When I moved from Oxford to Harvard, I was puzzled. My reading of mid-term exam papers suggested that a substantial proportion of my new students wouldn’t have got an interview at Oxford, never mind a place. It was explained to me that a substantial chunk of undergraduates were “legacies” – there because their parents were alumni, especially generous alumni – and another chunk were the beneficiaries of affirmative action or athletics programs. The admissions system was managed by professional administrators, not professors.
I soon learned how to deter the academically weaker brethren. By assigning a lot of reading and awarding some C grades, I was soon rid of them. Yet my conscience was troubled by the system. Later, when I saw the evidence that Harvard and other colleges were discriminating against Asian applicants – whose share of the total undergraduate body ought to have been rising on the basis of their numbers and superior performance in standardized tests – I wrote an essay about it, lamenting the decline of meritocracy in America.
This, too, was naive. For the reality is that meritocracy as an ideal is fatally flawed. Nepotism will always find a way through, no matter how tough the tests.