In 1958, British sociologist Michael Young published a very odd book, The Rise of the Meritocracy 1870-2033. It was wildly popular, largely on the strength of the word he invented – the word ‘meritocracy’, a combination of Latin and Greek that his friends said would never work. It did. The book sold millions of copies and was translated into several languages, including Japanese, even though the story really only makes sense in Britain and its Empire. The book imagined itself to have been written in 2033, as an essay describing the declining influence in the 19th century of the power of the aristocracy, substituted by the rise of a system that privileged individuals with intelligence.
The story resonates with the ideals expressed about the early universities in Australia. While they were expressions of high culture and the ideal education of the upper class gentleman, the founders of Australian universities – in particular William Charles Wentworth – expressed the ardent desire that those universities would ensure that students of talent, regardless of birth, race or religion (sometimes even gender) were given the opportunity the hone their intellectual skills in the universities. That this group of citizens might, in Wentworth’s view, form a new, Antipodean aristocracy reveals the tension embodied in the concept. This is what Michael Young’s book highlighted. Meritocracy was not only egalitarian, it defined a new source of legitimacy for ruling and, in the intelligensia, a new ruling class. Their education supplied the substance with which people would rule themselves, since birth no longer granted that right. Knowledge was the foundation for democracy, though not (in Young’s imagined future) for egalitarianism.