The Myth of Meritocracy

1 Jul 2014

 

In 1958, Michael Young penned his now renowned work, The Rise of the Meritocracy: 1870-2033. This dystopian account of the future provided a pioneering critique of a formula now lodged in the psyche of society, conceived by politicians to rationalise the path to achievement and a ‘better life’:

IQ + Effort = Merit

This golden formula of success places reliance on individuals to design their own life chances, or at least have the bestowed luck of strong genetic stock. It presumes with callous conviction that society enables equal opportunities for rich, poor, impoverished or prosperous to rise - or fall.

 

We are 56 years on from The Rise of the Meritocracy, but denunciations of this deceptive trope are more valid than ever. Indeed, as in 1958, where Harold MacMillan presided over an over-privileged Tory regime, dominated by millionaire old-Etonians and Oxbridge sycophants, we now have Cameron and his old-boy cronies preaching to the poor that “you have never had it so good.” The irony of this situation is palpable. For, according to the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, chaired by former Labour MP Alan Milburn, the prosperous classes still win through in the rat-race to the top, even if IQ fails them. Perhaps it is therefore worth formulating a new catchphrase to rival MacMillan’s - “The rich will always have it this good.”

Indeed, the Commission's findings, which evaluate evidence produced by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, suggest that smart eleven year old kids from poor backgrounds are likely fall behind their wealthier counterparts by the age of sixteen, even if the latter show less ability earlier in their education.

Our American Dream meritocracy is unravelling, and its promise of a great new world with it. Yet, more concerning is that we are entirely bereft of ideas of how to create a truly meritocratic society in its place. The political movers that fuelled this misnomer are inherently interested in ensuring its survival.

This includes figures on the left, who appropriated the rhetoric of meritocracy pedalled by the Tories in the 1950s and 1960s, and have done so once again in Blairite Britain. For example, Alan Milburn, who (as previously mentioned) chaired the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, posits that secondary schools are responsible for poorer students falling behind their wealthier peers. He proposes that in order to reverse this situation, universities and policymakers should be striving to provide more information to children from poorer backgrounds in order to help them into Britain’s top academic institutions.

Essentially, these prescriptions are two-fold. Firstly, by blaming schools for not doing a good enough job he is again at least partially lifting responsibility off government – practicing the Goveism of attributing all of society’s woes to teachers. And secondly, by calling on the Ministry of Misinformation to provide greater guidance to poorer students, he is supporting a leafleting campaign, where the slogan is – “this is what you could achieve, if you weren’t poor.”

The benefits of Milburn’s commission are indisputable, but his remedies are contentious to the Nth degree. From a study that has evidenced the impact of poverty on attainment, he has spurned the opportunity to address the fundamental cause of inequality of opportunity – inequality of income.

This is because equalisation of income does not sit comfortably within society’s rhetoric of meritocracy, and it never has. In the Robbins Report of 1961-63 for example (probably the most important formative document to Britain’s higher education system) despite acknowledging that “the economic circumstances of the home are very influential” in determining access to university, it abstained from proposing the equalisation of income as a means through which equality of opportunity could be ensured. Instead (drawing incredible parallels to Alan Milburn’s propositions), Lord Robbins stipulated that poorer children were suffering from a lack of information; basing their ambitions on “inadequate knowledge”. To tackle the ‘Oxbridge problem’ for example, he suggested that the esteemed colleges of Oxford and Cambridge should be induced to set up closer links with state schools, so that all would benefit from more knowledge of these elite institutions. Despite these measures, wealthier students in modern Britain are still 55 times more likely to attend Oxbridge than poorer students.

This information-based approach reveals the iniquitous character of our meritocratic myth. Indeed, our American Dream meritocracy is about individuals knuckling-down and showing their worth; about proving that IQ and hard work is all that matters in the achievement of consummate success. ‘Government hand-outs’ do not promote hard-work and upward mobility – they promote idleness and the enlargement of an indolent underclass.

Until we dispel these odious preconceptions, we will never achieve a true meritocracy. Naturally, unequal outcomes are necessary for meritocracy to exist, but more equal starting points are ultimately pivotal in ensuring these outcomes are fairly achieved.

Wealth can buy a better schooling, it can buy books, it can buy tutoring, and – most importantly – it can buy time.

Without access to such resources, we are consigning students to the scrapheap, whether they know it or not.

Sam Bright
Backbench Editor

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