Meritocracy is a Joke

| February 18, 2018

The term “meritocracy” was coined by sociologist Michael Young in his 1958 satire, The Rise of Meritocracy. Pro-tip: he was satirizing meritocracy, and was not happy that his work led to the popularization of the idea as a positive political philosophy. (I’ve recently run across this history in Edward Luce’s book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism.)

I appreciate this perspective, and am coming to believe that the tension between the ideals of meritocracy and social justice in the U.S. has never been more pronounced (let’s say since WWII). With the education sector sitting right at the heart of this tension, what does it mean for our work at EdLab?

For one, it suggests we should be mindful of how educational tools can be used to widen the gap between the rich and the poor. With inequality in the U.S. reaching impressive (though controversial) heights, it’s hard not to imagine that America’s “bootstrapping myth” is less realistic than ever.luckpluck

It also suggests we have to be increasingly mindful of how education is positioned as instrumental for economic mobility—as compared to, say, an arena for curiosity. It’s easy to regard the latter as a elitist or privileged notion of education, but this uncharitable view could also be seen as a “view from inequality.” In other words, if economic goods were more equally distributed, there may be less pressure on education to lead to outcomes that were directly related to one’s economic status.

It’s fair to expect that in the coming years we’ll increasingly hear that education should serve the economic interests of Americans. While I agree in a narrow sense (that education should make every student more literate in regard to economics), in a broader sense, it’s a sad and self-defeating outcome of existing (and still rising) inequality. This instrumental view could be a dangerous dead-end for American education, rife with ceaseless testing, accountability measures, and narrowed (read: “low”) expectations. But one could object, “It’s time Americans get serious about educational outcomes to finally get ahead!”

51OUfdyq+PLThis seems plausible, but consider if it’s putting the cart before the horse: Inequality could be a political problem, not an educational one. This is an important view from a “social justice” perspective, albeit one more often (only?) held by “Leftist” politicians and academics (Robert Reich being one of my favorites—check out his recent book, Saving Capitalism).

What does education look like if we don’t align it with a meritocratic-friendly perspective? I suspect it looks a lot like good teaching, great schools, and serious fun. In other words, like what we already know “good” education to look like. The problem, on this view, isn’t that our educational tools are substandard, or that it’s increasingly unaffordable for the vast majority of Americans (and even less so for the majority of global citizens in an increasingly connected world). The problem would seem to be that America is a plutocracy that can’t figure out how—or why—to invest in education.

Maybe the revolution we need isn’t an “educational” one, but what if an educational revolution is the only kind we can bring about? That is a striking problem and opportunity.