Revolution in the Classroom: Part 2, Meritocracy and Social Mobility

Gareth Stevens continues with his longer discussion of the interplay between modern education, neo-liberalism, meritocracy and democracy. In part two he discusses how false notions of meritocracy and social mobility conspire to block students from developing meaningful aspirations and argues that education is fundamentally flawed in this country. Rather than encouraging our children to be happy and emotionally buoyant, our system prioritizes a materialist and status obsessed model over contentment and strong community engagement.


Meritocracy and ‘social mobility’

An intrinsic assertion of my opening discussion is that any taxonomy can be seen as static and ossified. Better to talk about values and processes. What of meritocracy? What of the idea of social mobility?

An accusation that the disprivileged are feckless is often heard from those who try to hide from us the fact that their inherited wealth and the advantage their privilege afforded them accounted for their success. They prefer the view that their hard work and resourcefulness got them where they are. To promulgate this view they flagrantly accuse those with less of a head start of being lazy, incapable and thick. Elizabeth Warren speaks volumes of the hubris of the ‘successful’. In this quote in which she adopts a systems approach and talks of social and economic interdependence that is wrapped up in an unwritten social contract.……

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there – good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory… Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea – God bless! Keep a hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

Warren’s words speak volumes in the face of the overwhelming yoke of a meritocratic mindset.

There is a lightbulb moment for me in Michael Sandel’s online Harvard course entitled Justice. In a discussion about the Philosophy of John Rawls and his ‘mind experiment’ about the ‘veil of ignorance’, he challenges the packed lecture hall by rhetorically stating that every student present was there because they worked hard. That they merited a place at Harvard due to their abilities and tenacity alone. He then asks them to raise their hands if they are the firstborn in their respective families. There is an audible gasp as 75-80% of those present raise their hand. He then claims that this result is the same every year. So he argues that whilst working hard may get you ahead there are countless drivers, even whether you are first-born or not, that predetermine your life chances.

When you accept that a class system exists and splice it with the idea of meritocratic education system you have a pernicious cocktail. Alain De Botton writes “Never before have expectations been so high about what human beings can achieve with their lifespan. We’re told, from many sources, that anyone can achieve anything. We’ve done away with the caste system, we are now in a system where anyone can rise to any position they please. And it’s a beautiful idea.” Whilst the media constantly celebrate those hip-hop stars that go from gun crime and selling crack wraps to global stardom and whilst airport book shops are full of motivational books claiming that anyone can enjoy dollar success, there are bound to be students who invest in failure. By not trying they are not judged and if they do try and fail, their failure is wholly down to them. No wonder performance anxiety is rife. “There’s a real correlation between a society that tells people that they can do anything, and the existence of low self-esteem.” De Botton tells us. He further argues ….

“The problem is, if you really believe in a society where those who merit to get to the top, get to the top, you’ll also, by implication, and in a far more nasty way, believe in a society where those who deserve to get to the bottom also get to the bottom and stay there. In other words, your position in life comes to seem not accidental, but merited and deserved. And that makes failure seem much more crushing”.

In the new film “Life on the road” the David Brent character demonstrates the pathos of buying the meritocratic dream. Unhappy with his life as a feminine hygiene product salesman he refuses to give up on his dream of rock stardom. Rather than seeking dignity in his community and in his profession, his reality is bound up in a futile dream that he has been told is his right.

I am not suggesting that disenfranchised and power starved students should give up on their dreams; far from it. Equally for students to hold their hands in the air and accept that they can not move from their allotted place in a preformed hierarchy is equally calamitous.

A populist meritocratic vision of how our students might shirk privilege or move beyond their lack of privilege, is compromised by the very reductive notion of what such mobility is and how it might be measured. In the same way as class divisions are permeable and arguably meaningless, surely the question of mobility implies there is some kind of continuum of success. Such a ‘ladder’ is linear in nature it would seem. It only allows for upwards or downwards movement. I will argue later for a pedagogy which promotes a sideways movement or growth; a mobility which does not necessarily entail promotion to a ‘better’ social class or economic position, but involves growing self esteem, dignity and community efficacy. We need to ignore the government think tanks that produce bandaid solutions to increase graduating students economic productivity. More of this later.

And so we can see that any discussion of the working class, poverty and social mobility must be set against a discussion of how neoliberalism rubs against an anachronistic, yet deeply embedded class based social order. That striving for a utopian and egalitarian meritocracy is folly whilst there is such an enduring wealth and privilege gap. To accept this is to accept also that using terms like the Working Class just muddies the water and obstructs a full and enlightened discussion of where we are and of where we need to go. The chimera of a truly egalitarian meritocracy is perpetuated by the very people who benefit from a hierarchical social order. They invest in peddling a false sense of equality of opportunity so that the barriers to such a just system are kept in place.

And so on to my story…in part 3: Hong Kong, Politics on Our Doorstep.

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