The Delusion of Meritocracy and the Culture of Entitlement

Entitlement. It’s really that simple.

Posted Mar 21, 2019

Most Americans have started wizening up to the fact that meritocracy has largely disappeared from the elite college admissions game.  It has instead devolved into a shell game of expensive test preparation, five-figure college “counselors”, legacy admissions, and dodgy machinations to gain accommodations on standardized testing.   Elite universities represent a version of a private club designed to generate access, protect privilege, and maintain existing hegemonies.

When I read about the “admission-gate” scandal, I read from multiple perspectives: as a university professor, as a psychologist, as a parent of college and high school age children, and as a person who writes about narcissism and entitlement.   The entire scandal reads like a Greek tragedy – hubris, downfall, villains, and fools.  But at its core – it is a study in entitlement, lack of empathy, grandiosity, greed, superficiality, admiration seeking, and arrogance (which is a long-winded way of saying “narcissism”).

Entitlement is at its core a toxic characteristic.  It is the assumption that a person deserves special treatment, is exempt from the rules, and should not be held to the same standards (behavioral or otherwise) as others.  Entitlement is generally synonymous with wealth and power and proliferates amongst those at the top of the hierarchy.  The rich indeed are different from you and me, and the parents at the core of this scandal really do believe their children are more valuable than my children and your children.  Sadly, narcissism and entitlement have also become a veritable playbook for success in the modern age. 

I have been a professor at a state university for the past 20 years, at a campus that largely serves first-generation college students.  Our students come from a range of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, and many have endured poverty, trauma, challenging family circumstances, and poorly resourced public schools.  There are no admissions coaches, legacy admissions, or the bells and whistles of a leafy Ivy League campus.  There ARE students who day after day - give it the proverbial college try (while also working full time).  Few have the assistance of parents who can help them with the admissions process. After reading the shenanigans of an entitled group of parents who viewed university admissions with the same stratagem as a country club membership, it’s pretty clear that our less glamorous state university was winning at the integrity game.

I do often reflect on what magical thing parents believe will happen if their children attend a Yale or a Harvard or a Stanford?  As a psychologist, I know that elite educations do not render a person immune from mental illness or bad marriages, nor are they guarantees of lifetime ease.  Do the parents want bragging rights? A great sweatshirt?  Vast riches?

And the real question is whether they really have their children’s well-being in their sights.  One pundit suggested that perhaps this was a case of “overparenting” – I respectfully disagree, this is a case of entitlement and hubris.

The competitive world of parenting, especially among the wealthy, connected and powerful means that parenting becomes a zero-sum game.  The loaded dice and the backbreaking competitiveness of the admissions process are yielding a generation of adolescents who are plagued with disturbingly high levels of anxiety, depressive symptomatology, wavering self-esteem, and an achievement orientation that allows no room for mistakes, circumspection, or authenticity.

The real losers in all of this are the entitled parents’ children. Entitlement is an inter-generational game – it gets passed down from one generation to the next like a pocket watch.  Their children will be sorting through the psychological wreckage for a long time.  They will have to unlearn their parents’ message. Some may unlearn it.  Many will just blame the world for their misfortunes and pass the legacy of entitlement forward to the next. Narcissistic and entitled parents are a gift that keeps on giving…

The normalization of narcissism and its more repugnant top notes such as entitlement have set a tone for our culture.  This scandal, though it names only 50 defendants, is a trope for what our world has become – education as a brand, and success at any cost.  However, there is one top note of optimism. Just as entitlement can be transmitted intergenerationally, so too can integrity.  We as parents can and must model honesty, integrity, and empathy.  We need to let our children and students succeed and stumble on their own terms.  “Integrity 101” may be the only final exam that anyone needs to pass.  It’s a tough sell in the era of narcissism.