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Too much merit or not enough?

By Steven Schwartz - posted Monday, 30 October 2023

Michael Young was a British sociologist, but he was no armchair academic. He not only devoted his life to studying society but also to 'improving' it. He aimed to replace Britain's class-ridden social order with a "Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain - free, democratic, efficient, progressive, public-spirited, its material resources organised in the service of the British people."

Of the various means to a better society, Young viewed education as the most significant. By creating the Open University, he gave all Britons, whatever their background, the opportunity to start their upwardly mobile journey. Young was proud of his new university. He believed everyone deserved a chance to move up in the world; family ties, wealth, class, race, and religion should never be barriers to advancement. Motivation, ability, and drive are what counts.

Young was the first person to use the word 'meritocracy' in print, but it quickly entered the vocabulary of politicians. Singapore's first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, proudly described his country as a "meritocracy, where people rise by their own merit, hard work, and performance." Former British Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair called the creation of a meritocracy an "indispensable part of building a decent and prosperous society." Theresa May, a former Tory British prime minister, wanted "Britain to be the world's greatest meritocracy." In Australia, former Prime Minister Robert Menzies greatly expanded higher education and expressed similar sentiments.


Despite this widespread praise, Young harboured qualms about how a merit-based society might evolve. He expressed his misgivings in a novel titled The Rise of the Meritocracy. Young set his story in 2034, when wealth and power are no longer inherited or shared among cronies. Merit is the sole driver of social advancement. The country has a ruling class, but it is "not an aristocracy of birth, not a plutocracy of wealth, but a true meritocracy of talent" [emphasis added].

Surprisingly, The Rise of the Meritocracy was not a description of an egalitarian utopia but a stark look at a dark dystopia. In Young's novel, prestige, power, and wealth accrued to the naturally talented who married one another. They used their influence "to gain unfair advantages for their offspring." The resulting meritocracy became a self-perpetuating dynasty. By 2034, society had split into two groups: "the eminent [who] know that success is a just reward for their own capacity, their own efforts," and a lower class taught to think of themselves as failures."

Young came to view a merit-based society as no improvement over the old world of inherited wealth and power; both led to a fractured society. A poll of attitudes toward merit-based university admissions conducted by the Pew Research Centre think tank found that few people share Young's pessimistic view. In every demographic category - Black, white, old, young, Asian, Latino, male, female, and political affiliation - the poll found a majority believed that university admissions should be based on merit as measured by marks, examination scores, and other indices of scholarly achievement. This opinion spanned all social classes, including those who were nowhere near the top of the economic ladder.

Is the public's faith misplaced? To some extent, the answer is yes. Family income, school quality and other contextual factors influence the grades and examination scores that form the basis for admission to university. By ignoring the social and physical challenges applicants had to overcome, a system based solely on marks underestimates the academic potential of disadvantaged applicants while over-valuing those with more fortunate backgrounds. Measures of merit must be improved if we want to ensure that all applicants have a fair equality of opportunity to compete.

Would more valid, reliable, and fairer ways of measuring merit satisfy Young? The answer is no. Even if it were possible to achieve perfectly fair equality of opportunity for all applicants, it would not make any difference to Young because such a system would still lead to unequal outcomes. And he is not the only one to feel this way; prestigious academics share similar views.

The view from the Ivory Tower


Although they work at highly selective, world-famous universities, Yale professor Daniel Markovits and Harvard professor Michael Sandel believe their universities' selection processes are unfair. They have each written books denouncing merit-based advancement. Like Young, they are fierce critics of a system they have personally benefitted from.

In The Meritocracy Trap, Markovits picks up on Michael Young's theme - merit-based rewards stratify society - and proceeds to blame merit-based selection for practically every conceivable social ill. According to Markovits, income inequality, opioid deaths, mental illness, violent crime, and even suicide result from a system that uses merit to allocate social resources. Like Young, he believes making universities more inclusive by widening access to higher education to currently unrepresented groups would not help. "The afflictions that dominate American life arise not because meritocracy is imperfectly realised, but rather on account of meritocracy itself."

In Markovits' view, meritocracy has "become precisely what it was invented to combat: a mechanism for the dynastic transmission of wealth and privilege across generations." "Merit is a sham," he writes. It "is not a genuine excellence but rather - like the false virtues that aristocrats trumpeted in the ancien regime - a pretence, constructed to rationalise an unjust distribution of advantage."

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This article was first published on Wiser Every Day.

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About the Author

Emeritus Professor Steven Schwartz AM is the former vice-chancellor of Macquarie University (Sydney), Murdoch University (Perth), and Brunel University (London).

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