Category Archives: meritocracy

Three Athletic Fields, Five Tennis Courts, and a Six-Lane Track

Facilities on the fifteen-acre Wisconsin Avenue campus … include the Earl G. Harrison, Jr. Upper School Building; the Middle School Building; Kogod Center for the Arts; Richard Walter Goldman Memorial Library; Zartman House … three athletic fields including one with all-weather turf surface; five tennis courts; and a six-lane track.

The five-acre Edgemoor Lane campus in Bethesda includes the Manor House … and athletic fields and two playground areas with climbing equipment.

So who wouldn’t want to go to Sidwell Friends School in Washington, the new center of learning for the Obama girls ? Can you imagine, three athletic fields, and all those tennis courts, and six whole lanes of track ? Or rather, who couldn’t go …

For starters, those not judged “academically talented” cannot go. The school says as much. Moreover, there is a requirement to submit to intelligence tests as part of the application process: the WPPSI, the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence for the youngest, then the WISC (Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children), and then on to the SSAT, etc. etc. Sidwell demands (conventionally defined) intelligence and rejects those who do not perform well on standard tests. What of the “Quaker values” of the school, proclaimed on its website, that would require a more egalitarian approach ?

The Quaker belief that there is “that of God” in each of us shapes everything we do at Sidwell Friends School. It inspires us to show kindness and respect toward one another. It motivates us to recognize and nurture each person’s unique gifts. It teaches us to apply our talents in service to others and to work courageously for peace.

So there is a disjunction between what is professed (egalitarianism) and what is practiced.

The (in my view) immoral notion that power and the good things of the world should be distributed unevenly to those judged to have “merit” — i.e. the advocacy of a “meritocracy” — was savagely satirized by the most profound sociologist I ever met, the late Michael Young, in his widely quoted but rarely appreciated “The Rise of the Meritocracy,” 1958. Forty three years later he revisited the topic in an op-ed piece, Down With Meritocracy.”

Back to the Sidwell Friends School admissions. Doing well on conventional tests is a hurdle, but, so it would seem, is money. It costs around $30,000 in tuition and fees, and even those who have benefited from financial aid, roughly a third of the student body, still pay an average of $10,000 per annum.

Finally we come to the problem of the race of the students. Does it matter ? Well, according to the professed “Quaker values” all races should have equal access to all those athletic fields and tennis courts. The school prides itself on its “diversity,” and has in fact appointed a number of “diversity coordinators” (at least one of whom has a Ph.D.). But in fact the school equivocates more than a little on how racially diverse it is.

We are told on its website that “39% of the student body [2008-9] are students of color.” “Of color” is not a census term, so it’s a little difficult to evaluate exactly what it means. We do know that the US Census reports the current population of D.C. as being 34.5% White, and 63.6% as belonging to other races. So, as a first approximation, we know that a white child has almost twice the chance (1.76 times) of going to Sidwell as someone “of color.”

But what exactly does “of color” mean in the Sidwell context ? The Census categories are white, black (African American), Asian, and “other races.” Now there is a world of difference, from the point of view of educational opportunities, between African Americans on the one hand and Asians on the other. I would suspect that Sidwell’s “students of color” include Asians and children of diplomats, among others. To know just what Sidwell’s profession of diversity means in practice, we would need to know the percentage of African Americans in its student body. I have written to Sidwell’s administration and my inquiry was duly acknowledged, but I have not yet received the figures. If and when I do, I will report them here.