twilight of the elites

I won Christopher Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites as a Goodreads First Reads giveaway a few weeks before its publication on June 12. My copy has about forty pages less than the official hardcover copies are advertised to have. The “acknowledgements” section is blank, so hopefully that’s all I’m missing!

I was always a good student. For the most part I enjoyed school, loved reading and learning, and excelled at projects. When I was in middle school, I took the social studies and language arts sections of a standardized test (one of the Iowa tests, if I remember correctly) on a day I was really sick. I wasn’t allowed to make it up a different time, so I was forced to take it that day, when my brain was in a fog and I could hardly focus, and predictably, I didn’t perform so well. Of course in the larger scheme of things, almost twenty years later, it has had little to no effect on my life and love for learning. But looking back, the test was clearly exaggerated to be this all-important, life-changing evaluation to decide your educational path until high school graduation. I ended up having to work a little harder to convince my guidance counselors to move me to the advanced courses, where I felt I belonged (and ultimately did end up after a few years). Even when I was younger, though, I thought it was weird that a test score would determine your position in school… especially when much of day-to-day learning involves projects and participatory discussions. My merit was judged on a number calculated by a one-time exam, in this case negatively influenced by a random, unavoidable illness, rather than who I am and how I perform as a student in the classroom. I’m not upset or complaining, because I had some fantastic teachers in my general level classes and learned a lot there too (not just coursework but also about social differences and diversity). I just found it curious how weighted our lives became on a test score.

Reading portions of Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites brought back those reflections of mine, starting with Hayes’ example of his own alma mater, Hunter High School in New York, and how admission to the school depends on a single merit-based test. Seems logical, right? Any child from any walk of life is welcome to take the test: score well enough, and you’re in. Equal opportunity. However children of wealthy families disproportionally dominate the classes. Why? Because their families can afford expensive prepping and tutoring. Because, as Hayes explains, equal opportunity does not result in equal outcome. People find ways to work around processes and bend rules in any and every facet of our social, economic, and political life.

Hayes breaks down how various dysfunctions in several American institutions have buckled under the weight of corruption. The accounts of Enron’s collapse, José Canseco’s “juicing” and the widespread use of steroids in major league baseball, the handling of child abuse accusations in the Catholic Church, and the burst of the housing market bubble were all fascinating and well-articulated examples. He discusses how these implosions have caused a crisis in trust in these institutions, and examines the relationship between authority and trust in detail. The “elites” in his title are defined as a small, powerful group of well-connected people who use either money, platform, and networking to stay at the top. Their control over institutions such as media and the government can skew reliability and competency.

Twilight of the Elites doesn’t necessarily offer a definitive a solution or alternative to meritocracy, however Hayes does say equal opportunity must be more closely in line with equal outcomes. The book lays out in writing deeper reasons for the our collective restlessness and the growing distance between our socioeconomic classes. While Hayes does disclose his liberal political leanings, he does not preach—the book’s tone avoids any sort of finger-pointing partisanship. It’s an informative, accessible read with Hayes’ voice clear throughout. A thought-provoking perspective on the “fail decade” and this post-bailout era.

Read from May 24 to June 1, 2012.