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Q&A With Lani Guinier: Redefining The 'Merit' In Meritocracy

Lani Guinier
Santa Clara Law
Lani Guinier

As a high school student, Lani Guinier wrote a letter to the College Board over a math question on the SAT that she found problematic.

When she got to Harvard's Radcliffe College, her roommate announced that she was worried about something: With her perfect SAT score she'd have trouble finding someone to marry.

"Her bragging ... and my nagging," were two sparks of a lifelong interest in what Guinier calls "the testocracy." Now a professor at Harvard Law School, she has written a book, The Tyranny of the Meritocracy, that calls for a rethinking of who gains admission to schools like Harvard.

You talk in the book about the correlations between SAT scores and family incomes. But some people argue that the SAT is more meritocratic than the networks of influence that it replaced.

Most of the students admitted to competitive colleges are not poor or working class. There may be a few but it's very few.

Part of the reason that upper middle and upper class students are more likely to get admitted is because they're more likely to do well on the SAT.

So why not focus on preparing poor or working-class students better so they can do well on these tests?

There's a sense of skepticism that is generated by this worship of a test, of a score, that turns out to be reductive of the mission of higher education.

The mission of higher education, I would argue, is to develop a new cohort of potential leaders, and it's very important that they be diverse, not just in terms of who can afford SAT prep but working class and poor, black and white.

With the focus on tests, the mission gets lost in my view — to promote democracy and prepare an important group of students for being confident about a leadership position that's not just an opportunity for them, but for their communities.

So if not by a test score, how do we determine merit?

Amartya Sen [the Harvard philosopher and economist] says merit is an incentive system that rewards actions society values.

I am influenced by some of the work of Scott Page at the University of Michigan, who says that what you're really looking for in terms of merit is the ability of people to collaborate where you have very different perspectives brought together.

You're not just taking the smartest people in the room. You're also trying to create a collaborative team where people have different strengths and the capacity to work with people with different perspectives.

Let's say you gave a group of people a 10-question test. You don't just want the two or three people who got the most questions right. You also want to include the people who did not get all the questions right, but who did get the three questions right that the others got wrong.

You want the capacity to acknowledge and take advantage of the insights that this group of people will now have.

Those with different insights have to learn how to work together. This is not about extreme views to the right or the left. This is about bringing people together to solve a problem.

In the book, you discuss the Posse Foundation, a program that identifies, recruits and trains public school graduates, and places them in supportive groups of 10, to help them succeed in college. Tell me why you found this model so intriguing.

So the origin story of the Posse program, at least as I understand it, there was a young man who was very smart and he got into college, but he felt out of sorts because he was from a very different background from most of the other students, and he basically dropped out.

The Posse program was inaugurated when the person who leads it [Deborah Bial] ran into this young man, whom she had helped to tutor, and asked him: Why did he drop out? And he said, if I'd had my posse I could have made it.

What's interesting is the way the members of the posse reinforce and support each other. They're not competing against each other or other people. They're collaborating together to take maximum advantage of the opportunities they've been provided.

One last question. A lot of your book seems to focus on admissions and educational policies at elite institutions. But there's also a conversation going on about the need to develop a different definition of excellence in higher education — one that recognizes the mission of institutions that already serve a broad range of students, the Cal State Northridges and CUNYs, not just the Berkeleys and Columbias.

I want to associate myself with the position that David Labaree, at the Stanford school of education, has taken. And that is that higher education has multiple missions.

Part of its mission is to educate a group of people, some of whom are prepared to be leaders and to be innovators. I think the mission should be similar in both types of institutions that you mention — both cohorts.

We live in a society that's very proud of being a democracy. If we are truly committed to that mission, we need leadership not only from those whose parents are wealthy, but also from those whose parents are poor and working-class people.

The goal is that there is a mission for developing access to good jobs, but it also includes a democratic element of the goal of higher education, and that's training citizens who are not only going to be leaders but also good citizens: citizens who reach out to other people, who are willing to accept challenges that require concentration, but who also have the ability to work as a team.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.
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