The Impossibility of Meritocracy

In Paul Willis’s 1970s classic Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs, he ends with a series of recommendations, one of which is that as a society we must learn to “recognise the contradiction of a meritocratic society and educational system where the majority must lose but all are asked in some way to share in the same ideology.

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This is a powerful statement which I would like to work to unpack. A meritocratic society or meritocracy is one where an individual’s success and advancement are determined by one’s talents and abilities. Thus, the hardest working and the smartest can be successful and rise to the top. Which is all great – people should be rewarded according to their talents and efforts, right?

The only other element to consider though is that just as a meritocracy creates and propels winners, it also creates losers. A lot of losers.

And the dangerous thing about living in a society based on meritocratic principles is that it creates the illusion that poor outcomes are deserved. It encourages the judgement that an individual without strong prospects or with a poor educational track record is in their situation because of the choices they’ve made. The individual and their choices are largely to blame. The wealthy are wealthy because they deserve to be wealthy. And the poor are poor because they deserve to be poor.

But is a true meritocracy even possible? Alain de Botton in a TED talk states it well, ” I think it’s insane to believe that we will ever make a society that is genuinely meritocratic; it’s an impossible dream. The idea that we will make a society where literally everybody is graded, the good at the top, bad at the bottom, exactly done as it should be, is impossible. There are simply too many random factors: accidents, accidents of birth, accidents of things dropping on people’s heads, illnesses, etc. We will never get to grade them, never get to grade people as they should.” In a true meritocracy, one would have to account for one’s genes, one’s starting point in life, the quality of one’s teachers. We don’t, because we can’t.

Willis in his book tries to answer the questions, why is it that working class kids grow up to take on working class jobs and why is it that middle class kids grow up to take on middle class jobs? His answer more or less is that we live in a society that only purports to be meritocratic – but is actually far from it. In fact, Willis looks specifically at one of the institutions that should be a main engine and proponent of meritocracy, the educational system, and argues that in many ways our schools do the very opposite.

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The educational system is a true vehicle of growth and class movement for some. Some students from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds obtain good grades, get into good schools, and have successful careers, enabling them to reach middle class or even higher. However, as Willis states quite aptly,

“To the individual working class person, mobility in this society may mean something. Some working class individuals do ‘make it’ and any particular individual may hope to be one of them. To the class or group at its own proper level, however, mobility means nothing at all.

Although individuals from a lower socioeconomic class may find success, success for a few individuals does not equate to success for the wider class. In fact, in some ways the success of a few individuals of a lower socioeconomic class serves both to legitimize the existing system (as in “See, – it works!) and condemn those who have not succeeded (“See, like him, you could have ‘made it’ but you didn’t – and so it’s your fault”).

The middle class comfort themselves by believing that they got to where they are through hard work, good grades, and their own intelligence. Which they have – except they don’t perhaps consider where they would have gotten had they started from a position of lesser advantage. Or how much further they could have gotten had they started from a position of greater advantage.

And those that are worse off either accept the ideology of the meritocracy which in the worst cases, in the words of Alain de Botton, “leads to increased rates of suicide. There are more suicides in developed, individualistic countries than in any other part of the world. And some of the reason for that is that people take what happens to them extremely personally — they own their success, but they also own their failure.”

Or, as Paul Willis found in his work, when they don’t accept the ideology, it leads to a sense of alienation from society and a rejection of its values. Willis found this sense of unfairness to be a source of rebellion in the classroom, “The refusal to compete, implicit in the counter-school culture, is therefore in this sense a radical act: it refuses to collude in its own educational suppression.” But such rebellion can be, as Willis describes, a ‘self-damnation’ of sorts. In rejecting and refusing to participate in a system that they recognize as unfair and oppressive, they further cut themselves off from society and decrease their chances at success. It is a dangerous cycle and one that is difficult to escape or recover from.

The idea of meritocracy can be damning to the weakest in society. It can serve to provide a sense of personal failure (even in cases where luck or circumstance are more to blame) or to alienate them. On the other hand, the idea of meritocracy comforts those of us who are better off. It creates the illusion that we are where we are because we deserve it, and others don’t. A sense of unearned privilege can be uncomfortable. But earned privilege feels fair. It provides a certain sense of comfort and helps to quiet our sense of obligation to help others.

So let’s just not fool ourselves. We don’t and never will live in a meritocracy. Perhaps we deserve what we have, but perhaps we don’t.

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