This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for a long time; in fact it’s one of the reasons I started this blog. But I’ve had a hard time bringing myself to write it, for reasons that will probably become apparent.
The most cherished ideal of the modern Western school system is that it’s a meritocracy. Students are rewarded according to ability, or not according to their lack thereof. So the story goes.
Meritocracy is very important to schools. Meritocracy guarantees the fairness of schools: people are rewarded or not according to their demonstrated abilities, not their status in society or their personal connections or their beauty or what have you.
Meritocracy in education also guarantees the fairness of society. The idea that schools fairly reward ability and hard work is necessary for the belief that society as a whole fairly rewards ability and hard work, that a person’s position in society is a fair expression of what they deserve.
It’s also important to the idea that society is a democracy. Only if anyone can succeed by virtue of their ability and hard work can we confidently say that society is properly democratic and not an aristocracy in disguise.
So if meritocracy in schools is a myth, then society as a whole suffers a loss of legitimacy.
What would it mean to say that scholastic meritocracy is a myth? One very common sense of the word “myth” is that of a story that is simply untrue because it involves made-up, fantastical elements. In this sense, scholastic meritocracy would be a myth if it turned out that teachers are all biased and that success in school has very little to do with the skills and abilities that one demonstrates.
Research into teaching and learning does show that teachers sometimes have biases, including some very powerful unconscious (and often unintentional) biases with regards to the class, race, and gender of their students. However, as serious and important as these biases are, I don’t think they constitute a radical problem with schools in, say, Canada. That is, these biases don’t go to the roots of the school system as such. They could be eliminated and schools would still function; in fact schools would function better.
There are other more structural biases built in to the system, such as the tendency of schools to have more or fewer resources depending on the affluence or poverty of the families whose students they come from. This gets a little closer to being a radical problem, since fixing it would require a strong political will of the kind that has been all too lacking in Canada over the past generation.
Going one step further, we confront the problem of unequal cultural capital. “Cultural capital” is a concept made famous by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and used to describe the practical skills or know-how that a person needs to gain advantage in a particular cultural setting.
With respect to public school education, cultural capital includes skills like being able to sit still and follow directions; being able to read and digest abstract material – that is, material that has no bearing on one’s own day-to-day life; and being able to judge when and how it’s okay to ask for help, to assert one’s opinion in an argument, or to exercise one’s personal creativity. In universities, cultural capital includes skills like being able to form and criticize abstract arguments; being able to write essays or carry out laboratory experiments with minimal direction; being able to assimilate the complex rules presented in university calendars; and being able to challenge instructors or appeal a bad grade successfully.
Research shows that students’ cultural capital, from young childhood through to the university-going ages, is strongly linked to the socioeconomic status of their parents, and provides a significant advantage in achieving good grades. In this way, among others, high-status parents pass on their social privilege to their children.
I’ve been one of the lucky ones, that way. In my house, growing up I was surrounded by attractive, inviting (and no doubt somewhat expensive) books about astronomy, biology, and history. My parents were not intimidated by schoolteachers and had no trouble advocating for my well-being. I was enrolled as a matter of course in piano lessons, the debating club, the math club, for which I got to go on optional school trips. I learned to feel at home in the world of school. I had a mother who daily trained me in the value of self-motivated hard work, and a father who modeled for me the kind of casual arrogance that often gets taken for confidence and, in, turn, for ability. In short, I learned – without being particularly aware of it – a whole range of embodied and cognitive skills and dispositions that made school relatively comfortable and accessible for me.
When I teach my university classes, I’m very struck by the unequal levels of skill that students bring into the classroom. Some of them know how to structure an essay and can creatively restructure their writing to suit different disciplines and different instructors. Some of them can write in clear, grammatically correct prose with the occasional rhetorical flourish. Some of them read and analyze abstract material. Some of them have the confidence and skill to ask questions or debate the instructor, in ways that I find engaging rather than off-putting. Some of them know how to use the card catalogue and the more obscure journal article databases to find material that supports the arguments they make in their papers. And so on.
I try to teach some of these skills in the classroom. But mostly students come in with these skills already developed at some earlier point in their lives — or not. The students who have skills tend to learn the most, develop their skills further the most. The students whose skills are the weakest, who have the most to learn, are discouraged by bad grades from learning more.
Despite my best efforts, education in my classes seems to follow the principle declared in Matthew 13:12: “For whosoever has, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever has not, from him shall be taken away even what he has.”
Through this process, students translate their cultural capital — their practical knowledge of how to operate in cultural settings, in this case the university — into symbolic capital — the accreditation of a degree, good grades, scholarships and the like. And since their cultural capital derives in part from their parents’ economic capital, and they use their education to achieve economic success for themselves, the whole process can be understood as a cycle in which families reproduce their economic capital from one generation to the next. Not perfectly, but on the whole pretty effectively.
Roland Barthes defined a myth as a representation of an event which conceals the actual processes that generated that event. When we see the outcome without seeing the processes that generated the outcome, we are left to speculate as to how that thing came to be, and our answers are unlikely to have much to do with the actual history.
Meritocracy seems to me to be a myth in this sense. We see students achieving unequal outcomes from a supposedly fair educational process. We speculate as to why this would be, and the simplest answer is: because they have unequal abilities. But where do these different abilities come from? To a substantial degree, the answer is: from their unequal social backgrounds.
What would schools look like if a student’s ability to succeed or fail depended entirely on factors internal to themselves? The short answer: they would look almost nothing like the schools we have now