The Illusion of a Meritocracy

Education writer Estelle Shumann cites Harvard University English Professor Louis Menand on the two purposes served by college: “a meritocratic selection process, designed to identify the highest-performing cohort for advancement into demanding professional schools. Secondly: it embraces a more inclusionary, democratizing goal of training young people into ‘mainstream norms of taste and judgment, to make your citizenry more informed and responsive.’” ((Estelle Shumann, “Is Higher Education Still a Democratizing Force Today?Dissident Voice, 2 June 2012.))

There are two assertions presented here. One is that democracy exists. The second assertion is that a meritocracy exists. I will focus on the latter.

Just because people speak of a meritocracy as if it exists does not mean it does exist.

If people want to posit something exists, then they should provide evidence of its existence. A meritocracy patently does not exist in most societies, and this is obviously so in education.

Why do I say so? Some people will object saying that Kindergarten to grade 12 education is free for everyone, and that textbooks are supplied by the schools, and that everyone writes the same or similar tests which determine the grade each student merits. ((I will confine myself to education in Canada, specifically in the westernmost province that still carries the colonial designation of British Columbia (but this likeliest applies throughout Canada and the United States).))

This objection is stated as if there were a level playing field for all students. However, the educational playing field is not confined to the school. It extends to the homes of the students, the upbringing they receive at home, and the economic status of the home. Some of the discrepancies among homes and home life can be equalized, but others would be most difficult or impossible to equalize. If the playing field is unequal for students and the inequality of the playing field is uncorrected for, then a meritocracy within the educational system simply does not exist.

For example, imagine a student who comes from a broken home where one parent is unemployed and turns to alcohol addiction becoming abusive to the spouse and child. Would this not be a factor that likely would affect study and school performance? On this basis alone would it be fair to grade identically between the performance of the paradigmatic student with the performance of a child from a solid home and a supportive family background?

Let’s examine the effect that differing economic statuses of homes may have on educational performance. Will the child from a poor home — a home where books and magazines, even newspapers, are a luxury, a home without a computer or if there is a computer, then there is low speed or no internet service — be on an equal playing field for learning with a child whose home is filled with an extensive library, many computers with high-speed internet, microscopes, telescopes, chemistry sets, and access to top-notch tutors?

What about the child who sacrifices study time by working evenings and weekends to help make ends meet at home? There is experience and learning gained through work, but does it translate to high test scores at school?

The fact that there are some cases of children succeeding under impoverished circumstances and even attaining higher academic success than their privileged counterparts does not refute the importance of class and home environment.

These paradigms do exist, and few people would dispute this. Also, I submit that most people know that the playing field is not levelled for students to account for discrepancies that might affect educational performance.

Given that this is the situation, why then are students being graded under an inequality of conditions with the results claimed to reflect a meritocracy? Clearly, there is no meritocracy here.

Why do educators persist in the illusion of a meritocracy? I teach but under protest. I am against summative assessment, as it is called in educational jargon. Summative assessment is usually tests that purportedly determine the knowledge attained by a student at a given point in time. It is the system (sometimes with input from the teacher) that determines what knowledge the student must learn. Yet summative assessment is antithetical to learning.

What are the problems with summative assessment?

  • Well, so much for democracy. It stifles natural curiosity and creativity. Students must learn what the system decides they must learn.
  • It does not account adequately for the period that tested knowledge is retained. What is the purpose of the testing? Is it to encourage learning? What if summative assessment stymies learning?
  • It does not account for test-taking nervousness and how that impacts the performance of some test takers.
  • It is a system that favors competition over cooperation, even though cooperation has been demonstrated many times to be superior to competition and that includes for learning. ((See Alfie Kohn, “No Contest: A Case Against Competition,” New Age Journal, September/October 1986: 18-20.))

Nonetheless, admittance to universities is mainly based on high school grades that are based, in large part, on summative testing.

The argument presented here is that the educational system is not meritocratic, and even if all tilted playfields were correctly rebalanced for each student, the means for assessing performance within the education system are flawed.

What does this mean for attaining degrees from a so-called prestigious university? (Furthermore, one must ask: if egalitarianism is a desired and enlightened goal in society, then why are supposedly enlightened institutions of higher learning hierarchically organized? ((This is not actually the case in Canada at the undergraduate level, but it is the case in the United States, Britain, Japan, Korea, China, and elsewhere. Should a college degree bring prestige? Why should other qualifications or experience not be equally prestigious? For example, let’s consider the blue collar realm: why shouldn’t completing a four-year machinist apprenticeship, or four-year mechanics apprenticeship, or a four-year gas fitter apprenticeship be equally prestigious with a college degree? Knowing how to operate the machines and make the calculations to perform the tasks would be daunting for many college degree holders without training. )) Who is best positioned to benefit form a hierarchical university/college system?) This is not meant to disparage the educational qualifications attained by graduates from whatever learning institution. It is simply meant to put into a context what educational “achievement” means.

Educational “achievement” can be posited to reflect many things:

  • the (un)willingness of students to focus their study on education ministry-mandated goals for learning,
  • the (un)willingness of students to enter into competition with their peers,
  • the (un)willingness of students to focus on attaining high test scores over learning,
  • the composure of students during summative assessments,
  • the ability to demonstrate a certain level of learning (probably rote) at a specific period in time, and
  • the conditions that affect study outside the school environment.

The fact that conditions beyond the school environment highly influence a student’s performance destroys the illusion of meritocracy in the educational system, and that applies right through post-secondary education.

So let’s be honest and not talk about something non-existent as if it exists.

Kim Petersen is an independent writer. He can be emailed at: kimohp at Read other articles by Kim.