All hail meritocracy! It helps ensure that the most talented and hardworking among us are provided with the best opportunities. Seizing them, our meritocrats create innovations and social, political, cultural, and economic value.
So the story goes.
But I don’t buy it. I think meritocracy has helped increase, not decrease, inequality. And those who already enjoy advantaged positions use its logic to solidify their positions. In giving in to meritocracy, we have given up on another very American, and far more equitable idea: Opportunity.
In the 1950s Michael Young coined the term “meritocracy.” Young had been asked by England’s Labour Party to help institute and evaluate a new educational system meant to allow all young Britons the opportunity to acquire the best education, should they be able. Young soon became cynical of the kind of technocratic approach to human character that such an education seemed to promote. Struggling to think of a word to describe the new system, he played off “rule by the best” (aristos) or “rule by the people” (demos) and instead framed the new educational logic as establishing “rule by the cleverest people.” Young sought to damn what he saw as the cold scientization of ability and the bureaucratization of talent.
At its core, “meritocracy” is a form of social engineering, aimed at identifying the talents of members of society so that individuals can be selected for appropriate opportunities. Students should be very familiar with the idea: The SAT is a meritocratic instrument par excellence, evaluating particular mathematics, reading, writing, and vocabulary skills and using them as indicators of academic ability.
The move toward meritocracy has sought to de-collectivize formerly valued attributes and instead individualize new ones that are “innate.” Rather than accept students because they manifest a character that revealed good heritage, this new system guided colleges to look beyond the trappings of society and reward people’s inherent individual talents. The aim is admirable.
Unfortunately, the outcomes are anything but. Think about the SAT for a moment. Though meant to be a natural aptitude test, most Columbia students should know it is anything but. A billion-dollar industry exists to help those who are able to pay purchase higher scores (Kaplan, Princeton Review, etc.). If you can study to improve your scores on a test or pay someone to give you strategies to improve, it’s not a test of natural ability.
With “merit” we have tried to strip individuals of the old baggage of social ties and status and replaced them with personal attributes—hard work, discipline, native intelligence, and other forms of human capital that can be evaluated separately from the conditions of social life. The impact of the adoption of this approach has led to rather contradictory outcomes. It has undercut nepotism. It has been used to promote the opening of schools to talented members of society who previously were excluded. But it has also been used to question policies like affirmative action that take into account factors other than performance on select, biased technocratic instruments. It has been used to justify the increased wages of the already wealthy (as their skills are so valuable and irreplaceable). And it has obscured how outcomes are not simply a product of individual traits. This meritocracy of hard work and achievement has naturalized socially constituted distinctions, making differences in outcomes appear as a product of who people are rather than a product of their conditions.
This is the real tragedy of meritocracy. It helps make our massive inequality seem just. Why? The “winners” think they’ve won because of their merit, not their advantages. But this simply isn’t the case. Once fixed standards are constructed to demarcate “merit,” institutions adopt to find effective ways to meet those standards. Schools with superior funding use their resources to make their students more meritorious. Parents (rightfully and lovingly) invest in their children. But for wealthy parents, this means buying more chances for their children to meet the “objective” standards of merit.
And herein lies the danger. By buying into the vision of the world as a meritocracy, they see themselves as the engines of their own achievements, and by extension the disadvantaged as the source of their own failure. Unless we limit what parents can invest in their children, we can’t expect a meritocracy to create anything more than a more secure, immobile elite. And it will be a glib one at that, pointing to the many ways in which it is naturally better.
“Meritocracy” helps obscure durable inequality; it must be abandoned.
“So, Khan?” you might be thinking, “What’s better?” Another word, one not invented by a midcentury Briton, but older and nobler. We are not the “land of meritocracy” but instead that of opportunity.
Opportunity commits us to ensuring that all have the possibility to reach their potential. At its core it is about taking steps to ensure fairness. Join me in our new rallying cry: All hail Opportunity!
The author is an assistant professor of sociology.
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