Meritocracy in Obama’s Gilded Age

Meritocracy in Obama’s Gilded Age

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Aziz Rana, Professor of Law
Cornell University, Ithaca, New York

The Obama administration’s vision of social mobility in America is bound up with a story about higher education. According to this story, elite colleges and universities are engines of American opportunity. They select the most talented and hardworking people, from across all backgrounds, and provide them with the training to achieve even the most “impossibly big dreams,” as Michelle Obama would say. There is truth to this account. Indeed, Barack Obama’s lived experience speaks to the possibility of meritocratic achievement. He is the multiracial child of a single mother from a middle-class background, who through skill and determination made it to top universities and eventually rose to the highest echelon of political power.

But this familiar story of higher education as a spur to social mobility blinds us to both what is pernicious and what is worth defending about the modern American university…

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