Recommendations 6/6/2021: On "Meritocracies"

Stuff I think about often

Did you know that the word “meritocracy” is satirical in its origins?

It was used by Michael Young in a 1958 novel, The Rise of the Meritocracy, and was meant sardonically, as opposed to sincerely. It’s a dig at the class of folks who at the top who believe that they deserve this status, as opposed to being beneficiaries of being born into a particular social and economic class.

I think (and write) about this stuff a lot, including in this week’s column on how Kiese Laymon’s obvious supernova talent could not be recognized by the publishers at the top of the “meritocracy.”

I suppose I am a kind of traitor to my class given that I have hugely benefited from existing meritocratic structures, and yet I am a consistent critic of meritocratic thinking. The thing is, I know that I just ain’t that special.

Because I grew up in a bookstore and read from a young age, building an solid early vocabulary, and had a knack for taking standardized tests, I was put in accelerated and honors classes throughout school. This put me on a trajectory for other opportunities despite being, in high school at least - as Mother Biblioracle will testify - a pretty average student. But if you’re an “average” honors student with high SAT scores you still have lots of opportunities for choice of college.

I eschewed those choices because I really didn’t care enough to invest in my own educational development at the time, but thanks to the structural advantages I was born into, my college “consolation prize” was one of the best state universities in the country, the University of Illinois.

Meanwhile, over my teaching career I’ve had hundreds of students from less fortunate backgrounds as smart or smarter than me who had to bust their asses every step of the way to reach the same rung of the ladder.

That said, it’s undeniable that there is some element of merit at work in terms of who is ultimately successful. After all, Kiese Laymon is now recognized as one of our most exciting public voices. Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies did win a bunch of awards. Talent and hard work has allowed them to rise to the top. But for all those successes, we have dozens of worthy folks who we’ll never hear of because the structures of our meritocracy make it so some folks can bumble through life and be fine, while others cannot afford a single misstep.

I wish there was an easy solution to any of this, but of course there isn’t. I wrestled with how these forces are at play in an old blog post at Inside Higher Ed where I compared and contrasted what it was like to select pieces for publication at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency when I was editor with the impossible gauntlet that is trying to secure a tenure-track job in higher education. People had described the academic job market as a “lottery,” because of the hundreds of applicants for each job, with only one person being selected, but this is not a lottery.

In lotteries, everyone has an equal chance. This is not true in landing a gig as an assistant professor. One must have the qualifications, and once those qualifications are met there is a weighing of merit of different candidates. Some of these factors are visible and can be the product of ability and hard work - the number of publications, teaching evaluations - but many of them are hidden - like “fit” - and it is those hidden ones that often result in replicating a meritocracy that rarely seems to admit new members.

I don’t have a concrete solution to any of this because we’re talking about complex societal forces, but I think a decent first step is to stop believing in myths like the “meritocracy.”

I look at the people who wield so much influence on our society be it in government or education or Silicon Valley, and does it really seem like they’re doing a good job, that they’ve achieved this power because of their merit?

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Self-promotion alert: I did a Q&A with The Business Journals about my recent book, Sustainable. Resilient. Free.: The Future of Public Higher Education. You can also hear me talking about whether or not tenure in higher education is “an illusion” at The Mortarboard podcast.

Can anyone think of another book that ultimately spawned its own stand-alone store, other than Harry Potter, which now has a NYC address, on Broadway no less?

It’s Pride Month, which means the announcement of the 33rd annual Lambda Literary Awards.

Reese Witherspoon announced her latest book club pick, The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave.

Looking for some Italian escape, but not yet ready or able to travel? Check out “Love Letters to Italy: A Reading List.”


Reading companion of the week

This is an extra special announcement because this is Mrs. Biblioracle’s and my new reading companion. Meet Quincy:

Quincy is not a replacement for Oscar because each dog is their own self, but we have been thrilled to have him as part of our home for the past month or so. Truman, Quincy’s “brother,” who has been here for 14 years is a little less thrilled, but he’s dealing with it because he’s a good boy.

Send pictures of your reading companions to


All links to books on these posts go to The Biblioracle Recommends bookshop at Affiliate income for purchases through the bookshop goes to Open Books in Chicago. The tally stands at $71.00 for the year. 

As always, recommendations are open for business. Follow the instructions at the link below.

Want a recommendation? Click here!

1. Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour
2. Idaho by Emily Ruskovich
3. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
4. Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh
5. The Knockout Queen by Rufi Thorpe

Justin T. - Austin, TX

I think Justin will be excited by the combination of wit and empathy that Chris Bachelder brings to The Throwback Special, a novel which hinges on one of the most famous Monday Night Football moments in history.

1. The Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
2. Stuart: A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters
3. Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis
4. I'm Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid
5. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Marina S. - Wooster, OH

This is a book that was not only a best seller, but it was also turned into a movie, so lots and lots of people have read it, but my hope is that Marina hasn’t because it’s the right call for her right now, The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

1. Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
2. The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry
3. The Hike by Drew Magary
4. Trial by Fire by Scott James
5. How the South Won the Civil War by Heather Cox Richardson

Dave C. - Lombard, IL

For Dave, I’m recommending Willy Vlautin’s latest novel The Night Always Comes. As per usual with Vlautin, it’ll make you ache for characters who only want good things, but can’t seem to achieve them, but it’s the kind of ache only fiction can deliver.

Have a wonderful week,

(The Biblioracle)