Meritocracy: A level field or an undulating valley?
by Ng Shi
Meritocracy, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is a “government or the holding of power by people selected according to merit”. One of the earliest records of meritocracy dates back to the time of Confucius in ancient China, where he advocated that the governing body should be comprised of people who were elected based on merit and not that of inherited status. This notion of fair selection based on one’s own merits would eventually gain traction throughout the world over the centuries. Today, meritocracy is regarded as a plausible means to promote equality. While it may have seemed to be a rational and fair principle, in theory, there has been an increasing number of sceptics who are questioning and renouncing the equality that meritocracy aims to uphold.
It is important to first understand what is meant by ‘meritocracy’. Meritocracy is often viewed as an intense competitive system that boasts objectivity and fairness; it is a selection process. Its indiscriminate nature aims to eliminate biases, be it age, gender, race, religion, physical appearance, social status or disability, and therefore provide the same opportunity to all. This is what many call “levelling the playing field”, where all applicants begin at the same, or at least similar starting points, therefore promoting equality for all. So how does this alleviate inequality? Well, it essentially disregards the premise of the past and focuses on the immediate abilities of a person, thereby eliminating imbalance in the competition.
However, in recent years, there has been growing concern about the effects of meritocracy and whether it does indeed help to eradicate inequality, or whether it actually propagates inequality. Sceptics of meritocracy argue that a fundamental concern regarding meritocracy is the unclear definition of “merit”. What is considered meritorious or, in other words, the “best” standard? Who decides what is and what is not meritorious? The standard of assessment of competence should remain consistent and at the same time, accurately encompass the required capabilities of the post. In response to who decides such standard, this lies in the hands of those in the power of authority, who then establish the qualities they deem the best fit for the job. Both the “what is” and “who does” incite an element of subjectivity, which contradicts the objective nature of meritocracy.
In order to pit individuals against each other on fair terms and equal standards, standardized testing is often the choice method. Unfortunately, this method has come under scrutiny for being rigid and uncompromising. William Ayers, an educational theorist, argues that,
“Standardized tests can’t measure initiative, creativity, imagination, conceptual thinking, curiosity, effort, irony, judgment, commitment, nuance, good will, ethical reflection, or a host of other valuable dispositions and attributes. What they can measure and count are isolated skills, specific facts and function, content knowledge, the least interesting and least significant aspects of learning.” (Ayers, 1993, pp. 116)
Over the years, as meritocracy became a widespread evaluation standard, it can be seen that while meritocracy promotes initial equality of opportunity, equality of outcome is not necessarily a given result. Having the same starting point does not guarantee a common ending point. How one utilises the tools and opportunities handed to them will result in variations in the construction of individual outcomes.
Additionally, while meritocracy allows for equality of opportunity, this diminishes with subsequent generations. Members of first-generation meritocracies who emerge from the system triumphant would be in an advantageous position to provide for and equip the next generation with more favourable conditions to compete in the same meritocratic system. The converse is also true, where those who get the short end of the meritocracy stick will most likely pass on their disadvantaged position to their children. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report on Equity and Quality in Education shows that students coming from poorer families are over four times more likely to be low performers as compared to their more affluent peers. This shows that with meritocracy, there are winners and losers. The winners of the initial race continue to reap the benefits of having a head start, while the losers of the initial race compound struggle to keep up with the race, thereby exacerbating existing inequalities.
The question now is, how do we prevent inequalities brought about by meritocracy? There is, obviously, no straightforward answer. However, as with all issues related to inequality, the key is to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor, the privileged and the less privileged. In this way, even though one is unable to guarantee equality of outcome, at least equal opportunity can continue to be upheld, giving everyone a shot at success.
Arrow, K., Bowles, S., Durlauf, S. (1999). Meritocracy and Economic Inequality. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Ayers, W. (1993). To teach: the journey of a Teacher. New York: Teachers College Press.
Bloodworth, J. (2014). ‘Meritocracy is a myth’, The Independent, 4 June.
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. (2012). Equity and quality in education: Supporting disadvantaged students and schools. OECD Publishing.
Toyama, K. (2011). ‘Is true meritocracy impossible?’, The Atlantic, 21 November.