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The illusion of “merit”

“She probably got in because of affirmative action. She doesn’t really deserve to go to Duke.”

I was sitting in class, working on an assignment with a fellow white student when she said that, pointing at a black classmate sitting across the room who was asking the teacher a question about our assignment. I’m glad nobody was around to take a picture of my face at that moment, because I’m sure I looked like a dumbstruck idiot, with my eyes wide and my jaw dropped.

It may sound shocking—and it certainly shocked me in that moment—but this line of thinking is alive and well at Duke. It’s whispered in classrooms, posted on anonymous social media apps and written in the pages of the Chronicle.

Of course, many of the people complaining about affirmative action are shockingly misinformed about its political history, forgetting, for example, that the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action have actually been white women, a history that is a powerful testament to the utility of these policies. They are also the type who conceptualize affirmative action as some sort of reparation for past wrongdoing, not recognizing the systemic yet sometimes hidden inequalities faced by people of color, including people of color at Duke, that call for such policies now. Indeed, when people argue that affirmative action “treats races unfairly,” they are, in effect, saying that removing this policy would result in an increase in white admission rates and a decrease in underrepresented minority admissions, an assumption that, if true, is itself a testament to the race-based social inequalities of our society.

The thing is, I’ve always found Duke students inexplicably obsessed with finding out why another person got in here. It’s as though we want to dichotomize people into the underserving Duke students—often underrepresented minorities and athletes—versus everyone else. As though that’s some sort of meaningful, useful distinction. But what does that even mean, to say that someone’s is or isn’t deserving of a Duke education?

Whenever the topic of affirmative action—or even college admissions more generally—comes up, the word "merit” is sure to follow. American society is obsessed with merit. We love to talk about our perceived meritocracy. Our favorite stories involve a hero who works hard and pulls himself up by his bootstraps, because many of us genuinely believe that it’s possible for anyone to do that.

The problem is that it’s never that simple, and the elite college admissions process is no exception.

Think back to the moment you got into Duke, and the days and weeks that followed. What thoughts went through your head? What did your family and friends tell you? Maybe your mom told you, “You deserve this” or “Your hard work is paying off.” Maybe your relatives called to say, “I always knew you would get in ‘cause you’re a special kid.” Maybe your friends screamed and jumped up and down excitedly with you, saying, “You’re gonna be the President/the person who cures cancer/in Forbes Magazine one day!”

I bet no one told you, “Aren’t you glad your parents were able to afford that fancy SAT prep course for you? You probably wouldn’t have gotten into Duke without it.” I bet no one thought to say, “Thank goodness that teacher took a special interest you and mentored you, because who knows where you’d be without her.” I’m sure no one thought to say, “I know you’re excited, but don’t forget that one of the most significant factors in your admissions decision was probably that your dad went here or that your mom donated a bunch of money to the school.”

But maybe they should have. It might have been more honest. Because, let’s face it, none of us got into Duke solely on our own merit. Indeed, to think we did would be quite self-important.

Yet, in our hyper-individualistic society, we enjoy thinking that each of our accomplishments was brought on 100% by our own efforts and talents. And, let’s be honest, it feels good. It’s nice to think that we’re special, and it’s particularly nice to think we’re more special than the person sitting next to us. We enjoy believing that we are the sole entity responsible for our accomplishments. It’s cognitively comfortable.

But it’s simply not true. It’s never true. It’s a dangerous, often ungrateful, line of thinking. There are always factors, or some confluence of factors, that allow us to get where we are and where we are going. Sure, we all work hard, but that’s not enough. It looks different for each person. Maybe the factors are obvious—you had enough money to afford a tutor when you needed one, or you got to attend a fancy private or charter school, or your family and friends knew how the college admissions process worked. Maybe they’re not so obvious—your parents spoke English and read to you when you were little, or you played the tuba and Duke’s marching band really needed a tuba player, or you were simply born in the United States or another industrialized country. Everyone’s situation is unique, but my point is this: the idea that college admissions can partition out different aspects of someone’s experience to look solely at “merit” is ludicrous.

None of this is to discount the accomplishments of my peers or of the —welcome!—Duke Class of 2019. We all worked hard. We made the right grades or had the highest test scores or joined the right clubs. We probably missed sleep or skipped out on time with friends to make that presentation perfect or to cram for the SAT. I know I did. That narrative is familiar to many of us here, and it’s very real. But it’s only one part of a larger story. None of our accomplishments exist in a vacuum.

So the next time you feel yourself starting to think, “I bet he or she only got in because of X,” stop and think. What were the factors outside of your control that allowed you to come to Duke? Before you decide that someone else is “unworthy” of their education, remind yourself that you too are indebted to others—be it your parents, your teachers from high school, or an admissions dean that really loved the essay you wrote. Maybe this means that no one technically deserves to be at Duke. Or that we all deserve to be here uniquely.

Katie Becker is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs every other Wednesday.

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