Adrian Wooldridge’s The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World (2021) is an excellent analysis of an ideology which he feels should be revered alongside conservatism, liberalism and socialism. He provides both the critique and defence of meritocracy, but ultimately gives it his full-throttled support.

The book also serves to underscore how exams and testing have long been integral to meritocracy.

One of the earliest real-world examples of meritocracy highlighted by Wooldridge can be found in pre-modern China’s civil service (hence the contemporary term ‘mandarin’!).  For centuries, people (or more specifically men) from across the Chinese empire – however humble their origins – could undertake an exam that would see them whisked up into a life of luxury as an official.  The exams were, however, gruelling – three days of exams every three hours, in one of 4,000 cells (including sleeping, using a chamber pot and eating food you’d brought with you) to prevent cheating.  This early Chinese meritocracy stemmed very firmly from Confucius.  Not just in the sense of Confucian ideals: knowledge being more important than armies for power, duty, noblesse oblige, and self-cultivation – but also that Confucius’ texts formed the entirety of the exams’ content.  Indeed, Wooldridge posits, the fact that the exam didn’t change for almost a millennium is what ultimately led to its downfall.

Wooldridge then moves on to the rise of meritocracy in the West – where Enlightenment thinkers and US revolutionaries began questioning the inheritance and purchase of jobs, suggesting that perhaps the best qualified person should secure the role. This sometimes involved exams too.  For some time, Wooldridge suggests, Oxbridge was a bit of a finishing school for aristocratic gentlemen to have a good time – but eventually dons and students alike began taking their studies more seriously, ranking students in the end-of-course tripos.  The French and British civil service also eventually introduced competitive examinations for roles. 

In the 20th century, the expansion of meritocracy began in earnest – with the introduction of grammar schools in the UK (and magnet schools in the US).  Rather than admit pupils based on where their parents lived, pupils undertook the 11-plus test – a test not without its flaws. 

Looking to the present day, Wooldridge suggests Singapore is the closest thing the world has to a fully fledged meritocracy. The Singaporean state is pretty explicit that its lack of natural resources and territory means that it is its population in which it must invest.  This leads to school results always near the top of the OECD rankings and high achieving students being given scholarships to US universities in exchange for the guarantee that they will work for the Singaporean government for a number of years.  It also, however, leads to high levels of stress and other mental health issues, and students worshipping (with varying degrees of sincerity) ‘the bell curve god’!

The Aristocracy of Talent does, as mentioned earlier, detail the main critiques of meritocracy: is it fairer to allocate prestige and reward on ability and propensity for effort, given some might argue these are as random or unearned as family wealth or sex or race?  Can merit truly be measured using examinations and tests?

On balance, Wooldridge argues, yes it is and you can.  Providing reward in exchange for people increasing their effort to hone their ability is a positive-sum game: people work hard for the incentive, and society as a whole benefits from the hard work and innovation.  Whilst exams are not infallible and some more advantaged students may have more support and coaching for exams, they are a fairer and more objective measurement than patronage and polish and can help to build a more meritocratic society.