The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World
Wooldridge (Adrian)
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Cover Blurbs

    Introduction: A Revolutionary Idea – 1
  1. PART ONE: Priority, Degree and Place
    1. Homo hierarchicus – 25
    2. Family Power – 35
    3. Nepotism, Patronage, Venality – 47
  2. PART TWO: Meritocracy before Modernity
    1. Plato and the Philosopher Kings – 59
    2. China and the Examination State – 72
    3. The Chosen People – 86
    4. The Golden Ladder – 99
  3. PART THREE: The Rise of the Meritocracy
    1. Europe and the Career Open to Talent – 117
    2. Britain and the Intellectual Aristocracy – 144
    3. The United States and the Republic of Merit – 175
  4. PART FOUR: The March of the Meritocrats
    1. The Measurement of Merit – 205
    2. The Meritocratic Revolution – 234
    3. Girly Swots – 256
  5. PART FIVE: The Crisis of the Meritocracy
    1. Against Meritocracy: The Revolt on the Left – 279
    2. The Corruption of the Meritocracy – 306
    3. Against Meritocracy: The Revolt on the – Right – 329
    4. Asia Rediscovers Meritocracy – 350
    Conclusion: Renewing Meritocracy – 367
    Acknowledgements – 399
    Notes – 401
    Index – 445

Plan of the Book (Full text, taken from the Introduction)
  • Part One introduces the pre-meritocratic world, a world in which people’s stations in life were fixed by tradition and jobs were allocated on the basis of patronage, nepotism, inheritance and purchase. Poets condemned self-seeking individuals as enemies of the heavenly order. Patrons gave away senior positions on a whim. Governments sold off jobs in the civil service and the military. Dullards acquired Oxford and Cambridge fellowships for the simple reason that they were related to the people who founded the colleges. Even as the old world went on its merrie way, there was another world in the making: a world of intellectual aristocrats, mandarin scholars, ‘pauper born’ bureaucrats and roving intellectuals and entrepreneurs.
  • Part Two examines the history of meritocracy before modernity. Plato’s Republic provided a blueprint for a world run by carefully selected and rigorously trained guardians. China introduced a system of examinations designed to select top scholars from across the empire. The Jewish people have always put a marked emphasis on intellectual success for both theological reasons (they see themselves as a chosen people guided by a rabbinical elite of scholar-priests) and practical ones (they have often had to make a living as entrepreneurs, middlemen and fixers). The great organs of medieval society, the Church and the king’s household, invented mechanisms of (limited) ‘sponsored mobility’. If meritocracy has a relatively short history; it has also had a long prehistory.
  • Part Three focuses on the three great liberal revolutions that created the modern world - two of them bloody (the French and, to a lesser degree, the American) and one of them peaceful (the British liberal revolution, which transferred power from a landed elite to the liberal intellectual aristocracy without a shot being fired). These revolutions were all driven by the same underlying force so succinctly identified by de Tocqueville: ‘The mind became an element in success; knowledge became a tool of government and intellect a social force; educated men played a part in affairs of state.’
  • The American revolutionaries wanted to replace the ‘artificial’ aristocracy of the land with a ‘natural’ aristocracy of virtue and talent. David Ramsay, a South Carolina historian, celebrated the second anniversary of American Independence by arguing that America was a unique nation in human history because ‘all offices lie open to men of merit, of whatever rank or condition’. Thomas Jefferson, the most committed, if also the most contradictory, of the new breed of philosopher-meritocrats, wanted to discover ‘youths of genius from among the classes of the poor’ and provide them with a free education. Later, Americans rejected this top-down view of society in favour of opening opportunities for upward mobility. But the essence of the American experiment remained the same: create equality of opportunity but expect that equality of opportunity to lead to a highly unequal outcome as people sorted themselves out according to their abilities and energies.
  • The French Revolution was a messier affair as well as a bloodier one. The revolution was inspired by a similar revolt against the ‘artificial aristocracy’: the revolutionaries declared that all men should be treated as equal before the law and that all careers should be opened to talent. Feudal privileges were abolished; the purchase of jobs was prohibited; elite schools were strengthened. Yet the result of this explosion of energy was confused: Napoleon mixed dynastic and meritocratic principles indiscriminately; and the Restoration brought back some of the most dubious features of the old regime. The France that emerged from the revolution was a strange mixture, half furiously meritocratic, half nostalgically aristocratic.
  • The most idiosyncratic revolution took place in Great Britain. The revolution was led by the intellectual aristocracy - a group of inter-married families with names such as Huxley, Darwin and Keynes - who owed their success to their sharp brains rather than to their broad acres. These reformers first subjected established institutions such as the civil service and the universities to open competition and then gradually built a ladder of opportunity for scholarship children.
  • Chapter Eleven looks at the rise of IQ testing. IQ testing provided a convenient way of testing mental ability and expressing that ability in a single number - so convenient, in fact, that, only a few years after IQ tests were invented, the US army used them to classify millions of recruits in the Great War. IQ testing also addressed three questions that anybody who takes the meritocratic idea seriously must confront. Is intelligence inherited or acquired, and, if both, in what proportions? How can we distinguish between innate ability and mere learning? And how much social mobility can we expect in a properly meritocratic society?
  • Chapter Twelve looks at the triumphant march of meritocracy after the Second World War. This was the glorious era in the history of the meritocratic idea: an era in which the left and the right could agree on the importance of giving everybody a chance to develop their natural abilities; an era in which opportunities were expanding in the form of university places and white-collar jobs; an era in which society as a whole celebrated the power of intelligence, as represented by scientists, engineers and even public intellectuals.
  • Chapter Thirteen re-examines the story through the lens of sex. The story of the rise of women is often written in terms of collective struggle for group rights. This chapter argues that it is just as important to recognize the role of liberal intellectuals such as J. S. Mill (and his wife, Harriet Taylor), who argued that the meritocratic revolution could not be complete until women were given a fair chance. The shift in the overall balance of the economy from brawn to brains made it inevitable that women would perform just as well as men. The feminist revolution thus represented the logical continuation of the introduction of open competition in the nineteenth century.
  • Part Five tells a darker story. Chapter Fourteen details the revolt against the meritocracy on the left. This revolt started in academia, with various specialists questioning both the power of IQ tests to measure intelligence and the deeper theory that IQ testing rested upon. This revolt was particularly fierce in Britain because of the role of the 11-plus in dividing children into sheep and goats. Academic doubts about IQ tests fed upon deeper intellectual currents. Egalitarians argued that the principle of meritocracy smuggled the principle of elitism into the heart of the socialist project. The proper aim of the left was equality of outcome rather than equality of result. Communitarians argued that the principle of meritocracy was dividing communities into the educational equivalent of the saved and the damned. Radical intellectuals such as Michel Foucault deconstructed every imaginable boundary - between the sane and the mad, the good and the bad, the law-abiding and the homicidal and, of course, between the bright and the average - as the product of bourgeois power. Increasingly, the debate was between egalitarians, who believed that all should have prizes, and super-egalitarians, who believed that prizes were just part of the ‘bourgeois problematic’.
  • Chapter Fifteen examines the recent marriage between meritocracy and plutocracy. The egalitarian revolution in the state sector was a failure not only because it deprived working-class children of an avenue of social mobility bur also because it coincided with a meritocratic revolution at the top of society. The privileged discovered the importance of intellectual success: British public (i.e. private) schools and American Ivy League universities put increased emphasis on school results. The children of the meritocrats who had thrived in the 1950s and 1960s devoted their considerable resources to passing their privileges to their children. Even during the Great Depression, when, in Charles and Mary Beard’s phrase in The Rise of American Civilisation (1930), poverty was ‘stark and galling enough to blast human nature’, Americans still believed that there was ‘a baton in every toolkit’. Today, thanks to the widening meritocracy gap, they, along with the citizens of other advanced countries, particularly Britain, believe that the baton has been taken away. That is a dangerous situation as well as a sad one.
  • Chapter Sixteen looks at the more recent populist revolt against the meritocracy - a revolt that takes up many of the themes of the 1960s (that the elite owes its privileges to a rigged system rather than hard work and ability) but mixes it with powerful cultural resentment. The populist rebellion is driven by a revolt of the exam-flunking classes against the exam-passing classes. In Britain, one of the strongest predictors of how you would vote in the Brexit referendum was educational level. In America, the proportion of people who voted Republican in presidential elections in the hundred best-educated counties, judged by the proportion of degree holders, shrank from 76 per cent in 1980 to 16 per cent in 2020. Donald Trump, who was particularly successful at appealing to blue-collar workers, even declared, ‘I love the poorly educated.’
  • Chapter Seventeen returns to one of the themes of the earlier part of the book: the Far East. Singapore is the closest thing the world has seen to Plato’s Republic or Confucius’s mandarin state. This is significant in itself: Singapore’s success in making the leap from a swampy backwater into one of the world’s richest societies demonstrates the power of the meritocratic idea in producing prosperity. But what matters even more is that China - a giant economy that is rapidly catching up with the United States - has decided to model itself on Singapore. China has not only embraced educational meritocracy: Chinese schoolchildren increasingly tread the same path as their mandarin predecessors, only this time they study engineering rather than the Confucian classics. It has also embraced political meritocracy: China prides itself on eliding the difference between political and administrative positions and promoting politician-bureaucrats on the basis of a succession of increasingly demanding tests. Even middle-aged aspirants for high office have to sit written examinations.
  • The more the West abandons liberal meritocracy in favour of plutocracy modified by quotas, the more it will cede the future to China. But how do we revitalize a meritocracy that is degenerating into plutocracy? And how do we live with this most demanding of taskmasters? That is the subject of the conclusion.


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