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Life, liberty and pursuit of merit

When Sonia Sotomayor sits down Monday before the Senate Judiciary Committee to answer questions about her qualifications to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, thoughtful observers may do well to reflect that, by certain measures, she shouldn't be there.

That's because decades ago, in her late teens, Sotomayor faced another important test — the SAT, the traditional route to top-tier placement in our national meritocracy — on which, by her own admission, she didn't do well. She has said her scores "were not comparable to that of my colleagues" at Princeton, where she was admitted as a self-styled "affirmative-action baby."

The fact that she later graduated from Princeton with highest academic honors and went on to reach the upper echelons of her chosen career, the law, speaks well of her intellect, her drive and the discernment of Princeton's admissions office, but it doesn't speak well, necessarily, of the conventional, test-based notions of merit that might well have stopped her, had they been strictly applied, before she even got started.

As a product of the same education system that molded Sotomayor (and as a fellow Princeton graduate who took his degree seven years after she did), I would like to think that I know a tiny something about what she and others experienced while trying to scale, percentile by percentile, the ladder of academic and social distinction. I call this group of contemporary strivers — a group that has largely supplanted the moneyed gentry as our country's governing class — the "Aptocrats," after the primary trait that we were tested for and which we sought to develop in ourselves as a means of passing those tests.

As defined by the institutions responsible for spotting and training America's brightest youth, this "aptitude" is a curious quality. It doesn't reflect the knowledge in your head, let alone the wisdom in your soul, but some quotient of promise and raw mental agility thought to be crucial to academic success and, by extension, success in general.

All of this makes for a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more aptitude that a young person displays, the more likely it is that she or he will have a chance to win the golden tickets — fine diplomas, elite appointments and so on — that permit you to lead the aptocratic establishment and set the terms by which it operates.

The key aptocratic concept, of course, is fairness. The reason that most thinking Americans consent to our modern procedures for advancement (and the reason some seek to correct their "cultural biases," in the words of Sotomayor, with policies like affirmative action) is that we esteem the ideal on which they're based: equal opportunity.

To America's propertied white male founders, this particular definition of "justice for all" wasn't uppermost in mind, but to me, as a public-school student in the '70s concerned with eventually moving to the head of his generational class, it constituted an entire theology. From the time I raised my hand in kindergarten, eager to prove that I'd memorized my alphabet, to the day I sat down with three sharpened No. 2 pencils to demonstrate my mastery of analogies on the SAT, I held it as self-evident that being created equal was just Step 1 in the process of proving myself somewhat superior.

Only when I entered Princeton did I start to have doubts about the system that got me there. My impressive performance on the SATs (whose supposed biases I was blind to, perhaps because I was a middle-class Caucasian and they operated in my favor) didn't seem to count for much now that I found myself having to absorb volumes upon volumes of information rather than get the right answers on multiple-choice tests.

I looked around at the students who didn't resemble me in terms of skin color and background and wondered how they were staying afloat at all. As a child of the rural Midwest, I felt decidedly out of place at Princeton among the debonair Eastern prep-school graduates who still, in the early 1980s, seemed to embody its privileged heritage, so I could scarcely imagine the alienation of these other yet more marginalized students.

And while I happened to know that some of them gained admission on special terms meant to make up for their social disadvantages, I didn't resent them for this. Not at all. Because I came from a geographic region that Princeton hadn't favored in the past, but which it was now intent on drawing from, I was also a sort of affirmative-action student.

What's more, the poorer and browner of my classmates — particularly the women — seemed to study twice as hard as I did, clocking endless hours in the library and forgoing weekend parties for late-night cram sessions. Maybe their SAT scores were lower than mine, but they ranked higher than I did on the effort scale. And on the bravery scale too.

A system of advancement by aptitude, by statistical measurements of mental acuity, doesn't concern itself with determination and courage, but if the world were truly fair, it would. This I learned at Princeton.

To judge by her statements about her college days and by her ruling on the use of a vocational examination used to promote firefighters, Sotomayor is also skeptical about one-size-fits-all testing. That's probably natural, given her experience as an aptocrat who needed help, made the most of it when it was offered and may soon succeed to a position that could allow her to see that others receive it.

Does social justice consist of devising enlightened rules and applying them equally to everyone or does it entail sometimes modifying those rules when it appears that they treat some of us a bit more equally than others? This argument could go on forever (and has), but there's a way out of it.

The premise of this solution is that all systems that seek to rank human beings according to "merit" — a complex idea — will inevitably fall short of fully accounting for what merit consists of in the real world. As such, these systems, like our Constitution, should be subject to amendment from time to time, since no definition of merit lasts forever.

The orthodox combination of high school transcripts and SAT scores that allowed me into Princeton wasn't a guarantee of my ability to make the most of its academic offerings. Maybe I shouldn't have been there in the first place. Perhaps someone else deserved my spot — someone whose talents weren't so easily indexed but might have been another Sotomayor. How would I know? And that's the point: I can't.

Which is why certain questions of merit and advancement have no definitive answers and, on occasion, ought to be left blank.

Life, liberty and pursuit of merit 07/11/09 [Last modified: Saturday, July 11, 2009 4:30am]
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