It is instructive to consider the history of this system we have in place today. The following text is by Thomas Jefferson, written in 1782 in the context of a bill on education in his state:
The bill [on Education in the Revised Code of Virginia] proposes to lay off every county into small districts of five or six miles square, called hundreds, and in each of them to establish a school for teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. The tutor to be supported by the hundred, and every person in it entitled to send their children three years gratis, and as much longer as they please, paying for it. These schools to be under a visitor who is annually to choose the boy of best genius in the school, of those whose parents are too poor to give them further education, and to send him forward to one of the grammar schools, of which twenty are proposed to be erected in different parts of the country, for teaching Greek, Latin, geography, and the higher branches of numerical arithmetic. Of the boys thus sent in any one year, trial is to be made at the grammar schools one or two years, and the best genius of the whole selected, and continued six years, and the residue dismissed. By this means twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually, and be instructed at the public expense, so far as the grammar schools go. At the end of six years instruction, one half are to be discontinued (from among whom the grammar schools will probably be supplied with future masters) : and the other half, who are to be chosen for the superiority of their parts and disposition, are to be sent and continued three years in the study of such sciences as they shall choose, at William and Mary College. ... The ultimate result of the whole scheme of education would be the teaching all the children of the State reading, writing, and common arithmetic; turning out ten annually of superior genius, well taught in Greek. Latin, geography, and the higher branches of arithmetic; turning out ten others annually, of still superior parts, who. to those branches of learning, shall have added such branches of the sciences as their genius shall have led them to; the further furnishing to the wealthier part of the people convenient schools at which their children may be educated at their own expense.
From: Notes On Virginia. viii, 388. Ford Ed., iii, 251. (1782.), as quoted in The Jefferson Cyclopedia, a comprehensive collection of the views of Thomas Jefferson, Ed. John P. Foley, Funk and Wagnalls Company, New York, 1900, page 275.
Interesting, is it not? I don't know to what extent these ideas were implemented in the form advocated, but the idea of progressive levels of education, with each successive level being increasingly more selective, is certainly still with us.
Jefferson's phrase referring to geniuses "raked from the rubbish" rankles, but it plainly points out an uncomfortable truth about our present system, particularly in the context of higher education: that it is a meritocracy.
It is certainly a point of pride for faculty and for academic institutions that they can identify, recruit, and cultivate "geniuses." But should we not also be mindful of what it really means (both to the individuals in question, and to society as a whole) to discard the rest as "residue"? Even if we are forced to be selective due to resource constraints, could our society be better served if we cultivate a more inclusive perspective in academia?
These are not idle questions. They are at the very root of the debate about increasing diversity in undergraduate and graduate programs, and among the ranks of faculty.