Sometimes said pejoratively, sometimes shocking in the frankness of its usage, meritocracy is on the minds of those of us at a place like Duke. Coined in a 1950s satire by sociologist Michael Young, the societal co-opting of this term with such verve and ubiquity almost makes me worry that perhaps it serves more to normalize undesirable societal outcomes than warn against them. But, regardless of the intentions of the creation of the word, our segment of society has come to highly value how achievements are earned and deserved.
While most of us can recognize that winning at the American meritocracy often requires a little something more than the formula of IQ + effort = merit, which Young sketched out in his book, Krzyzewskiville—or K-Ville—might be a closer match. For a combination of well-crammed basketball facts and the willingness to spend some of your days and more of your nights outside in a tent in the nebulous Durham elements, a place in Cameron’s student section come March 5th can be earned. And, as Duke serves as a microcosm of meritocracy in the United States, K-Ville serves as a microcosm of this system within our own university.
Sure, like any meritocracy, there exist undue advantages in K-Ville. The Community Editorial Board brought up a couple of these concerns in a recent article—social circle size and parental wealth. They opine that tenting is not a meritocracy. While we may be operating under different definitions of the term, if we cannot deem K-Ville a meritocracy, we certainly cannot call America or the college admissions system one—in other words, meritocracy is not synonymous with equitable in the context in which it is most used.
In addition, having the means to buy camping equipment and having the time to commit to tenting shifts clearly can play a role in who is able to participate in the tradition. One risks slipping grades and mystery illnesses by the lack of sleep and harsh conditions. If not clear pre-pandemic, health in general is a reflection of wealth and other social determinants. But, as was a problem in Young’s fictional 2033 meritocratic society, individuals from affluent families who do not meet the standards of the system are simply left to complain—although I doubt there will ever be an anti-tenting uprising.
A meritocracy relies upon “merit” to determine the winners and losers; what “merit” means is decided by the people creating the system. A “fair meritocracy” would hypothetically consider only effort and aptitude and eschew any forms of external advantage. Thus, in praxis, nothing would ever be considered a meritocracy. Advantage is intrinsic to meritocracy; minimizing its impact on outcomes should be the goal, rather than using the meritocratic buzzword to stymie further debate on unfair systems.
In the real world, for those in the upper financial echelons, there exist myriad ways of ensuring a compounding of advantage from birth, not to mention the back and side doors of college admissions. Sure, students could purchase general admission to the Duke-UNC game but, even if they do have a few thousand dollars to spare for a ticket, that doesn’t take away spots in the student section for those who wish to earn them.
Duke students are really good at ticking boxes. And K-Ville presents, as do many successful educational and career pathways in the American meritocracy, a clear set of instructions for achieving a desirable goal. Because we place so much importance upon attending our rivalry game at home, obtaining a spot in section 17 is something you can come to deserve if you follow all the steps. And there’s just enough left up to good ol’ luck to make it interesting.
Like the software engineer hopeful replacing their extracurriculars and relationships with LeetCode or the high school senior grinding out essay after essay come application season, K-Ville provides the perfect excuse to flake on extracurricular commitments, do poorly in classes and neglect physical and mental wellbeing. But having something, albeit something manufactured, to complain about is a cornerstone of any meritocracy worth its salt, and it provides a sense of struggle and sacrifice to serve as justification for success.
Perhaps K-Ville is just another way for Duke to better prepare its students for the outside world. After all, working so much that you are unable to enjoy the fruits of your labor is a common refrain in many of the popular career paths post graduation. I do think the factors of delayed gratification, having an exceptional sports team to root for and the general hype surrounding the program lead to a much more enjoyable experience for the casual observer, waiting a mere day or so in the walk-up line for normal games. But when the efforts outweigh the rewards by seemingly such a large margin, I do have to wonder whether it’s worth it.
A phenomenon like K-Ville, which emphasizes the effort part of the meritocratic equation, rather than aptitude or advantage, begs some difficult questions about what it means to deserve something, especially among the educationally elite. Is meritocracy the goal? If so, which elements are the most important? In my ideal meritocracy—which I hesitate to define—aptitude would hold the highest value, with effort constituting a large chunk as well, and advantage would seldom come into play. But that’s the kind of meritocracy which would benefit myself, and isn’t that always how these types of systems are made?
K-Ville puts effort at the forefront, with an initial baseline of basketball/Duke knowledge to obtain the privilege of expending said effort. Advantage does play a nontrivial role, but, compared to meritocracy in America at large, privilege as a factor in earning a spot in the student section is rather minimal. By colloquial definition, K-Ville is a meritocracy, and a better one than most. I wouldn’t consider it a perfect meritocracy and I don’t think that that is anything more than a thought experiment. But, compared to the implementations of meritocracy in the United States and world, K-Ville is a rather benign manifestation.
Heidi Smith is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays.
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