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Deep Dive #1: Schooling And The Tensions Between Democracy and Meritocracy

Updated: Dec 26, 2019

(This is going to be a rather short blog post. Unfortunately, I don't have too much time to write about it at the moment. I am happy to consider it incomplete and just a starting point for a more extended discussion.)

Obligatory Introduction:

Welcome to the Deep Dive Series - every Saturday, I'm going to post a question about an article I read on. I'll explore the subject at greater length in a blog post on Sunday. I'm creating this series for two reasons: one, to satisfy my urge and have a proper outlet to talk about issues that are under the radar in our society, and two, to commit myself to at least writing once a week, with the goal of daily content creation going forward.

Excellent, with that out of the way, here's the article I recently read this week: When the Culture War Comes for the Kids. It's a long but fascinating article about George Packer's conflicted feelings and personal struggle with where it is best to enroll his child in New York City's school system. From the surface, it seems like a parent who is somewhat overwhelmed by how cutthroat the process is for parents to get their students into the most prestigious elementary, middle, and high schools throughout the city.

I'm not going to go through every facet of the story, but here's a brief summary if you're not inclined to read the article in full:

The author reflects on the damaging impacts on parents like him and their children of a hyper-competitive process to get one's kids enrolled in the best schools.

What I want to focus in this discussion is the author's struggles with enrolling his child in a public school. (He and his wife second guess themselves whether they should have kept him in the elite private school frequently throughout the piece). It reveals a hidden but essential tension within the American education system: democracy versus meritocracy.

The question I want to examine today briefly is this: Are democracy and meritocracy inherently compatible?

Here are going to be the working definitions throughout the remainder of this post (these definitions were obtained from the Oxford Dictionary via Google):

Democracy - the practice or principles of social equality.

Meritocracy - a ruling or influential class of educated or skilled people.

Ok, here are definitions. Taken at face value, are they incompatible with one another? One could argue both ways. Let's start with the negative case - the two cannot mix.

Yes, they are incompatible:

It's not possible for a meritocracy to fully coexist in a democracy. If we are going to start with the basis of equality along social, political, and cultural axes, then it's hard to argue for the concept of "merit," and more importantly, how we define it, to determine who gets what in our society. The inherent principles of democracy would insist that everyone has an equal claim to the resources and opportunities in our community on the sole basis of being a member of it. Not because of their talent, skill, or other arbitrary factors that come together to define "merit." This current conception of democracy heavily implies equality of outcome, which meritocracy directly opposes.

Let's now consider the positive case: the two are compatible.

No, they are compatible:

Meritocracy can and does compliment democracy. If the basis of what constitutes "merit" is democratically decided upon by all participating members, then a meritocracy can serve as the framework for advancement within society. There is no need for an equality of outcome because we've determined in advance should be rewarded with more, provided they satisfy our collective definition of what "merit" is. This compatibility favors the equality of opportunity to advance in society and resolves the perceived conflict that was explained on the contrary case.

So we have two cases. To prove which one is right, we should judge them (and their stated and unstated assumptions) against reality.

Let's start with the positive case because that is the dominant or consensus position within our current society. Going back to the article, we can clearly understand the author's dilemma. Should he ensure the best possible future for his offspring by leaving him enrolled in the elite school, or sticking to his democratic ideals by putting him in a lower-performing, but more diverse school?

It's a hard choice to make - do you do what's best for your child to succeed in an ever-increasingly cutthroat society, or do you ignore those inner parental drives and focus on making your child a better member of society?

(At this point, you may ask - are those two things mutually exclusive? The answer: it really depends because you have to ask from whose perspective are we considering here - the parent or the child? What does each one owe to society from the cost of their education? I won't explore these questions in this piece, unfortunately.)

Back on topic, the author notes the financial and social disparities between the two schools. They are immense and will most likely not be brought to parity in his or his child's lifetime.

Meritocracy would dictate that those with more considerable talent, skill, and effort should reap political and financial rewards. And they do. It is well-known that America's elite schools enroll more members from the top 1% than the bottom 60% (if I remember the statistics correctly). And who's to argue against that from a meritocratic perspective - these students from the top 1% are better prepared and have a litany of opportunities and resources that their less fortunate counterparts could only imagine. Following the compatibility case, we all decided that excellence in academics and sports, with sufficient character as being determined through personal essays, is what is required to enter the best schools in the country.

Or did we? I can't remember being consulted as a member of this democracy, whether that is an appropriate or fair way to define "merit." Is there sufficient consideration for one's starting position in life with regards to "merit"? I had to participate in this tournament-style system without anyone asking me if this system was even fair or just. (But hey, I turned out just fine!)

And let's not even mention the fact that these obvious, severe disparities between the schools that the author was considering for his child would have an irreversible impact on his kid's prospects and opportunities he could access at the earliest (and later) stages of his life.

We can see meritocracy here in full play, and the question is whether it is compatible with our working definition of democracy in real life. It seems to be on the surface that it's not the case - the inequalities between the schools one can access is a direct reflection of how society has decided to value you.

Animal Farm said it best: "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."

Great, so there's an apparent tension here between meritocracy and democracy - on the one hand, the way we have defined "merit" allows some to advance up society's rungs into positions of power while others are left behind, given only the leftovers from their lack of "merit." This is incompatible with our working definition of democracy, the idea that people are inherently equal based solely on their membership with the society, and not their talent, drive, and skill giving them a leg up over others.

So it's game over right? End of story? Democracy is to water what meritocracy is to oil!

Not yet - we haven't talked about a critical concept that may resolve the apparent and inherent tension between meritocracy and democracy.

That concept is social mobility.

Social mobility is the movement of individuals, families, households, or other categories of people within or between social strata in a society (Wikipedia definition). It is a change in social status relative to one's current social location within a given society.

Ok, the last piece I want to share with you from the Scholar's Stage: Economies of Scale Killed the American Dream.

I strongly recommend reading that in the entire piece in full, but if you can't, I've copied the relevant sections for this blog post below.

The first one from the Scholar Stage post is the conception of social mobility as defined by a former Harvard University president, James Bryant Conant (note the points in bold!):

"Let me pause a moment to examine the phrase 'social mobility,' for this is the heart of my argument. A high degree of social mobility is the essence of the American ideal of a classless society. If large numbers of young people can develop their own capacities irrespective of the economic status of their parents, then social mobility is high. If, on the other hand, the future of a young man or woman is determined almost entirely by inherited privilege or the lack of it, social mobility is nonexistent. You are all familiar with the old American adage, 'Three generations from shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves.' This implies a high degree of social mobility, both up and down. It implies that sons and daughters must and can seek their own level, obtain their own economic rewards, engage in any occupation irrespective of what their parents might have done.
...Is it too late—too late for our schools to revitalize the idea of a classless nation? Can we complete the necessary major readjustments in our educational system in time to prevent the extinction of the Jeffersonian tradition? I believe we can, if we make haste. I predict at least another century of vigor for the American ideal. I envisage a further trial on this continent for many generations of our unique type of social order. I look forward to a future American society in which social mobility is sufficient to keep the nation in essence casteless—a society in which the ideals of both personal liberty and social justice can be maintained—a society which through a system of public education resists the distorting pressures of urbanized, industrialized life." (author's emphasis added).

If Conant's conception holds true, then social mobility is the grease that allows the wheels of democracy and meritocracy to grind past one another with ease. Then the final question to prove or disprove the positive case is this:

Does social mobility exist in America?

A quick Google search shows the following:

The answer would be: yes, it does exist, but not as much as we had hoped. Then the following question would be whether the social mobility that exists is at an acceptable level in our society. One can make the argument and say no, it's not at an acceptable level, which means that the inequalities inherent in a meritocratic society do not square with the basis of democratic ideas based on our working definition.

The only way that the positive case could be shown to be thoroughly true is that social mobility is at a level where a majority of the citizens in our society could move up or down the socioeconomic ladder since it was a majority that decided what constituted "merit" is.

(Due to time constraints, I'm not going to cite any specific facts here. You can totally use this as a valid critique of the arguments I've presented.)

Then if we've disapproved the positive case, the only thing left we have the negative case - that the two are incompatible on the basis of a lack of social mobility for the majority of members of a democracy that decided on the parameters of the meritocracy (i.e., what is "merit").

Ok, are we done here yet? No, one more quote from the Scholar Stage, who deftly references a favorite social critic of mine, Christopher Lasch:

"[This is] the most important choice a democratic society has to make: whether to raise the general level of competence, energy, and devotion - 'virtue,' as it was called in an older political tradition - or merely to promote a broader recruitment of elites. Our society has clearly chosen the second course. It has identified opportunity with upward mobility and made upward mobility the overriding goal of social policy. The debate about affirmative action shows how deeply this pathetically restricted notion of opportunity has entered public discourse. A policy designed to recruit minorities into the professional and managerial class is opposed not on the grounds that it strengthens the dominant position of this class but on the grounds that it weakens the principle of meritocracy. Both sides argue on the same grounds. Both see careers open to talent as the be-all and end-all of democracy when in fact, careerism tends to undermine democracy by divorcing knowledge from practical experience, devaluing the kind of knowledge that is gained from experience, and generating social conditions in which ordinary people are not expected to know anything at all. The reign of specialized expertise - the logical result of policies that equate opportunity with open access to 'places of higher consideration' - is the antithesis of democracy as it was understood by those who saw this country as the 'last, best hope of earth." (Author's emphasis added).

If that isn't the most concise and cogent argument against a meritocracy being compatible with a democracy, I don't know what is. I literally could have written an article on this quote by itself.

I rest my case.

(Well, one more thing. Another question that could be raised is if the Western-style mix of democracy and meritocracy doesn't make sense; what is a competitive alternative?

One word: China. Watch this video to see what I mean - and shoutout to Hassan for sharing this with me!)

That's it! I hope you enjoyed! See you at the next Deep Dive!


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