From JNU To IIT: Why The Mantra Of Meritocracy Needs To Be Done Away With

Image Source: Shubhanshu Singh/Facebook

It’s been three weeks since students from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) have been protesting the massive fee hike that has been imposed on the student community with no inputs from them whatsoever. It turned aggressive, with reports of the Delhi Police beating up a student with visual impairments and groping women.

This has sparked a discussion around subsidised education and what people “deserve.” JNU is one of the premier institutes of the nation where access to education is substantially more democratic given its lower fees and diverse student body. The 300% hostel fee hike will have a huge impact on an institute which is already seeing a fall in students from rural and lower-income backgrounds.

Given the conversation around meritocracy and privilege, let’s take a deep dive into how these institutions reinforce each other and hold up a system—shining from the outside, rotten at the core.

Introduction

Meritocracy, on the surface, seems like the panacea to all that is wrong with the current socioeconomic stratification observed in societies all around the world. Income inequality? Meritocracy! Systemic oppression? Meritocracy! Positive discrimination? Meritocracy!

At its best, meritocracy espouses a society where rewards are handed to citizens on the basis of the intrinsic intelligence regardless of the advantages that have been conferred onto them by the accident of birth. This does sound pretty ideal, doesn’t it? A world where wealth, power, connections and other advantages don’t have a bearing on where you stand on the proverbial ladder. Dig deeper into the origins of the concept and you’ll find an ironical if not dark history.

History

Michael Young coined the term in a 1958 satire, titled “The Rise of the Meritocracy”. It’s a retrospective analysis by a historian in 2033 who is cataloguing the development of a new British society. In this “utopian” society, wealth is earned through sheer talent and effort and not carried over from generations. Success and status were governed by the simple equation, “IQ + effort = merit”. This was truly a society that rewarded intelligence and shunned archaic aristocratic advantages and monetary ones.

In this apparent utopia, wealth flowed to the intelligent while the ones not similarly gifted made do with less. Since the distribution of resources was according to their innate talent and effort, everyone felt they got what they deserved. The rich had no qualms about the means of their wealth, they got it by putting in the work after all, while the poor had the misfortune of being dumb and justifiably, they got lesser. Since education, being the great equaliser, sorted the people according to their “merit”, everyone apparently did get equal opportunities.

One caveat that presents itself in the eyes of the historian though, “nearly all people are going to try to gain unfair advantages for their offspring.” Parents with surplus money would put it to use to help their children get ahead. This destroys the enticingly simple governing principle “IQ + effort = merit.”

This was the goal of Michael Young, a British sociologist, social activist, and politician—to highlight the fallacy behind the school of thought that espoused that merely providing equal access to education one could eliminate class inequalities. Unfortunately enough, the term has completely lost any link to its satirical origins and is instead embedded into the public consciousness as an antidote to the archaic class structures, the very thing it was not. Michael Young is probably rolling in his grave.

Meritocracy plays a huge part in how the privileged classes think about what they deserve and what they’re entitled to. Meritocracy absolves people who benefit from it from any scorn which was usually reserved for people who enjoyed generational wealth. Since they “earned” it, they’re entitled to the spoils and hence don’t have any moral impetus to change what they think is a perfect societal structure.

You only need to look to India’s fraught history with reservation as an example. In 2006, the government planned to set aside a larger section of seats for students from historically marginalised caste groups in centrally-funded universities.

Doctors and other medical professionals held protests in cities across India arguing that such provisions would supposedly lead to a lower quality of healthcare since a lower proportion of students with high scores would get a seat.

It was mostly middle and upper-class people who were involved in the protests and they claimed the marks to be a sure-shot sign of intelligence. It was totally lost on them that economic background, connections, and parental involvement also influence scores to a large degree.

In a May 2019 verdict, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity reservations in promotion for SCs and STs in Karnataka. Justice Chandrachud addressed the question around the phrase “efficiency of administration”. He said, “If this benchmark of efficiency is grounded in exclusion, it will produce a pattern of governance which is skewed against the marginalized. If this benchmark of efficiency is grounded in equal access our outcomes will reflect the commitment of the constitution to produce a just social order.”

He also added, “A meritorious candidate is not merely one is who is “talented” or “successful” but also one whose appointment fulfills the constitutional goal of uplifting the members of SCs and STs and ensuring a diverse and representative administration.”

Aspirational Critique

As Roge Karma of Vox said, there are two critiques of meritocracy: aspirational and principled. The aspirational critique lays bare the various ways in which the status quo falls short of the ideal of meritocracy, the best example being the recent college admissions scandal in the US. This is one of the more blatant failures of meritocracy—bribery. India doesn’t fare too well here either, a 2017 report found a 58% bribery rate in the education sector.

The subtle, insidious way in which meritocracy fails is how socioeconomic backgrounds almost always have a significant impact on where you end up in life. Access to education isn’t really the cure-all for socioeconomic inequalities that all of us think it to be. Indians in particular, rate the highest in belief in social mobility. According to a World Economic Forum (WEF) survey, “Indians, more than any other nationality, believe it is common for someone in their country to start poor, work hard, and ultimately become rich.” India also ranks in the top countries whose people believe that they have access to quality education even though we rank 132 among 189 countries on the UN Human Development Index.

Unsurprisingly, a study by Dartmouth researchers found that “India has seen little change in the rate of upward mobility since Independence…Indians born in the 1980s have only about as much chance of outstripping their parents in socioeconomic rank as those born in the 1950s.” The social mobility of people from Dalit, Adivasi and Scheduled Caste communities have shown improvement while the forward castes and the OBCs have been stagnant. The former can be wholly attributed to the much-vilified reservation system.

Unfortunately, the group for whom upward mobility has fallen significantly has been Muslims. This means that a Muslim youth will be worse off than their parents were when they were the same age. And this failure can’t be attributed to any one administration, all governments have continuously failed them. As much as critics love the ‘appeasement’ argument, the Congress here can, unfortunately, claim that they didn’t have any material effect in mitigating the intergenerational socio-economic sufferings that the Muslim community faces.

For representation only

Studies show that the quality of education varies widely across India even though the availability of education may well be the norm. A Stanford study that surveyed Himalayan schools during 2014-2015 found that “teachers were frequently absent from school, buildings lacked proper sanitation, and parents often had to pay additional fees despite government mandates. Rote memorization was a common teaching method, and many children had difficulty answering questions that were not in the same format they learned.”

Merit-based exams to top colleges like IITs and the like are used as the poster child of meritocracy in India. I’m sure countless PCM students must’ve been motivated by the aphorism, “work hard and you’ll get where you want to be,” in this case being the CS course at a top IIT. But the fact remains that differential access to resources greatly influences your results in merit-based examinations.

Private tutors, specialised coaching centers, test preparation centers, and accelerated English programs give students who can afford it the leg up they need to gain entry in premier institutes. The same Stanford study also says, “Students from privileged backgrounds with expensive private educations, highly educated parents, and the resources to access test prep services consistently score higher on national exams than others.”

A New York Times study found that in 38 colleges in the United States, which included five of the Ivy League (Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale, Penn, and Brown), more students were enrolled from the top 1% income scale than the entire bottom 60%. The income-bracket influences SAT scores too, with students whose parents make more than $200,000 per year scoring about 250 points higher on the SAT than students whose parents make $40,000 to $60,000 and about 390 points higher than students whose parents make less than $20,000.

These are just instances in a litany of mounting evidence that the ideal of meritocracy is rarely reached up to. The reductively simple “IQ + effort = merit” is always rewritten to include wealth and other advantages that come with it on the left side of the equation. Instead of meritocracy being the anathema to entrenched class structures, it’s instead used as a justification for the income inequalities that exist. The rich get richer, but this time, with moral impunity. They got by their own intelligence and hard work, obviously, they deserve all the rewards that come with their success. Privilege? What’s that? We only know of good ol’ fashioned merit here.

Principled Critique

The second criticism of meritocracy is its principled one which argues that even at its best, it’s simply unjust. Let’s bring up the equation again, “IQ + effort = merit.” Studies have found that genetic factors contribute to around 50% of the differences in intelligence among individuals and the rest can be attributed to environmental factors.

The US National Library of Medicine said, “Factors related to a child’s home environment and parenting, education, and availability of learning resources, and nutrition, among others, all contribute to intelligence.” Are the genes and the early environmental factors which shape intelligence something we deserve? Or are they something which the lucky ones of us are just handed and the unlucky deprived of?

“…..fairness cannot be based on ‘deserve’ because we cannot be said to ‘deserve’ our attributes. An intelligent person may deserve a particular position, but do they deserve their intelligence as it were? I am not talking about cosmic fairness in a deep philosophical sense. I am simply gesturing at the fact that part of the self-image of an ideology of meritocracy is that people have a sense that they deserve what they are getting”, asked Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the President of Centre for Policy Research in a convocation speech for a law college.

Regardless of the left side of the equation, it isn’t justified to believe that someone should get less just by virtue of how intelligent they are. Should we advocate the allocation of resources mostly according to attributes that none of us have control over? Equal access to opportunities doesn’t exist in most parts of the world and even where it does, the scales are tipped in favour of those who have more. Hence a belief in meritocracy just helps the earlier ruling classes to retain their wealth and influence but this time, through morally defensible methods. As one essay by The New Inquiry put it, “Meritocracy is the oligarchic society’s ongoing excuse.”

Representational image.

What Does Luck Have To Do With Meritocracy?

Multiple studies have found that even the mere belief in meritocracy makes people more biased, selfish, and less likely to reflect on their behaviour. The ‘ultimatum game’ is a social experiment that involves two players with one being tasked to divide $100 between both of them. The receiving player has the choice to reject the division which will cause both of them to walk away with nothing. This means that the onus is on the player who splits the money to make a relatively fair division to increase the chances of both of them getting some cash. This experiment has been replicated thousands of times in various conditions and an average split of $40-$50 has been found empirically.

When the participants were made to play a game of skill and they were made to believe they “won” before the experiment took place, they claimed a higher proportion of the $100 for themselves. A belief in their skills made them more likely to accept unequal outcomes of the game and tellingly, and this effect was exaggerated among the “winners”. This is empirical evidence of how the ones who privilege from meritocracy (belief in skill is paramount) are the most ardent defenders of this system.

Research in gratitude has shown that people who are reminded of the role that luck played in the major success of their life were likely to give more than charity as opposed to the ones who were reminded of the internal factors like skill and intelligence. Luck is another variable that is regarded as irrelevant in a meritocracy.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers” outlined how people who have gained extreme success like Bill Gates and the like were uniquely placed to take advantage of opportunities that weren’t available to other people. Economist Robert H Frank also noted in his 2016 book “Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy” that arbitrary initial advantages often snowball into huge economic differences. It seems like being in the right place at the right time matters as much if not more than “IQ + merit.”

Anecdotes On Privilege

I have had multiple classmates in school whine to me how they “deserve” seats in premier government institutes only to have them “stolen” by “undeserving” kids who get in via reservation. In my experience, this seems to be something unique to boys that take PCM in +2. It’s as if any and all critical thinking stagnate after 10th grade because of the extreme pressures to get into IITs. Obviously there are exceptions (I’m a PCM kid too) but this is usually the norm. They will quote that one instance they know of a well-off student from the SC/ST category who apparently used reservation to discount centuries of accumulated disadvantages that the overwhelming majority of these communities still have to work off.

I know of a student from a premier management college who made a game out of identifying quota students and giving them a discrete label so that they be identified as “not being worthy of the institute.” Keep in mind, this classification was made solely on the basis of discernible outward characteristics like accents, clothes, and other indicators of wealth. The sheer paradox in this line of thinking is worthy of an hour-long rant in itself. Doesn’t the very fact that you’re able to discern that they didn’t come from a well off background necessitate the system that you’re railing against? If the inequalities are so, so obvious, isn’t that a vindication of the reservation system?

Representational image.

The safe bubble that privilege can afford to stay in strips people of any empathy that they might have toward people having less. One only needs to look at places like Connaught Place, where upscale stores coexist with those who have to beg and kids barely having enough food to eat. This does sound like the age-old sob story but there comes a time where we really need to confront the privileges we’ve been afforded.

I personally don’t claim to have the moral high ground. I’m 18-years-old and have only started my sociological education. Though I had always been aware that we were relatively well off, I always believed that education was the great equaliser, an egalitarian system that rewarded people accordingly. The conversation around merit and education had always been such that I believed in the sole value of hard work and intelligence and disregarded any other advantages that may have been conferred upon me.

But now that I have come to college, I’ve started identifying the subtle and explicit ways in which privilege affects everything. Fluency in English, confidence, and self-assuredness with which you can occupy a public space, all of these are traits that automatically create social hierarchies wherever you go. Success in opportunities such as college societies, competitions, internships et al is overwhelmingly influenced by how one presents themselves, which is almost always the result of their upbringing and socioeconomic background. So many doors are shut because of factors out of one’s control. The worst part is, usually the ones at the top believe that there where they are by dint of their own effort.

I haven’t written this article to make anyone feel bad about their achievements, which will help no one. Instead, I want those among us who have it good to recognise the privileges that we have been afforded and how it has influenced where we are. Analysing my privilege has made me so much more grateful to my parents for all that they’ve provided for me. Accepting the fact that a proportion of my achievements are directly influenced by the advantages that were awarded to me by luck is difficult to stomach. Confronting your privilege on a daily basis is like a million tiny pinpricks which force you to be self-aware and think much harder than you would ever care about mundane everyday stuff. For example, I’m accustomed to taking a solo e rickshaw from the metro to my home for ₹ 40. My parents never asked me to wait for ten minutes so that I could share an e-rick get and save an odd 15 bucks.

Another instance is how I’ve been praised for all of my school life for my proficiency in English. This can be attributed to a number of factors. I’ve always studied in catholic convents where speaking in English was a must. Our house used to be filled with books as far as I can remember and my mom used to bring some regularly from the library in her school. Moreover, the fact that both of my parents were themselves convent-educated and proficient in English definitely helped.

Earlier, I used to be smug about this extra edge that I had over most of my peers. Now, while I do take some pride in it (it’s my backup career after all), at the same time I recognise where I come from and the privileges I’ve been afforded. This has helped me delink intelligence and fluency in English in my mind and stopped any judgment that I might have meted out before to people who weren’t as good at it or were bad at pronunciation.

Acknowledging your privilege might seem unnecessary and overkill at first. If you’ve followed American media and politics, privilege might seem like a PC boogeyman. But doing it allows you to understand more of the intricacies behind why people and you, succeed and consequently, be more empathetic to the ones who’ve been given a bad hand. We could do with less “Why are they begging? They should just work.” comments as a society.

Possible Solutions?

One solution for this broken system is completely doing away with the current oligarchic order and turning to a system where the concept of ‘human deserts’ is non-existent and everyone is given equal resources regardless of differences in resources, power or skill.

Others yearn for the aristocracy of yore because meritocracy “forges an elite that has an aristocracy’s vices (privilege, insularity, arrogance) without the sense of duty, self-restraint, and noblesse oblige that WASPs at their best displayed.” Less radical and practical measures aimed at primarily two aspects, the education system and the wage gap between the highest and the lowest-paid workers.

The Stanford study suggested improving access to education students of all genders, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds and hiring teachers from underserved communities who will be more invested in student success. Another recommendation is to change admission processes to universities so they aren’t entirely dependent on test scores and are instead more holistic.

Source: Stand with JNU/Facebook

This, in my opinion, still doesn’t do enough to reduce the negative impacts of meritocracy in a significant manner. Even comprehensive evaluations which include weightage for extracurriculars, social work, personal interviews, etc., can still be gamed by people with more resources. We’ve all heard of that one person who got an internship certificate from their father’s brother’s uncle’s company.

The other solution is to compress the meritocracy from its current polarised state which has a massive, growing gap between elite workers and other workers so that we have a populace with broad, shared prosperity between mid-skilled workers.

The idea behind a compressed meritocracy is simple: to open meritocracy’s gates to a broader portion of the population and, in doing so, make life within those gates more palatable. A more egalitarian distribution of working hours, incomes, and social esteem would not only give dignity to the middle class but diminish the heavy burden on elites. A more open and inclusive higher education system would not only increase social mobility for the middle class but reduce the hypercompetitive pressures that dominate elite life. A more egalitarian meritocracy would be a better meritocracy for all.”

This New Yorker article said, “The problem is not that some citizens are lawyers and some work in Amazon fulfillment centers. It’s that the economy is structured to allow the former class of worker to soak up most of the national wealth.”

Meritocracy is broken. Believing in it is harmful not only for society but for us on an individual level too. It rewards the already privileged and deprives the underprivileged while making them feel that deserve it. A world where self-worth is determined by merit and by extension, money, is a world devoid of humanity.

Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program

Featured image source: Stand with JNU/Facebook
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