The myth of meritocracy

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

.grades-wallymetts-com

14 thoughts on “The myth of meritocracy

  1. Ideally the inequity of cultural capital would be corrected by the public school system, which would develop and implement programmes for making cultural-symbolic capital available to all. But that’s like saying that ideally, we should terraform Mars- I won’t hold my breath. In any case, nothing the schools can do in a necessarily brief and general course unit can match the one-on-one personal mentoring and coaching you get from parents or close relatives.

    FWIW in my experience there is also a difference of “habitus” that puts the post-secondary student of blue-collar origin at potential disadvantage, at least in some academic fields. For example, I observe that students from working-class backgrounds tend to be much more seriously-minded than those from intellectual and/or upper-class backgrounds. The guy with the blue-collar habitus (whatever his parent’s income level) will tend to put his $0.02 in a discussion only when he thinks he has something important to contribute, and above all when he thinks that what he says is true.

    Meanwhile, the upper-class/intellectual background guy (or the socially-ambitious middle-class wannabe) will constantly chatter and float all sorts of frivolous and superficially-held positions as both a form of wit and as a social affectation, i.e. in order to display and accumulate symbolic capital among peers (and even professors) who are playing the same game- a game in which the truth-value of what one says counts for exactly nothing. The working-class kid is at risk of either not understanding this game or rejecting it as loathesomely feckless, foolish, and irresponsible. The result of self-selecting himself out of this game is that he self-condemns himself to the status of an outsider- which isn’t going to help him make the friends he needs in order to succeed. In any case, rejecting the acquisition of cultural capital as a matter of principle is hardly conducive to overcoming an existing deficit of such capital.

    I blame this state of affairs on a bourgeois social order that after four centuries still hasn’t stamped out the aristocratic habitus and hasn’t abolished its cultural currency (if anything, the problem is growing worse as traditional bourgeois virtues of seriousness, sincerity, etc. are becoming extinct).

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    • As for solutions: I agree that’s difficult. As usual the problem breaks down into the question of what, if any, systemic solution is feasible and what individuals can do for themselves in the absence of systemic change, and whether there is any complementarity between the two types of solution.

      My social-democratic friends would enthusiastically endorse the idea that inequity of cultural capital should be corrected by the public school system through the development and implementation of programmes for making requisite cultural capital available to all. I’m not so convinced that this is nearly as far-fetched as terraforming Mars, but I acknowledge that it’s hard to imagine this happening in our age of cutbacks to public education.

      Still, I hope that demystifying the workings of cultural capital can help us begin thinking of constructive responses to it.

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  2. Regarding what you say about blue-collar habitus as a disadvantage: I have witnessed this myself and I’ve also seen research that describes this very thing in pretty much exactly the terms you use. So, yeah, I think you’re spot on there.

    Similar “fish out of water” effects tend also to kick in for persons of colour and for women (the latter, the more so the more “masculine” the field is defined as; I see it much more in my theory classes than in other courses, for instance).

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  5. I’ve been planning to write about this topic drawing largely on Richard Sennett’s critique of meritocracy, but I thought I should hurry up and comment on your post for now, because it will be a while before I have my own thoughts worked out in essay form. I found Sennett’s attack on meritocracy in comparison with a craftsmanship ethic in professionalism persuasive, because where a craftsman is attentive to the quality of workmanship to the point of welcoming critical feedback that has the potential to teach him how to improve his work, a professional who has internalized the meritocracy’s rhetoric that outcomes reflect innate personal potential will take criticism too personally, and be morbidly afraid of executing a “climb-down” if found out in an error.

    There is some appearance of success in the current education system at making upward mobility more feasible for people starting out at a lower level of socioeconomic status. By formalizing the standards of advancement, and imposing anti-discrimination laws on entrance requirements, they help create openings for at least some students to outmaneuver socioeconomic gatekeepers who prefer to reserve all favorable positions to people who have joined socio-political cliques. But the effectiveness of this system at reducing inter-generational disadvantage is, as you say, not necessarily as good as it could be.

    I especially like the way you identified the qualitative content of cultural capital that is needed for academic success:

    “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.”

    Other authors on labor skill-levels and technology transfer problems refer to similar gaps between the content of instructional materials and the skills that learners need to master as “tacit” knowledge instead of “cultural capital”. What isn’t tacit, they refer to as “codified” knowledge (e.g., the blueprints and instruction manual that come with your IKEA furniture). One author explains that if you want to build a cyclotron, you better get help from a technician who has worked in a laboratory that already has a working cyclotron, because even machines with seemingly black-and-white technical specifications will turn out to be “ticklish”.

    Sennett comes down hard on standardized tests like the SAT that privilege superficial facility with new information – the ability to pick up and use new words and work out mathematical formulas without substantive knowledge of the application in question. This may be a serious problem with the evaluation system that is easiest to standardize, because difficulty learning “tacit” skills on the fly would be quite a serious problem with making use of “codified” knowledge learned in preparation for applied science work. You could master the art of sounding clever while reading off the manual, and never get the damn cyclotron to work at all.

    Worse, if your sense of self-worth were tightly linked to the congratulations you received in school on your test scores in the meritocracy’s rhetorical tradition of legitimizing symbolic capital like advanced degrees, you would get deeply defensive about anyone who found your performance on the cyclotron inadequate, and insist that it was the machine’s fault, or someone else’s at any rate.

    “Meanwhile, the upper-class/intellectual background guy (or the socially-ambitious middle-class wannabe) will constantly chatter and float all sorts of frivolous and superficially-held positions as both a form of wit and as a social affectation, i.e. in order to display and accumulate symbolic capital among peers (and even professors) who are playing the same game- a game in which the truth-value of what one says counts for exactly nothing. The working-class kid is at risk of either not understanding this game or rejecting it as loathesomely feckless, foolish, and irresponsible.”

    I like this comment a lot too. Burnout in graduate school is something like switching from insider to outsider attitudes, and if you can’t stomach outsider professions, you buy back in after burning out, and stop caring one way or the other. Word games are easy to get offended by if they seem to be played for status and people are deliberately talking over your head in their word games to prove something. And when someone is trying to sound significantly cleverer than they actually are by playing word games with words they clearly don’t understand, one gets even more irritated with the whole thing, because it’s too hard to make up your mind whether to pity or despise them for arrogant the attempt at one-upmanship and the pathetically misplaced self-satisfaction they take when you can’t think of anything to say about their stupidity.

    And then there’s the new species of anti-rhetorical rhetoric in the U.S. that involves playing dumb to win an argument. Education-classism is now a highly partisan divide in this country, and people stumping for the blue-collar vote will stoop to astounding levels to display disdain for intellectual authority. The Fox news brand is playing weird games with this technique, where they elicit unpersuasive informative-style self-righteousness from their adversaries in debate by playing dumb in an unconvincing fashion, as if counting on their own audience’s stupidity, while their adversaries often bumble into the trap of patronizing Fox viewers for having presumably fallen for the ploy by virtue of being Fox viewers. It’s really odd to map out the use of rhetoric in these exchanges. One wonders how many people are following closely enough to be fooled by any given effect, beyond preferences for various tones of voice while channel-surfing, depending on their cultural disposition and mood.

    But another one of Sennett’s books goes into Montaigne’s writings on “everyday diplomacy” to take a more sympathetic look at word games, talking about how “indirection” (saying anything but to the purpose) can be quite helpful for avoiding deadlock when trying to carry on negotiations over a highly sensitive topic. It is not at all the same as “misdirection” – the intent is not to actually deceive, if you know how to practice civility in good faith, although of course a professional courtier may not make such distinctions, or may make them only as needed. The intent is to avoid using an “informative” conversational style, to avoid making pushy assertions, and convey a listening attitude, instead of trying to force the conversation in the direction of your own preconceived conclusions.

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    • I’ve been meaning to write a lengthy reply to this comment. Thanks for posting it! You say many interesting things, and you make me want to read Sennett. Unfortunately I’ve been snowed under with professional writing projects for the last few months and haven’t been keeping up with my blogging.

      But to pick just one of the points you raise: “Worse, if your sense of self-worth were tightly linked to the congratulations you received in school on your test scores in the meritocracy’s rhetorical tradition of legitimizing symbolic capital like advanced degrees, you would get deeply defensive about anyone who found your performance on the cyclotron inadequate, and insist that it was the machine’s fault, or someone else’s at any rate” – Yes, indeed. In this way a sociopolitically conservative defense of the status quo and a purely personal defensiveness about one’s worth as a human being are made identical by the symbolic violence invested in the socialization of elites. These isomorphisms between the functional requirements of a normative system and the what Parsons would call the need-dispositions of individuals fascinate me. It seems to me that the construction of a truly egalitarian society will have to involve similar macro-micro isomorphisms – but, in the case of an egalitarian society, will have to achieve these without recourse to violence, symbolic or otherwise.

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  6. The isomorphisms are going over my head. Can you give me the full name or a title for something from Parsons to follow up on? I have more time on my hands for blogging than you for the moment, and I’m curious, even if you don’t have time to elaborate much just now.

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    • Parsons’s key work is The Social System. It’s a tough read, and I disagree with key assumptions (esp. that society is a *normatively* ordered system) but you might find it interesting. I also write about isomorphism a bit in my book Barbaric Civilization, especially in chapter 4, which is the main theoretical chapter.

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  8. meritocracy is a myth because of combined effects of non merit factors such as inheritance and discrimination

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    • Yes, in a nutshell. The argument from cultural capital theory says that meritocracy would be a myth even without discrimination, because inheritance goes much deeper than most people recognize: it’s not just money (economic capital) that gets inherited, but cultural capital, the micro-level skills that facilitate educational success.

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