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Our American Demeritocracy

Preamble: You're going to be inclined at first to think this is mean-spirited. As is often the case, I urge you to set aside any kneejerk reactions and think about what I'm saying here.
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After batting practice one afternoon I took my 16-year-old grandson to Burger King, where we encountered a queue of cars that stretched well back beyond the drive-through, clogging the entrance to the adjacent strip mall. This struck me odd, as it was 2:45, not normally a peak time in the land of fast food. The reason became clear, however, once we'd inched our way to that familiar first window where the money changes hands. The young man in charge of the transaction stuttered so badly that it took him fully five minutes to confirm our order—one burger, fries—and narrate the exchange of funds. He spent an eternity on the word “bacon” alone. (It was not unlike that classic scene in My Cousin Vinny, where the alternate defense attorney struggles to get through his opening statement, faltering on every consonant.) But there was no mirth in this, even to my normally lighthearted grandson, whose brows just knitted in confusion. Behind us, more cars joined the procession. I wondered if the lad ever worked the dinner shift.

My answer came the following week, on a day when my grandson and I got a later start. We swung by at 5 and the line was twice as long, the same young man clearly recognizable at his post. "So, you want to try Taco Bell?" asked my grandson.

One perceives the wholesome motivations that result in such ill-advised pairings between job and job-holder, but to me, this largess suffers from at least two major flaws. The first is an arbitrariness in our distinctions between disability and inability. Burger King would not likely keep on an employee who spoke flawlessly but dispensed money in a seemingly random manner. To the afflicted, though, a math impairment can be as palpable a hindrance in life as a stutter. We are all limited by our limitations. Indeed, suppose the boy who stutters is a natural at calculus—unlike millions of kids, my grandson included, who require extensive tutelage. Although I don't think anyone would propose granting my grandson special admission to MIT in accommodation of his math struggles, we will fill customer-service slots with employees who cannot deliver adequate customer service (and may even send patrons to competitors). It seems illogical to privilege one deficiency over another simply because it has a name and formal diagnosis.

The larger point is that my drive-through experience is a minor but memorable indication of a meritocracy that has lost its way. Amid our national obsession with "equity" and 
“inclusionary” thinking and “being respectful to all,” we are abrogating our duty to uphold and reward excellence as a way of life. Once, excellence was what we were supposed to seek and admire—vocationally, behaviorally, in every sense. America was never a perfect meritocracy, as there was always too much advantage accorded certain classes of people. But at least we had a consensus understanding of which attributes were “optimal” in any given setting, and we incentivized and reinforced such attributes. No longer.

The damage goes far beyond the world of the drive-through. Teachers at all levels face enormous pressure not to fail students (nor merely assign the mediocre grades many earn). This applies even in college, where I teach. The rationale is that we don't want to ding their GPAs for resumé purposes. Few colleges want a reputation for being institutions where students are graded severely (that is, honestly). Grade schools are disinclined to suspend or even discipline the unruly student, lest they be accused of compassion deficit and/or stigmatizing children.

Hence, too: social promotion, diversity-mania, trophies for winners and losers. HR policies are rewritten to enable unmotivated millennials to remain unmotivated and hold their jobs.

In setting after setting, we rethink obvious explanations for dysfunction in order to wash away the stain of failure or worse. The mass-incarceration trope inverts the traditional view of crime by putting the onus on society. Pop culture celebrates out-of-wedlock pregnancies and other infelicitous circumstances that predispose a non-excellent life for most everyday folks outside zip code 90210. The more than one-third of Americans who are clinically obese are exhorted to “love your body,” no matter their weight's impact on their health or the health system itself.

This is why there's much to be said for the Darwinism of pro sports. If you are the best at what you do, you get a job. I hear no call to place short people in the NBA just to be fair, and shortness of stature—unlike stuttering—isn't fixable. If your dream is to play in the NBA and you are 5-foot-3 and not named Muggsy Bogues, you are effectively disabled.

In our zeal to help people like the boy with the speech impediment, we're being unhelpful not only to the folks in line, but to other job seekers who might enable the business to run more like the well-oiled machine Coolidge envisioned in his timeless line, “The business of America is business.” I do not champion a society without compassion. I'm saying that each of us needs to pursue excellence in our individual way, based on the skill set we were given. I would urge a more objective, dispassionate lens on abilities and disabilities in the broadest sense, with no “approved” categories of disability beyond those needed as a safety net for those simply incapable of excellence.

We are all uniquely abled and disabled. The key is to figure out where each person's mix best fits, thus promoting maximum benefit to the individual and society.

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