ADAMES: Lawn room selections should consider socioeconomic context
Winesett’s column fails to take into account the inequality in the starting points of applicants
A few weeks ago, fellow writer Matt Winesett penned an op-ed arguing in favor of merit as being the sole determinant of Lawn room selections. As many others have written in favor of the consideration of diversity in these selections, I will refrain from such lines of argumentation. Instead, I will focus on the presumptions that underlie Winesett’s argument.
The first presumption of Winesett’s argument is that meritocracy (i.e., a blind selection process) chooses “the most deserving students and disregard[s] the complaints over representation.” According to Winesett, deservingness constitutes a combination of “intellectual ability, hard work and commitment to the University.” Perhaps Winesett would like to revise his wording, but, as it stands, such a conclusion is misguided, especially with respect to intellectual ability and work ethic.
Here’s a thought experiment. What would happen if the University’s high-achieving students from well-off backgrounds grew up in the conditions typical of lower-income students, including having parents with no college or high school degree, living in a racially and income-segregated neighborhood, lacking access to well-performing and well-funded schools, lacking the economic capital to afford extra academic help (e.g., private tutoring), exhibiting acute forms of stress or taking up a job to support themselves? The answer: very few of them would be where they are now. It seems far more impressive for a student from such a background to have decent “merit” than a student from a well-off background having more-than-decent merit. To be clear, it seems these students may be the hardest working. One might say it is more meritocratic to reward a student who has made longer strides relative to their background than a student who has made smaller strides relative to their background. Though Winesett may want readers to believe otherwise, hard work and intellectual ability cannot easily be measured by solely looking at a few numbers and disregarding their contexts.
Winsett also argues we must maintain a strict meritocratic selection process in order to preserve respect for the Lawn as an institution. Although he makes this assertion, Winesett fails to explain the consequences of people losing this respect for the Lawn. He also fails to elaborate on what respect for the Lawn entails. According to him, it is the reduction in “intellectual standards” which results in this loss of respect. This line of thinking parallels that of cases made against affirmative action. However, despite such worries, plenty of prestigious institutions, such as the Ivy League, have implemented affirmative action policies across the country. This drop in prestige seems probable among those who oppose affirmative action. However, children of parents who oppose affirmative action still vie to attend such universities. The enactment of such policies has not eroded the fact that graduation from these prestigious institutions provides a degree of cultural and social capital which supersedes that of lesser renowned schools. These colleges and universities are doing just fine. It seems the loss of respect (if any) is negligible. If one’s goal is maintaining respect for the sake of having respect, then such a goal is nothing but circular reasoning.
Finally, Winesett cites imposter syndrome as a reason to avoid considering diversity in Lawn selections. That is, students from a certain group historically underrepresented in the Lawn may begin to question their qualifications for receiving a Lawn room. According to Winesett, this “doubt is corrosive.” However, Winesett fails to explain how such corrosiveness is manifested. The fact that this self-doubt is a contingency also seems to elude him. This self-doubt exists because we live in a society which presumes success is not primarily determined by external forces. Rather than bar students from participation in an institution on the basis of a selection committee’s narrow conception of merit, we should expand our understanding of merit to be considerate of unequal starting lines. Accordingly, a selection process which truly aspires to be meritocratic considers not only results but also the contexts within which those results occur.
Overall, Winsett may have been able to provide better arguments against considerations of diversity. Unfortunately, his traditionalist line of thinking falls flat as it conceives a contingency as necessary and, consequently, fails to acknowledge the presumptions underlying the contingency at hand. Though numbers may matter in considerations of merit, context is critical to understanding those numbers as they relate to the merit under examination.
Alexander Adames is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at email@example.com.