Is Meritocracy Making Everyone Miserable?

By | 2019-09-23 | including 5 items |
In recent years, we have been focussed on two problems, social mobility and income inequality, and the place these issues appear to meet is higher education. That’s because education in the United States is supposed to be meritocratic. If the educational system is reproducing existing class and status hierarchies—if most of the benefits are going to students who are privileged already—then either meritocracy isn’t working properly or it wasn’t the right approach in the first place. Paul Tough, in “The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), thinks that the problem is a broken system. Daniel Markovits, in “The Meritocracy Trap” (Penguin Press), thinks that the whole idea was a terrible mistake. The term “meritocracy” was invented in the nineteen-fifties with a satirical intent that has now mostly been lost. “Merit” was originally defined as “I.Q. plus effort,” but it has evolved to stand for a somewhat ineffable combination of cognitive abilities, extracurricular talents, and socially valuable personal qualities, like leadership and civic-mindedness. Attributes extraneous to merit, such as gender, skin color, physical ableness, and family income, are not supposed to constrain the choice of educational pathways.