Education, inequality, Prose

What’s the merit in meritocracy?

What is the merit in meritocracy?

Meritocracy is a social system in which people reach positions of power based on their abilities – physical and mental abilities like health and intelligence, social abilities like leadership and people-skills, character traits like confidence, discipline, resilience.

And how does one get these abilities?

1. You’re born with them.

There is an amazing diversity in the basic template of humanity. These differences, whether we see them as gifts to be cherished and developed; or disabilities to be overcome and exceeded, they are ours in the lottery of life.

2. You grow and develop them.

And that is where the problem lies. Because growing and developing these abilities does not happen in a vacuum.

There’s the family which surrounds you, the schools you go to, the religion you believe in, the social, cultural, economic and political systems you exist in. In all of these systems of influence, you are to varying degrees powerless to make choices.

We can’t choose our families and the economic, social, linguistic, emotional capital that we inherit from them. And from this, our family background, cascades all the choices and opportunities we are either given or denied.

And for meritocracy to work, we need to either:

  • reduce the variance between family backgrounds


  • reduce the effect of family background as a predictor of outcomes for a child.

And this can only begin if:

  1. we acknowledge the deep divisions and wide variations in family backgrounds that exist,
  2. empower our systems of human development – our schools and workplaces – to address divisions, rather than intensify them,
  3. we address the root causes for the variations in family background – the economic and social inequalities in our country.

Until that happens, until we strip inequality of its disguise of meritocracy, we will continue to argue in circles, continue to gnash our teeth at the sad stories of wasted lives.

Until that happens, meritocracy will continue to be, for both the privileged and powerless, the easy excuse for injustice of inequality.

Note: I’ve written this based on my experiences as a student in average, “non-elite” schools and as an English teacher in a “neighbourhood” junior college, “neighbourhood” secondary school and a specialised independent school. All thoughts expressed here are my own, comments are welcome.

Sophie swing

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