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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Ugly Flip Side of Meritocracy

(paraphrased) If you believe in meritocracy, then those with the potential and work hard will reach the top, and those who deserve to be at the bottom will be at the bottom. Failure within a goal of meritocracy is much more crushing...When we think about failure, what we fear is not so much loss of money. It is fear of the judgment and ridicule of others

Alain de Botton of the School of Life was talking about success and failure, but take his premise further, and he seems to be suggesting that an education system based on what he calls the beautiful, but crazy idea of meritocracy fundamentally damages society.

It used to be that a poor person was seen as unfortunate, today a poor person is called a loser... Meritocracy is a crazy idea. The idea does not take into account the effect of all sorts of random uncontrollable events. St. Augustine said, “It is a sin to judge any man by his post,” or into today's language, it is a sin to judge someone by their business card... It would be insane to call Hamlet a loser, though he has lost.

What kind of burden are we putting on our children if we indoctrinate them to the idea that each and every one them can “reach the top?” The motivation may be pure, but what of unintended consequences? For one thing, there simply are not enough slots at the top, and for another, it is a myth that we have total control of our own outcomes.

These days there are two kinds of self-help books. The first kind tells you you can do anything, the second kind tells you how to deal with low self-esteem. That tells you something.

Our schools have the exact same dichotomy. Teachers are always on the one hand promising success to every student, as expressed in the title of a literacy program, Success for All. On the other hand, and running on a parallel track are admonitions to prevent failure because of self-esteem. Many people have observed a lack of congruence between self-esteem and genuine achievement. The students might not be very good at whatever, but they sure feel great about themselves.

It is bad enough not getting what you want. It is worse to call what other people want you to want what you want and not get that.

Okay, let's try that sentence again. If you do not decide your own goals, but let other people, that is, society determine your goals, and then adopt those outwardly imposed goals as your own and fail, that failure is worse than failing at goals you independently assign yourself. How many of us have actually examined our so-called goals and dreams under the magnifying glass of self-knowledge? Do we even know what we want, or have we so internalized externally imposed dreams that we can no longer tell the difference?

No one wants to pigeon-hole children early on. Every parent wants their child to have access to every opportunity. Labeling is dangerous precisely because once the label has been affixed, it may very well become indelible. Do we work to create a system of true equal opportunity and let the chips fall as they may? The American ideal is to educate each child to their potential, but honestly, are we actually striving for the ideal? Or do we consider the Japanese view of meritocracy, to deliver the same education to each child, and let the child make of it what they will?

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