Books

Meritocracy, Silicon Valley and Other Letters to the Editor

Unearned Credit

To the Editor:

In his book “The Tyranny of Merit,” Michael J. Sandel makes powerful points about how our culture fetishizes credentials, but Arlie Russell Hochschild’s review (Nov. 22) ultimately misses the central point.

I appreciate Sandel’s thesis from three perspectives (despite myself being overeducated with two graduate degrees I didn’t use). First, for decades I was an English teacher at independent schools, and some of my brightest students, many of them on financial aid, were aiming to be first-generation college students. Second, in retirement I now teach adults prepping for their high school equivalency tests, adults who are working hard academically on top of having family and job demands. These people often teach me more than I teach them. Finally, I have a friend who’s a retired machinist with only an eighth-grade education and, in the face of a nuclear holocaust, I would want to be on his island. He would keep me alive — plus we have argued over Donald Trump and remain friends.

But Hochschild misses Sandel’s point when, at the end of her review, she writes: “So now’s a good time for both sides to sit down for a very serious talk, with ‘The Tyranny of Merit’ required reading for all.” Why have a presumption that reading Sandel’s book — or any book — is necessary to have “a very serious talk”? Once, cozy in my overeducated world, I might have agreed. But my machinist friend would laugh at the suggestion, as now do I.

James Berkman
Boston

To the Editor:

Michael J. Sandel’s pessimistic assessment of this country is based on the assumption that all young people want to go to college and that those who don’t face a bleak future. But neither is true.

Freshman enrollment is down more than 16 percent from last year, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, and the top 25 percent of those with only a high school diploma earned more on average than the bottom 25 percent of college graduates, according to a new study from the Manhattan Institute.

In overlooking the many forms that meritocracy takes, Sandel perpetuates the myth that vocational education is a dead end.

Walt Gardner
Los Angeles

A Cut Above

To the Editor:

I am writing to express the highest praise for Virginia Heffernan’s review of Adrian Daub’s “What Tech Calls Thinking” (Nov. 22).

Rarely does a reviewer convey her opinion of a book’s strengths and weaknesses with such grace and acerbity. From Heffernan’s use of “aperçus” to the fitting conclusion regarding Daub’s elephant-in-the-room lack of attention to Silicon Valley’s approach to women in and out of its ranks, the review also conveys the pernicious self-delusions rampant in tech.

On a final and purely personal note, I would not like to find myself in a verbal knife fight in or out of a dark alley with Heffernan. I’d be bleeding from multiple wounds before I perceived the first touch.

Jeff Ross
Pasadena, Calif.

Holding Peace

To the Editor:

As an old white woman participating in a daily peaceful vigil since June for George Floyd and Black Lives Matter, I was fascinated by Michael P. Jeffries’s review (Nov. 15) of “The Dead Are Arising,” by Les Payne and Tamara Payne.

I cut out the last three paragraphs to keep reminding myself why I and a handful of new friends are continuing this vigil along Broadway in our white city.

Christfriede Larson
Portland, Ore.

Spine Turners

To the Editor:

As my bookshelves reveal, I too read Joy Williams in the Vintage Contemporaries paperbacks the way A. O. Scott mentions doing in his essay on Williams (Nov. 22). I too found that the series of wildly disparate titles felt curated just for me, as though by algorithm. And I was delighted to learn that I am not the only one who has retained them, perhaps out of some weird fetish. I routinely bought the books as they were released. The editor who chose these eclectic works understood me and the zeitgeist of the 1980s, and the graphic designer did too.

Leslie Miles
Bethesda, Md.

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