BkRev #1825. Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. (2012). Christopher Hayes. New York: Broadway. 292pp. $16.00. ISBN #978-0-307-72046-7, https://www.hachettebookgroup.biz/titles/liza-jessie-peterson/all-day/9781455570911/.
Matt Kubacki, Ed.D. Associate Dean for Student Success, St. Joseph’s College, Brooklyn, NY, firstname.lastname@example.org.
“America is broken.” That’s the way Christopher Hayes (2012) began Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, a summation and analysis of contemporary American disaffection so unfortunately prescient as only to have grown in importance since its original publication. And while one would be forgiven for reading that opening and giving up hope, Hayes provided a wealth of explanations and data throughout to clarify the many reasons for America’s breaking, as well as to provide solutions for how changes in thinking and policy could work toward America’s reforming.
Hayes, editor at large of The Nation and host of his own show on MSNBC, focused his analysis on what he calls the Fail Decade, the first decade of the 21st century, characterized by 9/11, the invasions of Afghanistan and then Iraq, the collapse of Enron, Major League Baseball and performance-enhancing drugs, Countrywide and the subprime mortgage crisis, and the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. And while he granted that each of these crises was the product of complex and at times overlapping factors, Hayes (2012) wrote, “the consistent theme that unites them all is elite malfeasance and elite corruption” (p. 23).
That “elite malfeasance and elite corruption” stemmed, Hayes (2012) wrote, from America’s cultural belief in meritocracy, a term coined by Michael Young in 1958’s The Rise of the Meritocracy, describing a system where intelligence and determination, rather than an aristocracy of birth or plutocracy of wealth, is rewarded (as cited in Hayes, p. 41). Meritocracy, on its surface, can seem directly linked with American values. Yet, Hayes pointed out that the issue is that its “fundamental problem . . . is how difficult it is to maintain in its pure and noble form” (p. 53). Hayes was so effective in providing an abundance of examples and narratives to pull the reader in and make his case, mixed then with the data for support, to show just how the idea of meritocracy has been corrupted.
It is difficult not to be swayed by Hayes’s (2012) analysis, seeing as he does in the national mood of frustration and betrayal a “crisis of authority” (p. 13). However, one of those pillar “authorities” in crisis is higher education, as it can be blasted by media as being a hotbed of elites, perpetuating and advancing inequality (Brooks, 2018). What to do, then, when higher education professionals in general, and academic advisors in particular, attempt to provide advisement only to have questioned the very idea of the benefit of higher education degree attainment in the first place? One way is to advise students to themselves explore, to encourage and empower students to trust in their own individual authority in how they are educated. While this may come easier at liberal arts schools, many if not all institutions have some sort of general education requirements in the liberal arts. Showing students that they can make choices within those frames can many times lead to ways to “explore the challenges specific to our age” (Roche, 2010, p. 15). As Roche (2010) wrote, it is these challenges that “make the liberal arts more essential than ever” (p. 15).
Success in higher education, and in other areas, can translate to “success within our communities . . . lower health care costs, increased economic value…” (Dorsey, 2012, p. 6). Engaging students in questioning society’s workings and then addressing those questions can hit on what Hayes (2012) concluded can be a solution to the elite’s malfeasance and corruption: that while crises can cause pillars of authority to fall, they can also inspire work to “put [society] back together a different way” (p. 237).
Brooks, D. (2018, May 28). The strange failure of the educated elite. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/28/opinion/failure-educated-elite.html
Dorsey, M. E. (2012). Advocacy: Flip the script. Community College Journal, 82(4). 6.
Roche, M. W. (2010). Why Choose the Liberal Arts? Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.