This article presents a discussion of meritocracy in U.S. higher education. Meritocracy is a system in which those who possess coveted talents, abilities, or superior intellectual capabilities attain high level, prestigious executive positions while those lacking these abilities are slated to the lower to middle ranks of society. Many experts argue that achievement based education is fundamental to a prospering democracy, while others argue that meritocracy only creates a new elitism leaving those without means or ability to remain dispossessed. An unequal playing field - the historical presence of racism, biases, and socioeconomic factors -- prevent a true meritocracy from coming to fruition. Controversial policies such as affirmative action have attempted to overcome such limitations with some success. As long as nepotism, cronyism, and privilege prominently exist in many higher education institutions, true meritocracy remains decidedly elusive. This essay provides an overview of meritocracy, gives contemporary examples of its use, and discusses some highly controversial or opposing views on the subject.
Keywords Affirmative action; Egalitarianism; Elitism; Equal Opportunity; Nepotism; Privilege; Situational Ethics; Social status; Standardized testing; SAT
In an educational context, meritocracy is defined as an institutionalized system in which advancement is based on talents, skills, and abilities rather than on tenure, seniority, nepotism, or other similar factors. Egalitarian by its very nature, a meritocracy ideally enables any qualified individual who demonstrates high intellect or ability to rise to a leadership or executive-level position regardless of his or her background, race, socioeconomic status, or gender. However unintended, meritocracy in practice creates its own stratified hierarchical system in which gifted, highly talented, or otherwise intellectually superior individuals form their own class excluding average or below-average performing individuals. In other words, instead of chasms that separate those born with birth rights from those born with no birth right, a meritocratic system separates those who demonstrate superior intellectual performance from those who do not (Horowitz, 2006, p. 283).
Starting in the mid-1940s in London, England, Michael Young, commonly referred to as the father of meritocracy in the realm of education, exposed the value of meritocracy and helped to create a public education system based on merit rather than birth order. His book The Rise of Meritocracy and published articles such as "Let Us Face the Future" helped to revolutionize the public education system and enable children of a range of backgrounds to attend school when they would not have been able to under the traditional system. This new way of thinking about education coincided nicely with post-World War II England, where an emerging economy demanded a greater number of skilled workers to rebuild and sustain a hard-hit but recovering nation (Horowitz, 2006, p. 283).
In the short-run, a public school system based on meritocracy did seem to produce a larger educated populace where a greater number of individuals could obtain skilled positions for which they received commensurate wages. Over time, merit based advancement rather than elitist entitlement became the norm in most post-World War II, Western-thinking nations. It continues to be the norm even today. However, Young and his contemporaries who originally postulated the benefits of meritocracy largely failed to foresee its long-term effects: creating a "haves-versus have-nots" pecking order based on aptitude equal to the stratified aristocratic system of yester year (Horowitz, 2006, p. 284).
Creating a hierarchical system based on merit also meant that an error-resistant measurement tool needed to be devised in order to properly determine a student's intellectual capacity. Thus came the advent and use of standardized testing to determine a student's general intelligence, areas of strengths and weaknesses, and potential to achieve. Envisioned by Henry Chauncey in 1948, standardized testing sought to accurately measure the cerebral abilities of students and to then properly place them along a stratified range from the lowest achievers up to the highest ones (Tellez, 2001, p. 248). Students who tested at the uppermost echelon would be slated to attend prestigious universities, which would in turn prepare them for a prominent career earning commensurate pay. Those who fell in the mid ranges on the scale would be led to a trade or low-level college career where they would learn skills appropriate for low-to middle-class lifestyles. Those individuals who performed at the lowest levels would largely be prevented from attending any type of higher education institution and could, at best, hope to eke out a living as a laborer or service worker (Tellez, 2001).
Standardized testing soon became synonymous with the SATs (Scholastic Aptitude Tests) that for decades have been the biggest determiner for acceptance into higher education institutions. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, use of SAT scores to determine college admissions occurred almost without question. Later on, voices of SAT critics started to increase in volume and number as more and more people such as professors, college graduates, teachers, social activists, and intellectuals began discussing the limits and ramifications of the SATs. Leaders of the African-American community argued that SATs were geared toward middle-class white students while professors and intellectuals argued that SATs gave no weight to talents such as creativity, leadership, and other non-measurable abilities of importance. Moreover, the great emphasis placed on scoring well on the SATs led to a "teaching to the test" practice in which students memorized by rote various facts and figures but were unable to use critical thinking and problem solving skills to gain a deeper understanding of concepts (Tellez, 2001, p. 258).
The history of meritocracy in education is rich with innate conflict. From a benevolent viewpoint, one sees well intentioned education leaders like Chauncey, Young, and their contemporaries such as William Turnbull who sought to create a more democratic system. This fair-handed system, they envisioned, would mean that anyone, regardless of their wealth or background, could get ahead. The days of the wealthy entitled few and the poor uneducated many, they argued, would soon be a thing of the past. Their assumption was that merit trumped birthright each and every time. Such a system, they felt, would raise the standard of living for those on the bottom giving them unprecedented opportunities. And while it is true that many from low income, previously underrepresented communities benefited under the new system, these policy and education leaders failed to understand that meritocracy would create its own anti-utopia caste system leaving many still disenfranchised (Tellez, 2001, p. 252).
Meritocracy: Theory vs. Reality
Meritocracy in both the secondary and post-secondary education systems largely reflects the socioeconomic consciousness of white middle-class ethos. A system structured on merits and abilities has become so normalized that it is rarely scrutinized or examined; it is usually taken for granted. College students from affluent, privileged backgrounds tend not to recognize their advantages over others, believing wholeheartedly in the virtues of a pure meritocratic system that some say in reality does not exist (Applebaum, 2005, p. 279). These students adopt a liberal position that emphasizes individual achievement and embraces antiracist attitudes. However ideological these views may sound, they often result in these students having little or no empathy or understanding of real racial and socioeconomic barriers that may prevent others from accomplishing their goals.
The colour-blind framework makes it more likely that white students will see the opportunity structure as open and institutions as impartial…. Such students often end up explaining inequality by either blaming the individual or his/her subordinate group and its cultural characteristics for the resultant lower economic and academic achievement (Applebaum, 2005, p. 285).
Under the guise of meritocracy, middle-class students can pretend real socioeconomic impediments do not exist making them hardened to those who cannot prosper or better themselves. Furthermore, such thinking distances these students from the role they themselves may play in the larger institutional and societal structures that are bias or class-specific (Applebaum, 2005).
Examples from the High School Level
IN 1958, the English sociologist Michael Young wrote a fable, The Rise of the Meritocracy. It purports to be a “manuscript,” written in the year 2033, which breaks off inconclusively for reasons the “narrator” failed to comprehend. The theme is the transformation of English society, by the turn of the 21st century, owing to the victory of the principle of achievement over that of ascription (i.e., the gaining of place by assignment or inheritance). For centuries, the elite positions in the society had been held by the children of the nobility on the hereditary principle of succession. But in the nature of modern society, “the rate of social progress depend[ed] on the degree to which power is matched with intelligence.” Britain could no longer afford a ruling class without the necessary technical skills. Through the successive school-reform acts, the principle of merit slowly became established. Each man had his place in the society on the basis of “I.Q. and Effort.” By 1990 or thereabouts, all adults with an I.Q. over 125 belonged to the meritocracy.