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What has meritocracy to do with merit?

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I ought to rephrase the question and ask instead: when did meritocracy ever have anything to do with merit? The answer is simple: Never. Merit is one of those ambiguous, overused phrases applied to anyone who does well within a particular system. I am not commenting on individual traits that someone might be endowed with. Some people are born to be John Lennons and some others to be George Carlins. The merit I am talking about is not with reference to unusually gifted people. In fact that's not what merit is all about. Merit is about intelligence that is attributed as being natural to certain individuals because they do well within a system. The attribution of intelligence is usually done without any reference to the system itself.

I strongly contest that kind of a definition of merit. The traditional argument critiquing merit is owing to the fact that it cruelly isolates individuals from their social situation and tries to look at them as neutral, objective achievers or failures. Children who come from poor and deprived backgrounds inevitably are pushed out of the merit-based system. My argument against merit is that it is invented to suit the requirements of a certain system. In that hypothetical system some people do well and many others do not. There is no indication to say that the people who do not do well in that system are less meritorious for one reason or the other.

I found it rather amusing when the Minister for Human Resource Development Ms. Smriti Irani was targeted for having been given a portfolio dealing with higher education among other things without having a basic university degree. Ms. Irani is a relatively young politician to hold an important position in the newly formed Narendra Modi government. My view is that she has already proved her credentials when she entered politics and became a minister. It is nonsense in my view to say that someone who does not go to a university cannot be put in-charge of higher education. That's a bigoted view according to me.

There are truckloads of people with PhD degrees on this planet. I don't think they have made the world a better place nor for that matter have they taken humankind forward in terms of intellectual advance in sciences and humanities. Shakespeare never went to a university and the reason history remembers some of his so-called critics who went to a university, is because they dared to attack the bard. Interestingly that is their only ticket to fame -- such is the greatness of Shakespeare.

The point I presume is well-made that universities are not necessarily the birthplaces of talent. This however does not mean I don't respect scholars and researchers who play an important role in enhancing our understanding of social reality. I don't like this lack of respect for anything academic or intellectual as is propagated by American media as a way of combating communism or any serious attempt to question the way things are. Anti-intellectualism while being mistaken for democracy of sorts is in fact an abuse of it. At the same time I respect intelligence which comes with experience of the world though at times it can be narrow or lacking in terms of taking a nuanced view of the world.

A S. Neill also takes the view that education or learning is not about everyone going through the "classroom" where they have to prove their merit in mathematics, science or languages.

"Learning is important-but not to everyone. Nijinsky could not pass his school exam in St. Petersburg, and he could not enter the State Ballet without passing those exams. He simply could not learn school subjects - his mind was elsewhere. They faked an exam for him, giving him the answers with the papers --so a biography says. What a loss to the world if Nijinsky had had to really pass those exams! Creators learn what they want to learn in order to have the tools that their originality and genius demand. We do not know how much creation is killed in the classroom with its emphasis on learning."

Indeed it would've been a loss to the world if Nijinsky had to actually pass those exams. But a meritocracy has no place for the ones like Nijinsky. More and more people are expected to conform to a set of values before they are attributed with any kind of intelligence at all. The problem with the merit argument itself as with those who make it is that they are not taking the element of individual creativity into consideration.

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People are creative in different ways. Everyone might not be as exceptionally gifted as Shakespeare or Charlie Chaplin but that doesn't mean on the average, individual variations of survival oriented behavior do not exist. People disclose uncanny abilities to thrive in the most difficult of situations. I don't think that the merit system takes that into account. The merit system is about grading where people stand in a hierarchy of success and failure; it is about who stands in the top 3% of the class; it is about who gets to go to a top American or British university; I mean, can we think of a more narrow definition of merit?

Meritocracies are about social and economic ladders and not about merit, if we redefined merit to include survival-related abilities such as adaptation for instance. In the face of majoritarian onslaught, social, political, sexual and economic minorities show unbelievable abilities to sustain themselves. Shouldn't that qualify for merit? What about the resilience of working class women in the face of brutal male violence? If that is not merit what is? I mean we could think of countless such instances of real merit that has nothing to do with a university degree or grades or of going to a top American college that the middle classes are obsessed with.

The argument in favor of a meritocracy has completely failed and it is pointless to offer a detailed exposition in that regard. It is a fundamentally biased one that prioritizes certain professions such as medicine and engineering and ignores the rest. More importantly, corporate-based meritocracy is the kind of skilled labor or talent that corporations need for their existence. They define taste through the media both in the arts and performance industry. They define what beauty is all about. They also define how rewards must be distributed to individuals based on their merit which is about subscribing to a set of values and attitudes more than mere possession of intelligence.

Meritocracy is another way of globalizing caste system by creating a system of social stratification separating the inferior from the superior. It is a way of making sure that the downtrodden, apart from the token few, never aspire to what by virtue of the system will go to those who inherit both wealth and power.

Only in a socialist order can we imagine meritocracy coming to an end. People who merely do well academically are not in a position to judge what is good for the world. They need to take a walk in those spaces inhabited by the poor. Let them talk to poor, associate with them and if possible live with them to find out what the latter think is good for their own selves.

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Conscientiousness ought to be an important parameter in defining merit. Those who conscientiously dedicate themselves to the uplift of the weak must be recognized as proof of real merit in any system that claims to be just. Where that does not happen we manufacture robots as we are doing just now in a system overflowing with conscienceless men and women who will resort to anything for personal gain.

 

Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher and researcher who lives in Hyderabad, India. He is currently working as an Associate Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad.

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Great points about the bias built into the idea of... by Derryl Hermanutz on Saturday, May 31, 2014 at 6:21:41 PM
Great article. I wanted to H1 it (top of page) but... by Rob Kall on Saturday, May 31, 2014 at 7:49:42 PM
rob...apart from the one i already sent you, i am ... by Prakash Kona on Saturday, May 31, 2014 at 10:41:26 PM
Prakash, A "meritocracy" didn't really exis... by Mark Whittington on Saturday, May 31, 2014 at 8:13:18 PM
Prakash, you make some very good points, and I agr... by E. J. N. on Saturday, May 31, 2014 at 8:23:27 PM
E. J. N.thanks for the link to the article Poverty... by Prakash Kona on Saturday, May 31, 2014 at 10:03:22 PM
"Those who conscientiously dedicate themselves to ... by Don Smith on Saturday, May 31, 2014 at 8:39:58 PM
dear don,i couldn't more agree with you that some ... by Prakash Kona on Saturday, May 31, 2014 at 9:52:34 PM
I would modify the last statement to say that "Som... by David Vicks on Monday, Jun 2, 2014 at 12:26:24 AM
Poor America Panorama by ErmmmTV ... by E. J. N. on Sunday, Jun 1, 2014 at 12:11:15 PM
Notice in the video that those denying the impact ... by E. J. N. on Sunday, Jun 1, 2014 at 2:59:01 PM
It appears to me that most of our laws and many re... by Pal Palsimon on Friday, Jun 13, 2014 at 2:05:21 AM
I am confused.Does somebody assume that we have me... by BFalcon on Sunday, Jun 1, 2014 at 1:45:57 PM
Good thoughts. Glad you brought the subject up.Hav... by David Vicks on Sunday, Jun 1, 2014 at 2:24:14 PM
"Love, Honor, Frugalness, Physical quickness, risk... by Prakash Kona on Sunday, Jun 1, 2014 at 8:32:48 PM
Very interesting thoughts. This is an article, rea... by Pal Palsimon on Thursday, Jun 12, 2014 at 1:58:47 PM
In my opinion the only measure of a successful per... by Pal Palsimon on Thursday, Jun 12, 2014 at 2:06:47 PM
"Unfortunately, we seem to end up with people of l... by Prakash Kona on Thursday, Jun 12, 2014 at 6:53:41 PM