a brief gun battle began.

    Hey, we have some gunfire in the area too – - so we can’t be too far off from getting more New York-like!

  25. Jonathan Green on November 4, 2004 at 11:56 pm

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Greg. I’ll just pretend for a moment that this thread isn’t only about New York City.

    Another aspect of Mormonism and meritocracy is how the former occasionally propels someone headlong into the latter. The context I’m thinking of here is California, where Mormons are a minority but common enough to be a known quantity. No statistics, but I’ve run across a lot of people who grew up in comparable situations and ended up as valedictorians or something similar, just to prove a point or for some reason that they can’t quite put their finger on. Then they go off to BYU or another university in search of another ladder to climb, while at the same time their religion reminds them regularly that they are only visitors in the meritocracy and, via a mission, yanks them out of it for a couple of crucial years, which puts a weird gap with no meritocratically acceptable description in their resume.

    Reading Greg’s post and the following comments reminded me of my experience at the Fulbright orientation meeting in Bremen, where most of the other recent college graduates like me were from schools that everybody has heard of before, but they had a hard time wrapping their brains around the fact that I was married (for barely 3 weeks at that point), and their social graces often did not extend to making friendly conversation with or even acknowledging the existence of someone who was merely an accompanying spouse and did not have a research project of her own. It was a pretty stressful couple of days for Rose and me. Was I ambitious? Sure, otherwise I wouldn’t have been there. But at the same time it was quite clear that I didn’t belong to the club, either.

    (End of the story: Rose took a German class sponsored by the local Lutheran student congregation, passed the language exam to get into the university the second semester, and ended up in the same Czech class as one of the people whom we had met in Bremen–and she got the highest grade in the class. Germans have no qualms about announcing things like that in front of all the other students.)

  26. Ethesis (Stephen M) on November 5, 2004 at 12:16 am

    End of the story: Rose took a German class sponsored by the local Lutheran student congregation, passed the language exam to get into the university the second semester, and ended up in the same Czech class as one of the people whom we had met in Bremen–and she got the highest grade in the class. Germans have no qualms about announcing things like that in front of all the other students.

    Neat!

  27. Greg Call on November 5, 2004 at 1:45 am

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. I certainly did not mean for this to be a NYC-centric post. That just happens to be the place I first confronted the meritocracy, and I mentioned the burgeoning Manhattan wards only as a example of the more general diaspora that might make this issue relevant to more and more Mormons.

    I think Yeechang and Bryce I convincingly lay out their divergent viewpoints on the issue. In conversations with my wife, I usually make Yeechang’s case, and my wife makes Bryce I’s. (She student taught at Hunter High School in Manhattan and met many of the “Harvard is my fall-back” types that Bryce went to school with.) She wins.

    Rosalynde wrote: “But the meritocracy has served me well, affording me an education that has brought me great satisfaction and, maybe, will allow me to build the kingdom somehow (unlikely, I know).” No doubt the meritocracy has served many well, especially many women, many African-Americans, many Jews, and other minorities that were effectively locked out of the great WASP-dominated institutions only a generation or two ago. These virtues of the meritocracy should not be undervalued.

    William Morris: I agree that many Mormons that successfully negotiate the meritocracy still feel a sense of otherness, and that this is a good thing.

    Thanks for the interesting anecdotes on point, Jonathan and Ethesis.

    Steve wrote: “I don’t think we’re comfortable saying that ALL jobs are equal, are we?” In many ways, no. But I guess what I’m thinking of is how my father-in-law, a construction worker in Switzerland, is close friends with not only his construction buddies, but with several artists, an architect, and a banker. Their identities simply do not seem as tied up with their jobs as ours do. They don’t really talk about what they do, and they don’t really aspire to be anything other than what they are. I think that to them, all jobs are equal. But maybe I’m idealizing them…

  28. Yeechang Lee on November 5, 2004 at 2:07 am

    So, at heart am I just a wannabe? Someone who wants to point people to a signpost with the label: “Where are additional details available on this immensely talented, stupendously gifted, and astonishingly modest individual?”

    In fact, millions of devoted followers believe I’m one of the most modest people on Earth. As modest as Jonathan Swift and Ambrose Bierce. And don’t y’all forget it.

    I was in a ward with a guy who was always dropping factoids that remind me of the above whose high school just gained its sixth Nobel alum … http://narcissism.homestead.com/

    Hey, I resent that implication! I only stare at my belly button once a day. Twice at the most.

    In all seriousness, I didn’t mean to imply in any way, shape, or form that the particular socioeconomic path I was raised in and have chosen to stick with is The Right Way to Go(TM) for everyone. Not at all. My sole intention was to answer “yes” to the question of Greg’s posed in the headline of his original posting.

    I am puzzled by the tone of some of the other comments here, though. No, it’s not news to hear that graduates of name-brand school X can be as obnoxious as anyone else (hey, I think I saw an ’80s teen movie covering this topic just the other day on TBS). They’re not jerks because they believe in meritocracy; they are jerks, period.

    Stephen M goes a step further and heavily implies that because he chose not to attend school X, or work in job Y, he is of course better off/more blessed/closer to God Almighty than those status-obsessed in-laws and neighbors in the next ward over who, because of job Y, surely neglect their kids’ welfare to boot. That’s pretty lame. Stephen, if you believe that you are one of the “normal people” and therefore on a higher moral standing than those sinister meritocrats, you ought to say so instead of merely beating around the bush and insinuating such.

  29. Ethesis (Stephen M) on November 5, 2004 at 9:24 am

    Yeechang, I was commenting that I actually feel the opposit often, and am conflicted about it. Being conflicted is a lot different than beating around the bush.

    Of the guys over there I know, and am in JRCLS with, none of them seem to be neglecting their kids welfare. I’ve been in the houses, seen the framed photographs, and the kids seem to be thriving just like you are.

    I seriously think, often, that my choices were mistakes I made, without any virtue and the result of foolishness, and wonder about them. As for my status obsessed, non-LDS (so not in any ward) relatives, they aren’t close to the next ward (well, maybe from you they would be, but not from here), and none of them are my in-laws, they are all aunts and uncles. As far as I can tell, alcoholism causes them more trouble than status obsession, they aren’t obsessed by status, they subsume it.

    I have serious thoughts about the options I’ve chosen (and the ones still open to me) and where they place me. Am I deluding myself, should we have moved, what should we be doing.

    Calling me “normal” is a compliment I probably don’t deserve. But I’ll take that. Calling meritocrats “sinister” — unless you are referring to the lefthanded ones, isn’t fair to them. I’d say I’ve met very, very, very few sinister meritcrats, (I think I prefer meritocracy and meritcrat, btw) compared to the general level in society.

    It isn’t as if I took up my mother-in-law’s suggestion and moved to a place that is prettier and has a great deal more pretty wilderness — but much poorer schools — rather than moving to the metroplex community with by far the best public schools in the state.

    Hope that makes things clearer.

    But, maybe my being conflicted, with self doubts, from loser schools makes me “pretty lame.” I often think that in evaluating what I’ve done and what I may yet do.

    Maybe if I were more modest I would be more at ease.

    But, each of us is what we are trying to become, one hopes.

  30. Ethesis (Stephen M) on November 5, 2004 at 9:31 am

    And obviously I wasn’t joking about wanting to be tall, dark and handsome. Given I’m short and blond, (or was until I turned gray), I’ve got a long distance to go, probably an insurmountable one, like many other distances that seperate me from my goals.

    BTW, Yeechang, feel free to visit my website ( http://adrr.com/living/ ) or my blog (http://ethesis.blogspot.com/ ) for a feel of why I’m conflicted rather than comfortably certain, wandering around singing “C’est Moi!” (a song I loved when younger).

  31. ryan on November 5, 2004 at 12:42 pm

    These thoughts are outstanding. As I sat in the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, taking time away from my home and my office, I actually had many thoughts about the meritocracy–indeed I felt like I just didn’t belong there. Those thoughts were followed by a large measure of guilt–and now this post. It is oh so challenging, maybe even the biggest challenge, to deal with our collective prosperity and still see things (people) “as they really are.” Hopefully I rise to the challenge and teach my kids to do the same. Oh that I were an angel.

  32. Ethesis (Stephen M) on November 6, 2004 at 3:43 am

    I’d like to apologize to anyone I offended. It occurs to me that it is easy to mistake angst and self doubt for other things, especially if the writer is not clear or the references are not as laude filled as one might hope. I was overly focused on my own doubts and issues to the exclusion of concern as to how I might offend others.

    My apologies. No one deserves to be offended just because someone else is what reduces to being too self absorbed in posting.

  33. Rob Briggs on November 6, 2004 at 6:41 am

    Stephen, thanks for the posts &, from my quarter, no reason to apologize.

    I visited your website. I am very sorry for your multiple losses. Best,

  34. Ethesis (Stephen M) on November 7, 2004 at 9:05 am

    Robb, thanks for your kind thoughts. I just realized I had probably offended at least one poster who saw self-doubt as beating around the bush — and who was completely justified. Well, I need to do another post for http://ethesis.blogspot.com/

  35. Jack on November 7, 2004 at 3:59 pm

    I’ve had an on-going war with self doubt throughout most of my life. I’ve made a lot of stupid decisions based on a strange compulsion to brow-beat myself which have led me away from focusing on the things that I love and do best. Now that I’m in my forties without out a college degree and a work history that, for the most part reflects experience as a delivery driver, I feel cheated! I realize that my current condition has mostly to do with my own neurotic impulses, but would to goodness that I could back up and do it over again with a little meritocratic ambition!

  36. anonymous(because it should be thus) on November 7, 2004 at 4:54 pm

    Ethesis

    My deep gratitude to you for your expressions and clarity. I went thru a divorce 14 years ago (all the while believing I had a wonderful family and home life) that devastated me and left me totally non-functioning in any real sense until just recently. It cost me my career and forced me into bankruptcy. My “friends” kept telling me to get over it and move on. I almost felt sorry for them because of their lack of understanding, but I couldn’t help the anger that moved inside me because of their ignorance.
    Nobody has been able to describe or understand the experience of loss in any meaningful way (not even me) until I read your article. Thank you!

  37. J. Stapley on November 7, 2004 at 5:38 pm

    I’m doing the start up thing right now in Seattle. I definitely think that there is a regional flavor on this topic that doesn’t translate well every where. First I would make a distinction between meritocracy and cultural elitism. I’m one of those guys who went to a state school instead of an Ivy (in spite of wonderful offers), because the program I was interested in was superior. Some of my acquaintances (mostly out east) could not conceive of not going to the Ivy for any reason. Here lies the rub.

    My associates/acquaintances out here, most of whom are worth millions and some in the billions, could care less where I went to school. They are only interested in how well I (or anybody else for that matter) produce. Very few of these folks are the meritocracts that have been described previously, but obviously there is an extraordinary premium on merit (bandwidth). I feel very much a part of the society (albeit I lack the –illion (either with an m or b). This leads me to believe that I am experiencing a meritocracy and what is being disparaged (in NY, I guess) is cultural elitism.

  38. Ethesis (Stephen M) on November 7, 2004 at 7:42 pm

    Hey, I’ve been owndering what is up with splendid sun (such a wonderful name).

    While I enjoyed your comments, I was glad for the update too.

    Best wishes.

    anonymous(because it should be thus) I sure wish you the best and am glad the article helped.

    Comment by Jack something I used to emphasize when I taught (which I’ve done from time to time) is just how often people make complete restarts in their lives when they are 30, or 40, or 50. Some of my wife’s friends are copying things she has done to restart their lives, with starts in their 40s. I’ve seen people make re-starts in their 50s.

    It is amazing to see someone at 59 beginning their “real” life, but a solidly good thing too.

    Well, I feel refreshed. Heard a wonderful testimony by a lady who just graduated from law school in the past few years while well into her 40s and who has made a complete and successful re-start. Joined the Church at 18, and seems just has been about 20 years behind since — but definitely a real success in every way.

    Sometimes Church is so revitalizing for me, and sometimes some people really are.

  39. J. Stapley on November 7, 2004 at 8:01 pm

    Ethesis:
    I appreciate the interest. While I would love to do something more interesting with it, due to my attempted accent to meritocratic glory, my time is limited and splendid sun remains the same. I try to update it at least once a week though.
    Cheers!

  40. Ethesis (Stephen M) on November 7, 2004 at 8:37 pm

    http://69.57.157.207/archives/000943.php for a non-Mormon’s take on similar questions and issues in his social circle.

  41. Ethesis (Stephen M) on November 9, 2004 at 8:51 pm

    On prep schools and boarding schools:

    http://www.erinoconnor.org/archives/001041.html

WELCOME

Times and Seasons is a place to gather and discuss ideas of interest to faithful Latter-day Saints.