The Slow Rise of America Mediocrity

3 min readJan 14, 2023

Did Thomas Jefferson High School make a one-time error?

Photo by Kostiantyn Li on Unsplash

In 1958, sociologist Michael Dunlop Young wrote a dystopian book called The Rise of Meritocracy. Young depicted a future where merit, defined as intellectual talent and achievement, will be the central organizing principle of society. Merit will replace previous divisions of social class, creating a world where the merited power-holding elite will oppress a less merited underclass.

The book popularized the term “meritocracy,” but the term was supposed to be negative.

As time went on, those who wanted a society based on performance and achievement adopted the word “meritocracy” and promoted it as a traditional value, while those who wanted a more equal society were against “meritocracy” because they thought it led to inequality.

In 2001, it disappointed Michael Dunlop Young that the term “meritocracy” entered the English language with no negative connotation. Young said, “It makes good sense to appoint individual people to their jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others.”

It’s important to note that Michael Dunlop Young believed that merit-based advancement was good, and he distinguished that concept from the oppressive merited power-holding elite he depicted in his book. But the opponents of “meritocracy” make no distinction and have declared war on all forms of merit.

In 2015, Harvard law professor Lani Guinier wrote a book called The Tyranny of the Meritocracy. Guinier proposed redefining merit. She wanted the term to focus on collaboration instead of hyper-competition that rewards the wealthy. In 2019, Yale Law Professor Daniel Markovits wrote a book called The Meritocracy Trap. Markovits argued that “meritocracy” was a modern-day aristocracy responsible not just for rising economic inequality but also for political dysfunction.

People who disagree with these thinkers say that any alternative to “meritocracy” will make mediocrity the norm and excellence irrelevant.

A recent battle in the war on merit took place at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax, Virginia, when a large group…




J. Pharoah Doss is a columnist for the New Pittsburgh Courier.