“He’s cute and he went to Yale? You should go for it.” I’m outside a wine bar on a rare sunny afternoon in South London, listening to a friend recount his interest in a man he met at a friend’s house party. Good looking? Quite clearly, based on his Instagram pictures. Nice personality? And an Ivy League education? “I think you’ve found the complete package.”
We swipe right so fast, without realising this is unconscious classism. We’re conditioned to quickly size up people based on looks, wealth, and social status. This happens in a few seconds, especially in the urban, professional circles. It’s the nebulous, subtle aura of esteem that attaches itself to an elite education. We buy into the story that high-status academic brands mean intelligence and success – an important step in the ‘this is a valuable life’ trajectory. Education, house, marriage, and kids.
Daniel Markovits has coined meritocratic false promises – describing the myth of how our modern academic system doles out rewards to those who work hard, and that academic achievement is a good barometer for individual merit.
But how did we get here? Are we, as a society, responsible for upholding this narrative? Can we imagine a world without this pretense? Social scientists are fascinated in answering these questions. I believe that modern Western governments, including the EU, have played a major role in sustaining this connection, often to the detriment of societal cohesion.
The honeymoon is over
We think our story is different. That democratic systems are the gold-standard of societies.
When abuses on human rights come to light in countries with single-party or autocratic rules – Uighur concentration camps in China and the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar – many of us in the West assure ourselves that such things could never happen to us. That while dictators silence alternatives to their regimes (e.g. Putin’s treatment of Navalny), healthy democracies give them rights of assembly, press coverage, and shadow positions in government.
Today’s dictatorships are a new incarnation of royal houses, with current rulers selecting and grooming future leaders on the basis of proximity and status, favouring allies. Democracies, on the other hand, promise a landscape in which political and economic power can be won by talented people emerging from unexpected places. The nice guy can, and often does, win. Joe Biden, the US President, is a good example. Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania – a city whose mediocrity was enshrined for posterity when it was selected as the setting of the American version of The Office – Joe’s father was a used-car salesman.
This rags-to-riches story, where talent becomes fame, is perhaps the defining narrative of the individually-oriented culture of the West. It’s a favourite across all segments of the political spectrum.
Lloyd Blankfein, the former chief executive of Goldman Sachs, recalls a childhood memory. “When I went to school, I couldn’t go to the bathroom because I was afraid of getting knifed. I didn’t have air conditioning either.” But, we’re told, the talent of an individual will shine through any dirt that has been placed in its path. Justice, in its way, will be done.
It’s an idealistic narrative that we continue to romance.
Education, the ‘great equaliser’
Our modern-day meritocracy expresses itself through education. Most aspirants to wealth and power must walk down the singular path of elite higher education. Lloyd Blankfein ascended from the knife-scare bathrooms of his Brooklyn primary school to the quadrangles of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, before arriving at Goldman Sachs, by way of a top New York law firm.
Our meritocracy, in other words, is an educationocracy. According to Payscale, mid-career salaries of graduates of MIT, Stanford, and Harvard are around 33% higher than those of graduates of the University of Michigan (a highly-regarded public university) and more than 75% higher than those of graduates of a more average public university like SUNY New Paltz or UNLV.
Defenders of the educationocracy point to professions where more education is a clear driver of higher performance. Blogger and psychiatrist Scott Alexander writes:
The intuition behind meritocracy is this: if your life depends on a difficult surgery, would you prefer the hospital hire a surgeon who aced medical school, or a surgeon who had to complete remedial training to barely scrape by with a C-? If you prefer the former, you’re a meritocrat with respect to surgeons. Generalise a little, and you have the argument for being a meritocrat everywhere else.
It’s in the ‘generalising a little’ that problems arise. Is the coupling of education and performance as tight for, say, hedge fund managers as it is for surgeons? What about entrepreneurs or corporate lawyers? Does success in these professions depend on skills different to the ones that lead to academic success? Alexander himself makes the counterargument:
Ulysses Grant graduated in the bottom half of his West Point class, but turned out to be the only guy capable of matching General Lee and winning the Civil War after a bunch of superficially better-credentialed generals failed. If there’s a modern Grant with poor grades but excellent real-world fighting ability, are we confident our modern educationocracy will find him? Are we confident it will even try?
Let’s look at an example from the standard workplace. A group of researchers evaluated the performances of office workers on routine projects, scoring for technical skills, leadership, and quality of deliverables. There was a slight performance improvement of 1.9% for every 1,000-position difference in global university rankings. In other words, using Payscale’s data, this miniscule difference in performance would translate to a 96% difference in mid-career earnings.
The modern-day temples that are Harvard and Stanford, Oxford and Cambridge, École Normale Supérieure and École Polytechnique, have legitimacy only insofar as education is a marker for something our societies deem important. We need to break up with this notion.
Hopeless romantics for education
Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the EU Commission, proclaimed: “Education is at the heart of European societies. It’s essential for the personal fulfilment of each and every European.”
With messages being universally accepted that education is for ‘the greater good’, it stands to reason that the best education equals the highest virtue. That Yale love interest from earlier? His degree signifies his focus and perseverance, instead of seeking short-term pleasures. The parallels to religious virtue are noteworthy.
There are two problems with this shallow definition.
1. Biologically encoded factors
Fredrik deBoer argues in The Cult of Smart, contemporary discourse about education overlooks the clear fact that an individual’s genetic inheritance has a strong influence on their academic performance. The capricious nature of this inheritance (no one ‘earns’ their genes) deBoer argues is the real problem with our educationocracy. What is the moral justification for ascribing so much value to academic performance when one must be the benefactor of so much luck in order to excel?
2. Socioeconomic status
This one comes as no surprise. Daniel Markovits, in his book The Meritocracy Trap, summarises the problem.
“Today, middle-class children lose out to rich classmates at school, and middle-class adults lose out to elite graduates at work. Meritocracy blocks the middle-class from opportunity, then it blames those who lose a competition for income and status that, even when everyone plays by the rules, only the rich can win.”
In short, to succeed, children and young adults must work hard, showcase natural intellectual talent, and have an emotionally and financially supportive family. The perfect package. Think for a moment how many of your friends growing up had all these traits? Most likely, a rare few.
When we endow a successful student, say an Ivy League or ‘Oxbridge’ graduate with the idea of ‘merit’, we willfully ignore all the variables that were given to them, by chance. It may still be true that individual educational achievement signals that someone possesses the virtue of a good work ethic. But it’s also true that many people with equally strong work ethics will be taken out of the running for the educationocracy’s rewards because of factors beyond their control.
Proximity to success & safety nets
It’s time I introduce myself. I’m the product of two of the world’s global-brand-name academic institutions: Stanford and Oxford. Almost none of the people I went to high school with can say the same. Why? If I were to make billions and be interviewed in The Sunday Times, the narrative would undoubtedly centre my childhood love (bordering on obsession) with the public library or choosing studying over partying.
Sure, these details are real, but what will be intentionally left out of public discourse is my degree-holding parents (who encouraged me to do well in school) and my innate ability to perform well on standardised tests.
Neither of those were earned, nor are fair. I was born into it. See how my profile was already constructed, even as a teenager?
Michael Young, a British sociologist and politician, coined the term ‘meritocracy’ in a 1958 dystopian satire entitled The Rise of the Meritocracy. In it, Young imagines a society in which ‘merit’ has become the key organising factor for society, creating new classes of haves and have-nots (not unlike the hierarchies of inherited status and wealth or lack thereof). Much later in his life, Young was shocked to see ‘meritocracy’ extolled as a virtue by Tony Blair and the New Labour movement in the UK at the beginning of the 21st century.
Responding to this shift, Young wrote:
“Ability of a conventional kind, which used to be distributed between the classes more or less at random, has become much more highly concentrated by the engine of education. A social revolution has been accomplished by harnessing schools and universities to the task of sieving people according to education’s narrow band of values. It’s hard indeed in a society that makes so much merit to be judged as having none. No underclass has ever been left as morally naked as that.”
Young grasped a fundamental shift between the underclasses of the past and the one being created today. Previously, to live without social status or economic means signified only that one was born into a family without social status or economic means: a misfortune, not a moral verdict.
By contrast, those without social status or economic means today are stripped not only of opportunity, but of a sense of virtue. If the so-called meritocratic society offers up education as a means of advancement, those who are unable to advance must bear the blame for this failure.
The illusion needs to end. We’ve long been swooned by meritocracy’s pick up lines.
Meritocracy, stripped down
What can be done about this, when the world’s most esteemed institutions control this narrative? What is our role, as individuals, and those of EU policymakers and politicians? Meritocracy has a place in our societies, but it’s a much more constrained one than where it currently stands. It should be a supporting cast member, not a star.
We must first address the deification of formal education, its status as a moral virtue or as an end in itself. Formal education, as a broad concept in political platforms, must be dismantled before it can be rebuilt with a more just and useful substance.
Let’s take as an example the Porto Declaration at the Porto Social Summit, which was attended by EU leaders, European institutions, social partners, and civil society representatives. Point 8 of the Porto Declaration boldly states “We will put education and skills at the centre of our political action.” Yet the supporting Action Plan for the European Pillar of Social Rights makes it clear that the policies supporting this statement are by and large dedicated to the provision of specific training for the skills required by the new industries of the future, not general education per se.
So far, the Action Plan only attributes value to education as ‘initial education and training’ which provides a ‘strong foundation of basic and transversal skills’ that allow adults to upgrade with further training later in life to adapt to changing labour markets.
If the detailed policy document makes it clear that the objective is training, why does the Porto Declaration’s headline lead with education? The distinction is a subtle but critical one. ‘Training’ implies a specific end goal. In this case, workers aim to build or increase skills to keep up with the changing labour market and new technologies. Training is specific, practical, and a perfectly reasonable objective for policy.
‘Education’ on the other hand, is much more open-ended and many (perhaps most) pathways don’t propose a specific end goal. Lionising education as the ideal end goal in itself, separating education from training, is much murkier territory for policy. Primary and secondary education provide children with socialisation and life skills that are foundational for both the individual and for societal cohesion, yet what does formal (post-secondary) education confer when separated from training for a specific, skills-based profession? Often, not much beyond bolstering the attractiveness of a profile.
Education that’s faithful to all
We need to answer this: can post-secondary general education benefit society? Is there anything we, as a society, value more than making money? And could this be made universally-accessible through government support? This is where policy efforts need to be directed.
France is a useful case study. In April, Macron announced the closure of the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA). Created by Charles de Gaulle in 1945, ENA was founded with the purpose of expanding access to the upper ranks of the French civil service – each ministry of which had difficult examinations requiring a deep ministry-specific knowledge, therefore privileging insiders.
ENA was meant to fulfil a meritocratic ideal of offering places in a transparent way, based on exam scores alone, and then to offer successful applicants a broad grounding in the social sciences before sending them off to top posts in the civil service.
It sounds lovely, right? In practice, however, this system only reproduced existing power structures, with privileged (generally rich, generally white) applicants gaining places and went on to outsize influence in the civil service.
At the time the closure was announced, 70% of ENA’s most recent student intake had at least one parent in a senior role in business or government.
ENA’s successor will be a ‘Public Service Institute’, with a more diverse curriculum, a recruitment mechanism that will provide opportunities for more candidates from less-privileged levels of French society (and mark an end to the ‘job for life’ path that insulated ENA graduates from the need to prove their suitability for top roles).
Macron’s institute may well succeed for a time, as ENA did, in changing the profile of the civil service top brass. But is this change radical enough to be long-lasting? J’en doute.
All humans deserve love
If we wish to block the problems that challenge our modern meritocratic societies, the post-ENA model of diversification, of simply casting a wider socioeconomic net to create the elites of the future, won’t suffice. Love lives beyond the 5-10km radius of the elite.
We need a diversification that is deep-rooted, away from educationocracy itself.
We must transform ourselves from a monotheistic society, with academic achievement as the sole path to success into a polytheistic one, in which innumerate types of human talent can bring value to our communities.
The dawn of the automation age provides a golden opportunity for us to move toward a collective success story, for all. As automation makes further inroads into the domains of knowledge workers, we may see a renaissance for uniquely human gifts (like creativity, empathy, and spirituality) and a growth in their market value that is directly linked to their relative scarcity.
Meritocracy, for all its flaws, is here to stay. We now need to take a collective step back and observe what we’ve created. We must decide whether our education-centred system of meritocratic ascent truly discerns and rewards ‘the good’ as we would wish to define it.
We might just find that providing individuals with various paths to success is the way to navigate today’s problems.
To refresh the endless title chasing. To write a new ending.