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.

balance-154516_1280

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.

learning to labor

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.

3 Things: The Case for Idleness, Rooting for the Library over Audible, & Steps to Clear the Mind

From the pitfalls that can face a society that overvalues productivity and work for work’s sake to an undervalued resource in your public library to a mantra that can provide solace to an ever anxious society, here are three things keeping me interested:

171107

  • In Praise of Idleness: Bertrand Russell makes the argument for leisure
  • Audible & Library Audiobooks: Doesn’t the library also provide Audiobooks – for free?
  • BRFWA: Breathe. Relax. Feel. Watch. Accept. Simple instructions to lessening anxiety.

In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell

It never ceases to amaze me how relevant this piece is although it was written way back in 1932. Amid the rise in automation and the impact it will have on many jobs as well as murmurs in Scandinavia and elsewhere of universal basic income, Russell is so very prescient and just makes things so clear. In this essay, he challenges the traditional notion of ‘work for work’s sake’ and contends that more leisure rather than more work would make for a better society.

One of the more famous parts of this essay is an example concerning a factory that produces pins. The text is as follows,

Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?

Obviously this is an oversimplified example, but it brings up an interesting point. In our world where more and more tasks are becoming automated and we are easily able to produce things more efficiently and with less labor than ever before – what is the end result? How is it possible that we work more or less the same number of hours despite these increases in efficiency? Are we producing more than we need – and thus being wasteful, do we somehow need more than we used to, or as in the pin example are the more productive of us overworked in producing on behalf of the masses while others are underworked or unemployed?

bert2

Sure, you may say, but what then is the alternative?  Surely mass underemployment is as harmful or more harmful than the current state of affairs. Here, Russell is optimistic in terms of the capabilities and tendencies of the common man. He points out that the pleasures of the working urban population are mostly passive. People watch TV, watch sports, listen to music. In their leisure, people are recovering from their work. They are unwinding and attempting to undo or release the tension built up during the workday. There is less energy for active leisure, leisure in which we not just consume but also create. Russell creates an optimistic but inspiring picture of what he thinks could perhaps be possible,

In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving, however excellent his pictures may be. Young writers will not be obliged to draw attention to themselves by sensational pot-boilers, with a view to acquiring the economic independence needed for monumental works, for which, when the time at last comes, they will have lost the taste and capacity. Men who, in their professional work, have become interested in some phase of economics or government, will be able to develop their ideas without the academic detachment that makes the work of university economists often seem lacking in reality. Medical men will have the time to learn about the progress of medicine, teachers will not be exasperatedly struggling to teach by routine methods things which they learnt in their youth, which may, in the interval, have been proved to be untrue.

He points out that historically, most of the great advances in society and thought have been made by men of leisure. From the great Greek philosophers to English poets to the men of science – these were not day laborers that pursued their interests in the evenings or on weekends. They did not draw a regular salary from the large corporations of their era. Many of them were financially independent by one means or another. They were men (or perhaps women, but for reasons let’s not go into here mostly men) of leisure that had the time to fully explore their intellectual curiosity. Bertrand argues that such freedom should be afforded to all.

Full text here.


Audible and Library Audiobooks

Audible, if you haven’t already heard of it, is an Amazon owned subscription service that allows access to audiobooks for a monthly subscription fee. There are various subscription options but one of the more common and basic packages allows for 1 audiobook a month in exchange for a monthly payment of $14.95. You can keep the books forever, even after you cancel. It’s not a bad deal, especially considering the usual prices of audiobooks (very high to ridiculously high – easily $30+ per book) and if you are a regular listener. A few years ago, I bought a 6 month gift subscription for my dad. He enjoyed it, it worked well, there were a lot of options in terms of books – no complaints.

However, I now work at a public library. Within my public library system (Metropolitan Library System – Oklahoma City), you can check out almost any title as an audiobook – the majority of these are also available as an eAudiobook (as opposed to CD versions or audiobooks preloaded onto rentable audio devices). In my library system, you can rent up to 100 items at a time (as opposed to 1 a month). Yes, sometimes there’s a wait, but there’s also a supplementary streaming service called Hoopla that also carries thousands of eAudiobooks where there is never a wait and you are allowed 4 materials a month (still more than the 1 allowed by Audible’s basic package).

No, you can’t keep the audiobook forever, but you can check it out again and again. And to me at least, while I can understand the appeal of owning a physical book and being able to write in the margins and arrange it on your bookshelf and whatnot, the appeal of owning an audiobook is to me less obvious, and especially so for eAudiobooks.

Here in Oklahoma City, I’ve seen a lot of advertising recently for Audible, and it just makes me cringe. Theoretically, because of what our library system is able to offer, Audible probably shouldn’t do that well here…but it probably will because people don’t know what the library has to offer. I think a large part of your customer base for Audible is probably your young professional – the age group libraries sometimes struggle to attract.

So, the takeaway here is – as a customer, check and see what your library has. And libraries need to do a much, much better job in marketing themselves.


BRFWA

Breathe, Relax, Feel, Watch, Accept. I first encountered this set of instructions through the book Magical Journey: An Apprenticeship in Contentment, but it’s actually a well known technique from the Kripalu style of yoga. Used to clear the mind when one is frustrated and anxious, it’s a useful tonic that has done me wonders. From when I’m lying awake in bed frustrated at myself and the world for not being able to simply fall asleep to when I find myself tense and irritated at a customer in the library who is letting her children run wild and systematically wreck havoc shelf to shelf, this process helps.

Sometimes feelings emerge, uninvited, that disturb us. Sometimes you can’t logically think your way out of a feeling. It is just there. Being frustrated at the feeling breeds more frustration and magnifies the sense of discomfort. The feelings are often there for a reason and are our reaction to something. The feeling is an indication that something is off and uncomfortable. Sometimes, we are able to react based off of those feelings. Confronted with a betrayal by a close friend, anger and disappointment alert us to reconsider the friendship and to exit a potentially dangerous relationship. Other times, there is nothing to be done and the feeling is just there, unpleasant and simmering.

In these cases where there is nothing to be done, frustration directed at the feeling itself and general unfocused anxiety can emerge. But frustration at the feeling, at the situation, at ourselves isn’t helpful. In these cases, BRFWA can be helpful.

  • Breathe – Take pause, take a deep breath, and clear the head
  • Relax – Enjoy the end of the breath and the physical exhale
  • Feel – Allow yourself to feel, however painfully, whatever it is that you’re feeling without fighting or trying to suppress the feelings
  • Watch – Observe whatever it is that you are feeling. Take note of it. Take note of how you are reacting to these feelings.
  • Accept – Accept it all. The feeling is just a feeling, and it’s okay to have all sorts of feelings, even the negative.

In the case of being frustrated at my insomnia, this means inhaling and exhaling deeply (Breathe & Relax), allowing myself to feel all my frustration and anger and unhappiness at the insomnia (Feel), noticing and taking stock of all these feelings (Watch), and then simply accepting that today, I am unable to sleep and I am frustrated at the fact (Accept). When the mind stops fighting, it’s often then easier to sleep.

swirl

Three Things : City Design for Humans, Book Fights, & Oh So Many Questions – November 6th

From reimagining urban planning to book fights to a book that only gives questions and no answers, here are three things keeping me interested:3

  • Book Fight!: A funny and witty podcast filled with book talk, author talk, and lots of good banter
  • Jan Gehl & The Human Scale: A documentary & TED Talk that challenge us to consider how our cities can better cater to the human scale
  • Gold Fools by Gilbert Sorrentino: Is this really a book written in nothing but questions?

1) Book Fight! Podcast

This podcast is actually one of the regular highlights of my week. Mike Ingram and Tom McAllister are smart, not always so tasteful, but always very funny.

There’s an iTunes review that says “Listening to Tom and Mike feels like eavesdropping on the most interesting conversation at a party,” and it’s certainly true. They cover the gamut, from highbrow classics to popular, trending literature to the obscure and weird. They’re self-deprecating, witty, and there’s such a great rapport between them that it’s hard to stop listening.

Recent podcasts cover Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Patrician Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, and (among the more obscure of the bunch) “Uggs for Gaza” by Gordon Haber. Along with the book talk, other literary or not so literary themes discussed (that change with the season) include millennials and how they’re portrayed by the media and the affairs and romances of authors.

And as well as being entertaining, it is important to also point out that the conversations are thought-provoking, deep, and ask and attempt to answer interesting and challenging questions. Highly recommended for lovers of reading, writing, or books that are looking for something both intellectually stimulating but also light-hearted and entertaining.

bookfight


2. Jan Gehl & The Human Scale

There’s both a TED Talk and a documentary linked to here which explore Danish architect Jan Gehl’s ideas on urban planning, most specifically the human scale. According to Gehl, older cities (those which were built largely before the 1960s) were composed of two elements: the street (built back then primarily for walking) and the square (built as an area of public space and for the human eye). These older cities were built with the needs of the human body in mind: the speed at which a person would walk, the distances that would need to be covered on foot, what they would smell and hear and see.

Human ScaleWith the 1960s came intense population growth from agrarian communities into the cities as well as the rise of the automobile. These two factors together contributed towards rapid city construction that was heavily catered towards the needs of the automobile. Newer cities were designed to be navigated within at vehicle speeds of 60km/hr, rather than pedestrian speeds of 5km/hr. Distances between home and work and shopping became greater. In addition to the distances alone becoming prohibitive to walking, the stretches between destinations became barren of activity and life. In stark contrast to the vibrant squares, plazas, and public spaces of older European cities were born the empty in-between spaces of suburban America.

The impact of this shift in the design of cities has been enormous. Gehl mentions that the three main factors essential towards good human health are: Fresh Air, Exercise, and Meeting other people.

Newer cities make it much more challenging for people to achieve these three factors. Gehl’s research has shown that the way public spaces are designed significantly impact public behavior. What happens when a neighborhood meeting corner or public space disappears? People meet less. And what happens when streets are pedestrianized and more public spaces are created? People fill those spaces.

When cities are out of touch with the human-scale, they are not serving the needs of its people. People are less able to fully interact with the city. Cars and traffic can stifle or suffocate a city. People aren’t able to walk, to discover. With less walking and public areas come less spontaneous human interaction. People are more isolated and alone and are meeting others less often.

Gehl asks, how is it that despite the fact that humans have maintained the same size, proportions, and basic needs over the past hundreds of years –  in the past fifty, our cities have ballooned to seemingly meet creatures the size of – dinosaurs? Fascinating food for thought.


3. Gold Fools by Gilbert Sorrentino

gold fools

How is it possible than an entire book is composed of nothing but interrogative sentences? Would it even have a plot? Would it make sense? Might it, maybe, even be captivating? Might somehow the questions invite you to participate with the book and the reading experience in a way is entirely new and novel?

Yes, this is a book that is written entirely in questions. It’s a Western adventure novel and it somehow manages to get away without a single declarative sentence. I am a sucker for books that challenge conventions. And I am just so pleased that something like this exists, and I revel in the fact that it is actually, a very readable and enjoyable book. It has a plot and character development and all the familiar trappings, but somehow Sorrentino was genius enough to first dream up the idea of a book of nothing but questions – and then execute it. And it’s pretty good.

Link to Gold Fools goodreads page.