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Meritocracy is under threat, but is that such a bad thing?

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As an ideology meritocracy is taking quite a beating at the moment. In the post Second World War years it promised to open opportunity for all and, for a while at least, seemed to work. 

The Baby Boomers, for the most part, wound up doing better in the game of life than their parents and grandparents.  The idea that reward should follow ability and effort was fair and just, offering society a good way forward after the disaster of the 1930s and earlier gross inequalities and unfairness of the Victorian era. So, most people bought into the meritocratic new deal. 

Upward mobility has become fantasy, and the embattled middle classes are now more likely to sink into the working poor than to rise into the professional elite

Now it is being attacked from all sides – both left and right. The most recent assault has come from Professor Daniel Markovits of the Yale Law School who has spent two decades researching his mighty 438 pager The Meritocracy Trap

“What if meritocracy is a sham?” writes Markovits. “Today meritocracy has become exactly what it was conceived to resist: a mechanism for the concentration and dynastic transmission of wealth and privilege across generations. 

“Upward mobility has become fantasy, and the embattled middle classes are now more likely to sink into the working poor than to rise into the professional elite. At the same time, meritocracy now ensnares even those who manage to claw their way to the top, requiring rich adults to work with crushing intensity, exploiting their expensive educations in order to extract a return. All this is not the result of deviations or retreats from meritocracy but rather stems directly from meritocracy’s successes.” 

This is, of course, a subject of very great interest to the very wealthy, who maybe don’t feel this crushing intensity of the daily grind but who have inherited wealth not through striving and talent but simply through the luck of their birth. Random luck as opposed to effort and ability is much on thinkers minds at the moment. 

Even entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg are said to have enjoyed more than their fair share of luck. There’s much to unpack here. But let’s start with the thorny issue of education. 

One of the principal criticisms is that meritocracy has failed to do very much in Europe or North America in the last few decades about social mobility. A widening Gini coefficient between the rich and poor is evidence of this.

In the US, the top fifth of households enjoyed a $4 trillion increase in pretax income between 1979 and 2013 – $1trillion more than came to all the rest. When increased access to higher education was introduced in the US and Britain, it was intended to be the great equaliser. 

But a couple of generations later, research suggests that higher education is now greatly stratified. Economists have found that many elite US universities – including Harvard, Brown, Dartmouth, Princeton, and Yale – take more students from the top 1% of the income distribution than from the bottom 60%. The privileged class in the US have become “dream hoarders”. 

They ascended to the top and pulled up the ladder behind them. A degree in media studies from Teesside University opens the door to not that much in 2020. A golf course management course might offer better prospects. Billionaire investor and Netscape creator Marc Andreessen has remarked that a degree in philosophy is a sure path, “to work in a shoe store”.

This is a highly sensitive subject. The haute bourgeoisie hate being accused of what the Brits term: “Bugger you, Jack, I’m all right” attitude. The problem is epitomised by that most contentious of subjects – elite UK university and specifically Oxford and Cambridge entrance. 

Britain’s Ivy League pair are seriously under the cosh at the moment and not just from those on the left in politics. Both main political parties have the two on warning that if they don’t get the percentage of poor and state schooled up then they will regret it. 

On the BBC interviewees often advocate kids from “disadvantaged” backgrounds should get in on 3 Bs at A level, the UK’s university entrance exams, where public school and fee-paying kids still have to get three-starred As to get at most a sniff and even then they may well be rejected. 

Middle-class parents seeth. They have often ponied up substantial six-figure sums to put their kids through public schooling (fees routinely rise by inflation plus 2% every year) in order to give them the leg up in life that an Oxford or Cambridge degreee undoubtedly brings. Positive discrimination of this sort makes them very cross.  

When I was nine years-old I was removed from a failing UK state school and put into a public school, ie., a fee-paying private establishment. It was intensely academic and even creamed off the most intelligent kids from a number of London municipal boroughs which paid their creme de la creme children’s fees. My father, a lawyer and first generation in his family to get O levels and then attend university, spent every penny of his disposable income on our school fees. My dad wasn’t going to trust to luck. 

At my new school, everything you did was marked and assessed and you competed directly against your peers whether in the classroom or on the sports field. There was a bit of team spirit in the latter but behind your desk, you were on your own and dog ate dog. 

At the end of each school year, all the marks each pupil had achieved for each subject were added together and you got a class position in that subject. Then on the final day of the Summer term after the marks had been passed through the slide rule – this was pre-computers – an overall class position for each child was established. Then the form master a man with a wide moustache and a volcanic temper called Barry Evans read out the class positions. Starting from the bottom.

Fifty years later I still recall the look on the face of the poor kid, Robert Warren, who came 26th out of 26. (He was Warren. Nobody – teachers or kids – ever used first names.) All the others, almost certainly including me,  laughed and jeered at him – making moron noises – doubtless hugely relieved we weren’t bottom of the Smart pile. How he didn’t burst into tears or thump someone I have no idea. A mild-mannered and rather likeable chap, he left the school to return to the US soon afterwards. 

I just hope he’s gone on to have a happy and fulfilled life. Maybe he’s a partner at Goldman Sachs with a delightful, devoted wife, five loving kids and an award-winning poodle. 

I doubt he wound up a steelworker in the US rust belt.  If you’re out there Warren, sorry, Robert – I apologise for such a shocking system.  But this I suppose was judged a properly meritocratic process. We were being sifted. Wheat and chaff separated.   

It seems intolerably harsh compared to the present when at my kid’s schools they have no idea who is placed where in the race of juvenile academic life because “all must be winners” and every child has something to offer. 

I think my children are kinder and more tolerant towards their peers – and those “below” their peer level – than I ever was. And possibly still remain.

One Comment

  1. This is very interesting – I am reading it from the point of view of the Golden Years of the Grammar School immediately after the war. The 11+ usually worked in those days – most children who “passed” it benefited from the academic education; I certainly did. My father was a really poor boy who was unable to take up the “scholarship” because books and uniform were unaffordable and it was necessary for him to leave school as early as possible to earn money for the family. Through a mixture of extraordinary events he did eventually “make good” and although not by any means really middle class he was thrilled that I was able to go to a good Grammar School – nobody, as far as I know, had special coaching in those days – and to have a daughter a school teacher was his greatest pride.

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