The Way We Weren't

"Educational Reform at Harvard College: Meritocracy and Its Adversaries" by David Riesman '31 in Education and Politics at Harvard McGraw-Hill. $15,00, 401 pp.

MY FIRST encounter with David Riesman, Ford Professor of Social Sciences, came through one of those booklets the Harvard and Radcliffe admissions offices prepare each year to advertise their parent institutions to prospective applicants. Sandwiched between pages that explained how Harvard-Radcliffe was a place where appropriately motivated students could learn and prosper, there was a photograph of Riesman engaged in intense, but informal, discussion with an undergraduate. If the intent of that photograph was to convey the impression that most of Harvard's famous senior faculty take great pains to become personally involved with their students, it was more than just a little deceptive. But at least the picture told the truth about David Riesman. Aside from being a gifted and supremely imaginative sociologist. Riesman is singularly aware of the lives and trends that go on around him at this university. His heightened awareness and personal involvement alone would recommend his recently published essay about educational reform at Harvard; these qualities are precisely the ones that make the essay an appealing narrative and at the same time force Riesman's perceptions and conclusions to be less than satisfying.

Riesman acknowledges throughout his essay that the endeavor is an impressionistic one, inspired and molded by his own emotional and intellectual commitment to Harvard's educational undertaking. His experiences here span almost half a century, and those experiences--both undergraduate and professional--weigh heavily on his analysis of the importance and permanence of the upheavals that overtook Harvard during the second half of the 1960s. Riesman evidently possesses a sincere and abiding affection for the university where he matured and spent a good part of his working life, and the problem he sets for himself in his essay is to examine whether the college he knew and respected was able to survive the turmoil of the last decade.

It is in this context that the notion of meritocracy comes into play--but not necessarily into focus--in Riesman's account. Almost like the way "law and order" served as code words during the late sixties for those who wanted society to return to its former middle-class virtue, "meritocracy" becomes for Riesman a code for the sorts of policies and arrangements that sustained Harvard as a superior educational and research institution throughout the middle part of the twentieth century.

Early in the essay, Riesman attempts a broad definition of his terms. Meritocracy is best described as a sort of competition for scarce rewards. For applicants to Harvard the reward is admission, for scholars the payoff comes in terms of tenure. These rewards are doled out of those who best meet the demands imposed upon them by the system, which by intellect or by invisible hand determines its own needs and sets its requirements accordingly. Meritocracy, Riesman explains, comes in two varieties: the "aristocratic" and the "democratic." In the former version, decisions about who wins and who loses the competition are the prerogative of the people at the top of the system. Without any formalized standards to guide them, one simply hopes that the judges possess at least a modicum of fairness. In the "democratic" or "common-man" version of meritocracy, one can be less dependent on the judges' individual qualities, since by means of uniform tests and other impersonal criteria the question of who wins and who loses becomes much less a matter of any one person's whim. The meritocratic competition, if it works right, represents an efficient system for society to allocate its resources to those who are best able to do its work.

Whether meritocratic competition is in fact an efficient or a desirable system for people to labor under is obviously contestable. For his own part, Riesman largely evades the question. As a sympathetic man, he readily acknowledges the emotional hardships meritocracy imposes on the competitors and even goes so far as to suggest that the distribution to prestige and welfare might best be separated from the outcome of the race. Still, he concludes without much explanation that meritocracy, like democracy, is "the worst possible system except for all the others." This assertion is itself less than satisfying, and it is indicative of an ambivalence toward his subject to which Riesman admits at the beginning of his essay.

In any case, Riesman writes that from the time of the Lowell administration until the student protests, of the 1960s Harvard took a steady course leading to the victory of democratic meritocracy here. He goes on to detail the rise of the student--and to a lesser extent faculty--antagonism toward meritocracy, which he says culminated in the growth of student radicalism. He argues that students discontent forced the University to abate the curricular rigor with which it had previously enforced its internal meritocratic policies, and he describes the simultaneous deterioration of student-faculty interactions. So the question remains: Will Harvard be able in the future to restore the common faith in meritocracy?

In a somewhat tentative conclusion, Riesman suggests that the damage done to meritocracy at Harvard is permanent. Part of the reason for this, he says, is that the onset of radicalism shook the faith of the faculty, and replaced it with a contagious cynicism. He does not claim that meritocracy will disappear from Harvard all at once, explaining that "an institution like an individual can continue to live with a lot of ruin within the system."

Whether or not Riesman decides that the damage done to the Harvard of an earlier era will be permanent, the central problems of his analysis remain. First, at an institution which has always been extra kind to the sons of its alumni, which for its entire history protected male--and middle and upper class--prerogatives in the admissions process, and which accedes to senior faculty in the History Department who claim there is only one black American historian in the entire country qualified (though conveniently unwilling) to teach here, it is not so plain that there has been a sincere commitment to "democratic meritocracy" with its passion for fairness. And secondly, there is the problem of meritocracy itself. Do we want, or does the rest of the world need, a Harvard that picks out an elite to do society's work when society's work means bombing Asian peasants, creating unemployment to stabilize a faltering economy, and cutting back on welfare to people who are already ill-fed, ill-housed, and ill-cared for?