Charles Petersen is a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies at Harvard University. As a 2019-20 National Fellow, Charles’ dream mentor was Elizabeth Blackmar, professor of history at Columbia University. In August 2020, Charles defended his dissertation titled, “Meritocracy in America, 1930-2000,” the first history of meritocracy as an idea and a practice in the United States, following which he will begin a postdoctoral fellowship in history as a Klarman Fellow in the Society of Fellows at Cornell University. He also works as a journalist and critic, writing for the New York Times, the Nation, and the New York Review of Books. Petersen has been an editor at n+1 magazine since 2007.
Meritocracy in America, 1930-2000
“Meritocracy in America, 1930-2000” is the first history of meritocracy as an idea and a practice in the United States. Despite its roots as an idea in the revolutionary period, and its growth as a practice in the nineteenth century, meritocracy as a social form—the determination of individual position through a rationality based in competition, universalism, and knowledge—remained limited into the 1930s. Through studies of institutions that took themselves to exemplify the “meritocracy” of early Silicon Valley (Stanford University, Fairchild Semiconductor), and studies of scholars who theorized the concept as well as movements that opposed it (Daniel Bell, the New Left, Black Power), I show how the white male “breadwinner liberalism” of the New Deal transitioned to a vision of a much more finely stratified hierarchy. Freedom, on this view, was not the elimination of fear (the “security” of the early New Deal), nor the return of laissez-faire (the dream of the conservative movement), but an anxious ascent, via knowledge-based competition, through structured institutions—a shift undergirded by a supposedly colorblind dichotomy between a “culture of poverty” and a “culture of meritocracy.” The second half of the project tracks the protean role meritocracy played in the burgeoning inequality of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, whether through the symbolic incorporation of race and gender in the discourse of diversity, the start-up culture of 1980s Silicon Valley, or the emergence of self-consciously “meritocratic” politicians like Jerry Brown and Bill Clinton.