In 2001, when I was still attending college, David Brooks wrote an essay for The Atlantic called “The Organization Kid,” in which he spent a lot of time with young Ivy Leaguers and came away struck by their basic existential contentment. Instead of campus rebels, they were résumé builders and accomplishment collectors and apple polishers, distinguished by their serenity, their faux-adult professionalism, their politesse.
I thought at the time that Brooks made my cohort out to be more decent than we really were, mistaking the mask we wore for encounters with, say, an Atlantic journalist for our truer, darker, more ambitious selves. But he was entirely correct that most of my peers believed that meritocracy was fair and just and worked — because after all it seemed to work for us.
I graduated the year after “The Organization Kid” ran, wrote a lot about college in my 20s, and then drifted to other interests and obsessions. To the extent that I followed the college admissions racket thereafter, it seemed to become more competitive, more ruthless, more itself — and to extend its rigors ever earlier into childhood.
But a few years ago we moved back to the college town where I grew up, which gave me a close vantage point on young-meritocratic life again. Some of the striving culture that Brooks described remains very much in place. But talking to students and professors, the most striking difference is the disappearance of serenity, the evaporation of contentment, the spread of anxiety and mental illness — with the reputed scale of antidepressant use a particular stark marker of this change.
I don’t think this alteration just reflects a darkening vision of the wider world, a fear of climate change or Donald Trump. It also reflects a transformation within the meritocracy itself — a sense in which, since 2001, the system has consistently been asking more of ladder climbers and delivering less as its reward.
The scholar Peter Turchin of the University of Connecticut, whose work on the cycles of American history may have predicted this year’s unrest, has a phrase that describes part of this dynamic: the “overproduction of elites.” In the context of college admissions that means exactly what it sounds like: We’ve had a surplus of smart young Americans pursuing admission to a narrow list of elite colleges whose enrollment doesn’t expand with population, even as foreign students increasingly compete for the same stagnant share of slots.
Then, having run this gantlet, our meritocrats graduate into a big-city ecosystem where the price of adult goods like schools and housing has been bid up dramatically, while important cultural industries — especially academia and journalism — supply fewer jobs even in good economic times. And they live half in these crowded, over-competitive worlds and half on the internet, which has extended the competition for status almost infinitely and weakened some of the normal ways that local prestige might compensate for disappointing income.
These stresses have exposed the thinness of meritocracy as a culture, a Hogwarts with SATs instead of magic, a secular substitute for older forms of community, tradition or religion. For instance, it was the frequent boast of Obama-era liberalism that it had restored certain bourgeois virtues — delayed childbearing, stable marriages — without requiring anything so anachronistic as Christianity or courtship rituals. But if your bourgeois order is built on a cycle of competition and reward, and the competition gets fiercer while the rewards diminish, then instead of young people hooking up safely on the way to a lucrative job and a dual-income marriage with 2.1 kids, you’ll get young people set adrift, unable to pair off, postponing marriage permanently while they wait for a stability that never comes.
Which brings us to the subject invoked in this column’s title — the increasing appeal, to these unhappy young people and to their parents and educators as well, of an emergent ideology that accuses many of them of embodying white privilege, and of being “fragile,” in the words of the now-famous anti-racism consultant Robin DiAngelo, if they object or disagree.
Part of this ideology’s appeal is clearly about meaning and morality: The new anti-racism has a confessional, religious energy that the secular meritocracy has always lacked. But there is also something important about its more radical and even ridiculous elements — like the weird business that increasingly shows up in official documents, from the New York Public Schools or the Smithsonian, describing things like “perfectionism” or “worship of the written word” or “emphasis on the scientific method” or “delayed gratification” as features of a toxic whiteness.
Imagine yourself as a relatively privileged white person exhausted by meritocracy — an overworked student or a fretful parent or a school administrator constantly besieged by both. (Given the demographics of this paper’s readership, this may not require much imagination.)
Wouldn’t it come as a relief, in some way, if it turned out that the whole “exhausting ‘Alice in Wonderland’ Red Queen Race of full-time meritocratic achievement,” in the words of a pseudonymous critic, was nothing more than a manifestation of the very white supremacy that you, as a good liberal, are obliged to dismantle and oppose? If all the testing, all the “delayed gratification” and “perfectionism,” was, after all, just itself a form of racism, and in easing up, chilling out, just relaxing a little bit, you can improve your life and your kid’s life and, happily, strike an anti-racist blow as well?
And wouldn’t it be especially appealing if — and here I’m afraid I’m going to be very cynical — in the course of relaxing the demands of whiteness you could, just coincidentally, make your own family’s position a little bit more secure?
For instance: Once you dismiss the SAT as just a tool of white supremacy, then it gets easier for elite schools to justify excluding the Asian-American students whose standardized-test scores keep climbing while white scores stay relatively flat. Or again: If you induce inner-city charter schools to disavow their previous stress on hard work and discipline and meritocratic ambition, because those are racist, too — well, then their minority graduates might become less competitive with your own kids in the college-admissions race as well.
Not that anyone is consciously thinking like this. What I’m describing is a subtle and subconscious current, deep down in the progressive stream.
But deep currents can run strong. And if the avowed intention of the moment is to challenge “white fragility” and yet lots of white people seem strangely enthusiastic about the challenge, it’s worth considering that maybe a different kind of fragility is in play: The stress and unhappiness felt by meritocracy’s strivers, who may be open to a revolution that seems to promise more stability and less exhaustion, and asks them only to denounce the “whiteness” of a system that’s made even its most successful participants feel fragile and existentially depressed.