Despite some half hearted references to other cultures, this book is distinctly aimed at America. While I agree with much of its premise (which is more about assumptions of merit; that those who more deserve it, while those who have less are intrinsically inferior, because they lacked the necessary merit), I was made hesitant early on by his relatively uncritical acceptance of Weber’s famed Protestant work ethic as a sort of modern source (though he also notes earlier, also biblically inspired ideas about meritocracy).
My fascination with Thomas Jefferson got a jolt when he compared the introduction of the SAT to Jefferson’s idea of providing education to America’s ‘natural aristocracy.’ In Jefferson’s view, small, local schools would exist in part to unearth the small number of geniuses from among the ‘rubbish.’ Conant, the man who came up with the SAT, also wanted to find those select few. It was never intended to expand access, but only to find what Jefferson would happily would have agreed was his natural aristocracy.
Solutions are few and far between, but I don’t ask Sandel to be Rawls (who, incidentally, gets a minor, but definite, raking over proverbial coals). And I liked his idea of changing college admissions to a modified lottery process. For example, a competitive Ivy League university will get tens of thousands of applicants, something more, or at least close, to half of which can be reasonably considered to be qualified and otherwise equipped to succeed there. Take that number and give out acceptances based on a lottery. I like it. The book as a whole, however, feels like it somehow fell short. The analysis goes into depth on issues, but always feels like it pulls back and doesn’t go all the way in ways that I can’t quite put my finger on.