On Monday, Harvard University’s world-renowned political philosopher Michael Sandel delivered the first Directed Studies colloquium of the year, based on his forthcoming book, “The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?”
In his book, Sandel, who is a professor of government theory at Harvard Law School, suggested that it is time to question meritocratic hubris and “reconsider the meaning of success.” Sandel explained how his book explores the way recent populism in the United States and the United Kingdom is a response to the hubris of the educated elite and meritocracy. Sandel’s talk was part of the DS colloquium series, which invites six distinguished speakers every year to lecture on interdisciplinary topics related to their work. Sandel’s talk on Zoom was followed by a discussion with Bryan Garsten, the chair of the Humanities Program.
“I was prompted to write the book trying to make sense of the events of 2016, such as Brexit in Britain and the election of Donald Trump in the United States,” Sandel told the current Directed Studies class. “More generally, [the book tries] to make sense of our civic life, which hasn’t been going very well, for decades. The divide between winners and losers has been deepening, poisoning our politics, driving us apart.”
In an interview with The New Yorker, Sandel explained that the events of 2016 represented a moment of populist resistance which, according to him, had been caused by more than just unemployment, the wage stagnation that resulted from globalization and the sentiments of xenophobia, racism and misogyny that Trump fostered.
“It seemed to me that entangled with these ugly sentiments were some legitimate grievances that the mainstream parties had missed and had failed to address,” he said. “Central to those grievances was anger and resentment against professional and meritocratic elites, who seem to be looking down on those less fortunate, less credentialed than themselves.”
According to Sandel, the meritocratic mechanisms humans have been using to define success “lead to hubris among the winners, and humiliation for those who lose.” This picture, he said, illuminates our current politics.
“Coming after an enlightening discussion with translator Emily Wilson, who shared her recent translations of the Iliad and Odyssey, the talk by Sandel not only introduced his new book but also gave DS students the ability to challenge and consider more deeply his provocative idea of radically transforming meritocracy for the modern age,” Edward Kuperman ’24, a student in DS, told the News.
At the colloquium, Sandel emphasized the importance of decoupling credentials from value. He said it is a mistake to assume that the money someone makes is the “measure of their contribution to the common good.”
Sandel referred to one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches in 1968, shortly before he was assassinated, as he addressed a group of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee.
“[Martin Luther King] said [that] the person who picks up our garbage is, in the final analysis, as significant as the physician,” Sandel said. “For if he doesn’t do his job, diseases are rampant. ‘All Labor has dignity.’ We see this during today’s pandemic. It reveals how deeply we –– especially those of us able to work and study from home –– rely on the workers we often overlook.”
Sandel referred not only to health workers tending to COVID-19 patients in hospitals, but also to delivery workers, grocery store clerks, warehouse workers, truck drivers, home health care providers and child care providers.
Sandel shared that toward the end of his writing process, he realized that the COVID-19 pandemic was amplifying the political issues he was exploring.
“These are not the best paid or most honored workers in our society,” he said. “But now we see them as essential workers. This could be the moment for a renewed public debate on how to bring their pay and recognition into better alignment with the importance of the work they do.”
Sandel said that it is a mistake to create an economy that sets a four-year university degree as a necessary credential for dignified work.
He expounded on the spirit of humility, explaining that merit often relies on support systems — such as encouraging parents, family finances and access to quality education — which some have easier access to than others.
“Professor’s Sandel’s remarks were completely relevant to where we are right now as students at Yale,” Victory Lee ’24, a DS student, told the News. “As Yalies, I think many of us hold pride in what we have achieved, and that shouldn’t be discredited. However, it was an important reminder to check our privileges and understand that luck and good fortune had a play in the merit we pride ourselves in and the kinds of talents that the society values.”
Sandel’s book advocates for a variety of liberal proposals, such as introducing a financial transactions tax and creating a lottery system for elite college admissions.
Mahesh Agarwal ’24 told the News that Sandel “raises good points” about detaching value and credentials and pushing back on the emphasis on education. Still, he wishes that the talk had focused more on the alternatives to meritocracy.
Agarwal, Kuperman and Elijah Boles ’24 all told the News that Sandel’s talk grounded the discussions they have had in DS seminars, especially conversations on Plato and Aristotle.
According to Boles, Plato seems “relatively unconcerned with the education of anyone except for his ruling ‘guardian class’ where most of his ‘philosopher-kings’ come from.” Aristotle, Boles explains, argues that some are born slaves, “namely, those who are more inclined toward manual labor.”
Boles said that while we discuss these perspectives with repulsion, we must ask ourselves whether our actions align with our words if we don’t take some of Sandel’s points seriously.
“Perhaps we should ask ourselves,” said Boles, “not just as a DS community, but a Yale community: How far have we really come since Plato and Aristotle?”
Sandel’s famous course Justice was Harvard’s first course to be made freely available online.
Maria Antonia Sendas | firstname.lastname@example.org