The Meritocracy Myth
“I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops” -Steven Jay Gould
For all the rhetoric about equality of opportunity in our culture, there’s no escaping the fact that we are today still very much in a paradigm of privilege, i.e. inequality of opportunity.
Both wealth and poverty are statistically highly intergenerational; those born into privileged families have a much easier time making it to success than the underprivileged. There are, of course anecdotal outliers, and apologists for the status quo like to shine a spotlight on those outliers to distract from the statistical reality.
This is neither conspiracy theory nor an unfounded impassioned raving. It’s a natural outcome of the system as it’s designed.
To understand privilege, it’s useful to understand the forms of “capital” as described by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. A brief outline goes as follows:
Financial- Economic resources. How much wealth do you own? What is your income?
Social- Who do you know? What are your personal connections? How powerful are your relationships?
Cultural-What are your tastes? What are your ways of thinking about the world? What are your official credentials? How do you culturally present yourself?
Symbolic- What is your level of prestige? What do your lifestyle, habits, possessions and demeanor unconsciously reveal about you?
Now consider the intergenerational transmission of capital.
A highly privileged person will be backed by significant financial capital that will allow access to better education and business opportunities, and the transmission of that wealth at inheritance will then give a leg up in accumulating a home and income producing assets.
Family social capital will afford them access to get their foot in the door at internships, jobs, universities and business opportunities.
Culturally and symbolically, they will be taught the mentality of managing their large assets and powerful social connections, and acquire a more ‘prestigious’ university degree and lifestyle and tastes that reflect their class. They will wear certain clothes, join similar clubs, and speak similar accents. As a result, their ability to network, i.e. increase social capital is cultivated, which further increases the opportunities to land jobs and gain business opportunities.
What about the supposed ‘meritocracy’ of prestigious universities like Harvard? Don’t they choose admissions based on merit-based criteria? Can’t a brilliant poor and socially unconnected person get in on scholarship? Technically, yes. But behind the scenes, the forms of capital highly skew admissions to the privileged and to legacy students (children of graduates who have an easier time getting in)-not to mention the outright corruption of bribery most publicly epitomized by the USC admissions scandal.
Consider the “meritocratic” extracurricular requirements of a prestigious university. Students don’t only need to have a high GPA, but a high SAT score, impressive extracurriculars, and a well-written essay.
So far, so good. But let’s look under the hood.
Financial privilege will give a student access to expensive tutors and SAT coaches that are inaccessible to their underprivileged but potentially more intrinsically qualified counterparts.
Then, the leisure time afforded to the wealthy kid might allow them to take the summer interning at a senator’s office whose access was gained by their father’s connection (social capital), while their underprivileged counterpart works a local job to help support his family. To the admissions department, would the latter count with equal weight in prestige?
Finally, who’s to say that the essay wasn’t highly edited and proofread, or even outright written by a parent or coach, a type of support lacking to the child of uneducated blue collar workers?
Such strict admission requirements convey an air of meritocracy- on paper, only the most accomplished can pull all those things off, after all, right? But closer analysis reveals a deeper truth- opportunities are highly unequal.
The results are self-explanatory. The gatekeepers perpetuate the system of cronyism, nepotism and privilege, while a few outliers make it through. The majority of the super-wealthy as well as the majority of the poor and uneducated transfer their financial, social, cultural, and symbolic capital (or lack thereof) to their offspring.
Wealth inequality is now at crisis levels, and a large portion of the most powerful people in the world hail from privileged families.
Think about the story of The Prince and the Pauper- a royal child and a peasant child are switched, each living the others’ life. In reality, any two children from opposite ends of the class spectrum, if switched, would have their life outcomes also switched. Imagine if an extremely connected and privileged heir to an ancient fortune switched places at birth with another baby born to an illiterate, poverty-stricken environment.
Both nature and nurture are factors, but nurture, or environment, determines to what degree someone’s nature or inherent talents have the opportunity to express themselves.
How many extremely talented young people with exemplary potential from poor and broken families use their intelligence to run their street gang, or have had their talent squandered altogether as they rotted in a jail cell? How many mediocre members of the super-privileged were fast-tracked to top positions of power and influence?
To paraphrase Chris Rock, an underprivileged C student will be stuck working a menial job, and a privileged C student can become the president of the United States.
There is a glaring irony that even those who are prone to the “individualism” theory of character in theory don’t actually subscribe to this in practice. Every time the parent of a privileged child makes an effort to move to a better school district, to cough up tens of thousands of dollars for tuition, tutors and extracurriculars, to provide nepotistic opportunities for employment, to use cronies for recommendations and internships- the parent is implicitly betraying their full conviction that their child (and hence all children) require resources outside of themselves to maximize their chances for success. This intellectual dishonesty serves one purpose- to justify the lack of resources for everyone else.
Privilege is a zero-sum game. When a set of people are privileged, others are by definition underprivileged- to be underprivileged means that your potential is held back, and to hold back potential is not only morally wrong but, on a practical level holds back the entire collective.
When there’s a birthright elite and a non elite, the non elite operate at restrained capacity. Privilege is not a mere inconvenience. Privilege is poison. It engenders narcissistic entitlement in the ruling classes and anxiety in everyone else.
Privilege is pernicious because it results in squandered potential of the unprivileged and therefore, privilege holds back the evolution of our species. It is an evolution retardant.
So now imagine the Prince and the Pauper thought experiment, but en masse. Imagine if all the “good” individuals of society were instead raised in misery, neglect and poverty and went to the worst schools, and imagine if all the “bad” individuals were instead raised in affluence and attended the highest quality schools. In a stroke, we will have inverted who is a “bad” individual and who is a “good” one.
Humanity as a whole has vast potential that is routinely squandered and locked away by a system that allows burgeoning individuals’ potential interests and strengths to remain unidentified and uncultivated. The newborn is a divine clay who in most cases grows into a severely limited capacity- a shadow of their true potential.
No system thus far has directly addressed this. As a result, our system is tragically inefficient at transforming this raw material of human capital into proverbial gold en masse, and humanity’s evolutionary progress stalls. Every single child born into lost opportunity is a setback for humanity. How many would-be DaVinci’s has our laissez-faire society let fall through the cracks?
All reasonable people tend to agree that equal opportunities is ideal, so how can we design a system of genuine equal opportunities? What does it even mean? What does it even look like?
First of all, the solution is not to reposition who gets to be privileged, with new masters replacing old masters — defeating the entire point- it’s to eliminate the concept of privilege altogether by ensuring maximum and equal opportunities for every child.
“Because it is a distortion of being more fully human, sooner or later being less human leads to the oppressed to struggle against those who made them so. In order for this struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity, become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both. This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well.” — Paolo Freire
To dehumanize others is to dehumanize yourself. True humanity transcends the master-slave system. The oppressed are denied their humanity, but it is also inhuman to oppress. Liberation is all or nothing.
The revolutionary solution is to guarantee every single child the same high quality opportunities that the most privileged expect for their own. This means a massive investment in elite-quality education, skills training, mental health services, counseling and job placement programs for everyone. Pedigree must become completely meaningless.
Opportunity must be both equalized and maximized simultaneously. Neither one of these without the other is adequate.
Equal opportunities alone isn’t enough because opportunities can be equal yet sub-par. Mere maximum opportunities for only some is insufficient because this will leave behind children by no fault of their own. Only guaranteeing both radical equal opportunity as well as radical maximum opportunity can the task at hand be accomplished.
We can’t unlock our ultimate potential until we have a system where any hypothetical switch at birth would be inconsequential to the fact that all children will nonetheless have maximum opportunities for their personal cultivation and to become as successful in society as their inborn nature inherently allows them.
Something universal beyond the private family must be the deciding factor in our access to opportunities and cultivation- a common denominator between all citizens. Equal and maximum opportunities for every child means no familial advantages or disadvantages, with the public ensuring the highest quality education standards for every single child.
As long as society continues to accept that any newborn could eventually fall through the cracks, not only will we be complicit in immorality, but our collective evolution will be stalled.
Radical equal and maximum opportunities for every child is the bedrock of a true meritocracy and enlightened society. Privilege of any type ensures a rigged game of unequal opportunities and unfair advantages, because those in privileged positions naturally tend to pull up the ladder from under them and give themselves and their cronies and families a cheating edge against everyone else.
If two young adults are competing for a position by having to take the same test, this might seem ‘meritocratic’. But if one kid was afforded private tutors and all the resources in the world to prepare, while the other was forced to be distracted by the needs of surviving poverty during the preparation time, then it’s self evident that these opportunities are not in fact equal. It privileges the already advantaged, even if on the surface of it, they seem to have the same opportunity because they are taking the same test. Implicit on test day is all the privilege -or a lack thereof- before a single answer is ever written.
Rewarding merit alone does little to ensure meritocracy. Only universal cultivation of merit, before ever testing for it, is the prerequisite for equal opportunities and a successful meritocracy and society. This means we need to seriously and ambitiously start investing in our human capital.
Only a radical political intervention and culture shift can guarantee this. This will require an intelligently designed system that ensures people have both an equalized and empowered starting position who then have the opportunity to fairly compete and express their creativity and talents from there. This means a social contract that makes the State beholden to its own citizens’ well-being and optimization.
This means the children of poverty and broken families and orphans are guaranteed a top of the line education, tutors, extracurriculars, mentors and counselors. It means society is as invested in every single child as the most zealous and capable parents are for their own children. It means there is no such thing as a “bad school,” only schools which are always as high quality as the best we can muster. It means the quality of education that CEO’s and politicians expect of their children is the quality of education guaranteed to all children.
An excellent society can become that way if it approaches excellence from two angles- it has to expect excellence, but it has to cultivate it indiscriminately.
Make no mistake. The rhetoric of “equal opportunity” is one of the most agreed upon, non-controversial ideas in public discourse, yet in practice, achieving it is nothing less than radical.
It means that privilege, cronyism and nepotism in education, economics and government are obliterated. It means race, gender, sexual orientation and family background must become completely irrelevant. Imagine if no one ever had to say “If only I’d had the chance.”
This will require a New Deal style massive refocusing of resources and effort into radically transforming our education system and guaranteeing 100% of children the opportunity for an elite quality education. This high quality education system will have to throw out the standardized model and switch to a customized model tailored to each individual’s strengths, personality types, learning styles and passions. It will require a massive effort into mental health services, skills training programs and counseling services.
In reality, this would be much more than an “education system,” but rather a general human development system.
Finally, it will require another radical policy- a cap on inherited wealth, eliminating intergenerational oligarchy from society in a stroke, while reinvesting that wealth into the human development system.
With these radically revolutionary policies, we can achieve equal and maximum opportunity for every child. We will unleash the potential of individuals, and take a giant leap for humankind.