On the Merits

On Labor Day, when we should be celebrating the fruits of diligence, hard work and just showing up on time, I had the good fortune of stumbling across a piece on the merits of merit in, of all places, the New York Times.

The guest essay is by Asra Nomani, a woman who came to West Virginia from India at age four with no English language skills, worked hard and became a successful academic. It’s well worth reading her entire piece, but let me quote from it at length here:

Merit demands excellence and rigor. It is not, as its critics often insist, an elitist, classist or racist value. It acknowledges that all kids have talents. Even though talents are not distributed equally, it is our obligation as parents and teachers to nurture each child’s individual spark and make sure that all children have the chance to be the best that they can be. I learned that on the Morgantown High volleyball team. I was never going to make the Olympic team. But Coach Rice encouraged me to understand that the most valiant, healthy challenge is a personal one, to strive to do and be my best.

Merit should never have become a battlefront in the culture wars. I understand the impulse to declare the system rigged when so many children, particularly Black and Hispanic children, have fallen behind academically. But the answer to racial disparities in math and reading scores and advanced academic enrollment is not to blame the game and rerig it to favor outcomes that please certain political constituencies but do little to make life better for struggling children. The solution is to channel more resources into disenfranchised communities — from the Black urban poor to the white rural poor in West Virginia, where I grew up. The solution is not to give up on merit.

After I read her wonderful, even brave, essay, I girded myself to check on the comment section. This was in the New York Times after all, a land where things like merit are stripped naked to reveal themselves as mere tools of the oppressors. But my heart was gladdened to read comment after comment that supported Nomani’s point. Several readers said what I just did: they were amazed that this got by the editors at the Times, where a few years ago the very editor of the editorial page was forced out by his own staff for having had the temerity to run an oped by a conservative Republican senator.

Many of the commentators also came from the San Francisco Bay area where some school board members were tossed out earlier this year for, among other things, watering down admissions standards at Lowell High School, which has been a prep school-to-Ivy League channel for a lot of poor kids in the area.

There is an awful trend in education. Lower admission standards, eliminate entire course requirements like algebra, accept late or incomplete work, equate “lived experience” with rigorous analysis, etc. The idea is that somehow things that we equate with merit are racist. No. These things — hard work, diligence, respecting your teachers, using proper English, thinking rationally and linearly — are simply positive human traits.

Letting kids off the hook for them is doing them no favors. Progress, both for individuals and society, is made through rational thought, the ability to control your emotions, hard work and perseverance. When even the readers of the New York Times get that, it gives me hope.

Happy Labor Day.

Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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