Why I HATE Meritocracy

Why I HATE Meritocracy

Where It All Begins...

We live in a very materialistic time. It's a global phenomenon that we are surrounded by snobs and greedy people: in school, we very often get asked, "Which school are you going to?" In a job market, we get asked, "what job do you do?"

In the ideology of Meritocracy, society is solely encompassed by winners and losers; people are promoted purely based on their talents, experience, and expertise. Everybody, all politicians on the Left and Right, agree that Meritocracy is a great thing. We should all be trying to make our society really meritocratic, the one in which, if you've got talent and energy and skill, you will get to the top; nothing should hold you back.

Meritocracy has become institutionalized as a means for organizing an entire society, valuable both morally and economically. Its attractive, ideal principle can act as a powerful tool to help us locate talent, reinforcing the idea of rising to greater prosperity. However, something quite positive can have a nasty kickback. Behind this beautiful idea, it implies we are all basically equal. There are no strictly defined hierarchies, nor caste (a social class, especially one whose members do nope allow others to join in). However, we fail to live up to the meritocratic principle we proclaim in actual practice. Behind the spirit of equality, it comes along with deep inequality; not everyone started out with an equal chance.

Living in an era where the deepened income and wealth inequality is corroding the common good, the attitudes toward winning and losing have appeared to be rancorous. Those who landed on the top of the income scale came to believe that their success was their own doing, a measure of their merit, and therefore they deserve all their rewards. At the same time, by implication, it means that those who struggle or lose out from the global competition deserve to get to the bottom; they have no one to blame but themselves.

Why Care?

People get what they deserve is central to American success mythology; your position in life comes to stem not accidentally but merited and deserved. The assumption that successful people had earned their wealth, and failures had filtered away their opportunities through unwillingness to work hard, laziness, and inattention to business. That's exhilarating if you're doing well, and very crushing if you are not. The underprivileged feel like the elites are looking down on them. This symptom fuels resentment, a potent source of the populous backlash seen recently in the US.

What's Wrong with the Modern Society

A few decades before, if you met a very poor person, that person would be described as an "unfortunate." Liberally, somebody who had not been blessed by fortune. Nowadays, particularly in the United States, society has evolutionized; if you meet someone at the bottom of society, they may unkindly be described as a "loser." The vision of autonomous strivers has bereaved the communal supports, the older ideals of community, and solidarity. It's no longer the gods; it's us. We're in the driving seat. We seem to have forgotten the notion that we are indebted for our fortune, to the grace of God, or to the luck of the draw.

  • The dark side behind meritocratic college admission

One common symptom of Ivy League schools is that there is no mediocrity; people there are fueled with big visions and are never afraid to fail! Everyone is so driving for strive and hoop-jumping, their ambitions are far beyond the usual people at their age. It's never an option to work hard or not. For me, even pulling all-nighters won't help me to meet the minimum bar to survive scrambly. The so-called winners are so accustomed to hoop-jumping, so driven to strive, that very often they struggle to find the space and peace, to treat their college years as occasions for exploration, figuring out what's caring about, what they believe, and why.

Today, education is much more inclusive in terms of gender and ethnicity. However, during the high-pressure, stress-strewn adolescence, the academic winners' psyches are damaged with a demoralizing sense of exclusion. The snobs inhale too deeply of their own success that they forget all the good fortune that God has given them along the way. The elites offer the less well-performed a suggestion to enhance their mobility: through a college education. "If you want to compete and win in the global economy, go to college" "What you earn depends on what you learn." Their 'persuasion' can be attractive in one way; encourage people to go to college. But if you are the less fortunate, you'd be humiliated for not attending higher education.

One of the reasons we fear failing is not just a loss of income, a loss of status; what we fear is the judgment and ridicule of others. Most people who are obsessed with luxury goods are who feels blank in their heart. If we see somebody driving a Ferrari. Don't think, "Wow, this man is insanely rich,' instead, think 'this is somebody who is incredibly vulnerable and in need of love.' While the meritocratic hubris struggles to conceal fragile self-esteem, the phenomenon of people taking what happens to them extremely personally can lead to worse cases: in the analysis of the sociologist Emile Durkheim, it leads to increased rates of suicide. There are more suicides in developed, individualistic countries than in any other part of the world.

Who Should We Blame?

With Meritocracy, we feel more anxious about our career, about our status in the world today than ever before; our failure seems to be our fault. If you analyze self-help books produced in the world today, the message is basically about "You can do it! You can make it if you try! Anything's possible!" We feel if we've got energy, a few bright ideas about technology, a garage, you could start a major thing.

At the same time, on newspapers, magazines, or other media outlets, if you open it any day of the week, it's full of people who've messed up their lives. They've slept with the wrong person, taken the wrong substance... Whatever it is, they fit for ridicule. In other words, they have failed, and they are described as "losers."

We don't form our ideas of what it would mean to live successfully on our own; we suck them in from other people, from television, from market advertising... They are hugely influential forces. We think we know the meaning of success (making a lot of money, achieving...) that we often forget about the fact that we can't be successful at everything. Work-life balance is nonsense because we can't have it all; there needs to be an element of loss. In ordinary days, we should be the author of our own ambition.

What Should We Do?

As the notion of competence, performance, and qualification has become the modern world's new building block, selective universities with their cultural prestige of higher education have been enlisted in this meritocratic mission.

Nonetheless, even from this seemingly straightforward expression, we have seen flaws: the ivy League universities still have more students from the top 1% of the income scale than from the entire bottom half of the country combined. The credentialed/professional/affluent parents are passing their privilege onto their children, equipping them with leg-up educational advantages in the meritocratic competition as the hereditary 'elites.' Not only by sending their children to the best academically rigorous schools, but also utilizing the legacy admission (deliberately in favor of children whose parents/relatives went there or teach there).

We should contest our three preconceived perceptions:

1. The role of college

2. The dignity of work

3. The meaning of success

In practice, we should treat the role of universities as arbiters of opportunity. Professional schools do promote intergenerational mobility, but they do not function as a powerful engine. The mobility rate extremely is low. At Harvard, less than 2% of students rise from the bottom to the top of the income scale. A university diploma should not be a necessary condition of dignified work and a decent life. At the same time, we must try to push forward the meritocratic revolution, more testing in sorting and selection in the combat. Broaden access and remove the obstacles those who can't afford it, and bring the benefits of academic rigor to all groups in society.

Secondly, we need to renew the dignity of work and place it at the center of our politics. Focus more on making life better, for people who lack a diploma, but who make essential contributions to our society; the delivery workers, truckers, nurse assistants, childcare workers... We often overlook how deeply we rely on those workers; they deserve to win their recognition.

Robert F. Kennedy addressed it well half a century ago.

"Fellowship, community, shared patriotism. These essential values do not come from just buying and consuming goods together; they come from dignified employment and decent pay. The kind of employment that enables us to say: 'I helped to build this country.' 'I am a participant in its great public ventures.'"

This civic sentiment is largely missing from our public life today. With the marriage between money and merit, we often assume that the money people make is the measure of their contribution to the common good, and that is a mistake. Those essential workers are usually not the best-paid or most honored workers; we need to bring their pay and recognition into better alignment with the importance of their work. As Martin Luther King Jr put it beautifully:

"The person who picks up our garbage is, in the final analysis, as significant as the physician, for if he doesn't do his job, diseases are rampant. All labor has dignity."

It is also time to question yourself at the spiritual level: "Do I morally deserve the talents that enable me to flourish?" "Is it my doing that I live in a society that prizes the talents I happen to have?", "or is that my good luck?" There are too many random factors of people who put in the effort and could have succeeded: accidents of things dropping on their heads, illnesses... The flourishing elites should not feel condescending towards those who perform less well.

Jackson Lears has a powerful quote on this matter:

"Living by the belief that we have no hand in whether we will be saved in the next world, or successful in this one, is hard to reconcile with the idea of freedom. And so, merit tends perpetually to drive out luck or grace. And soon or later, the successful assert and come to believe that their success is their own doing. But even in its triumph, the meritocratic faith does not deliver the freedom of the self-mastery that it promised, nor does it provide a basis for solidarity. Ungenerous to the loser and oppressive to the winners, merit has become a tyrant."

Appreciating the role of luck in life can prompt a certain humility. We should embrace generosity and appreciation in public life to maintain a cohesive community. The accident of birth, or the grace of God, the mystery of fate... Perhaps your success isn't entirely all your doing; arbitrary factors count significantly. Let's give an example of LeBron James, the greatest basketball player in our generation. Of course, he works hard to develop his talents. But is his doing? Or it is because of the enormous gifts he has, the good luck?

A level of sympathy needs to be recognized. Alain de Botton has talked about Meritocracy in his Ted Talk A kinder, gentler philosophy of success:

Another thing about modern society and why it causes this anxiety is that we have nothing at its center that is non-human. We are the first society to be living in a world where we don't worship anything other than ourselves; we think very highly of ourselves: "We've put people on the Moon…" all sorts of extraordinary things. Our heroes are human heroes. On the other hand, most other societies have had a god, a spirit, a natural force, the universe being worshiped at their center...

My Thoughts

I am a meritocrat; supporting people to Dream with ambition is inspiring, more convincing than the traditional religious idea; as St. Augustine described how everybody is graded in The City of God:

God has already put everybody in their place: he's going to do that on the Day of Judgement, with angels and trumpets, and the skies will open.

It's an insane idea. But I think it's also insane to believe that we will ever make a society that is genuinely meritocratic; the good at the top, bad at the bottom. There is a large gap between my hopes of rectifying this issue in society and reality, and we all probably won't be able to witness the improvement until the day we die. It is an impossible dream. However, as Professor Sandel put it, we need to shift more attention to emotional rewards instead of the acquisition of material goods. Towards the underprivileged, we should feel sympathy rather than contempt with the college diplomas in our hands.

Credentialism is our society's last acceptable prejudice, the single-minded focus on credentials. Of course, we want well-educated people in the government sector, the most capable of handling the complicity of change. But there's an excess of individualism, and it should not be celebrated. A lot of luck is involved in every success; indebtedness to family, upbringing, and country... An awareness of humility can open us to a more generous stance to those who have been left behind that we've put an enormous weight on.

We shouldn't assume that having a degree from a prestigious place is the primary qualification for governing well; selective colleges and universities should not be the single criterion for people to be competent leaders: Joe Biden is the first nominee for president in 36 years without an Ivy League degree, does that mean he is less capable?

Those who managed to climb the ladder of success would owe a lot of their success, not only to their own doing but also to the talents they happen to have. Meritocracy teaches us to not easily judge people because you don't necessarily know what someone's true value is. There is an unknown part of them, and we shouldn't behave as though it is known.