Behind the Meritocratic Mask

Many, if not most, well-meaning people in modern societies see education as the rightful engine for social progress. Underlying this belief is the modern conviction that merit—rather than characteristics such as birth, tradition, race, gender, class, religion, age, and sexual orientation—should determine advancement up the social “ladder” or hierarchy. Accordingly, the answer to inequality to which many schools, including Harvard, offer or aspire is need-blind admissions: If you are academically good enough, you will get in regardless of your financial status.

Such meritocracy is a nice idea except for at least two problems. First, those who apply to good schools and do well in school come disproportionately from privileged families, which tend to have more time, taste, and money for education. So no matter how meritocratic the school, most of its student and faculty applicants hail from upper-middle class and wealthy families. Second, no matter how meritocratic the school, current meritocracy rarely questions the social ladder’s height, let alone its existence. Meritocracy simply seeks to ensure free movement up and down the ladder so those most capable rise while those least capable fall.

What meritocracy misses are the ways Harvard and so many other schools deepen social inequalities. Professional administrators, faculty, and members of economic, political and cultural elites—not the whole school and surrounding community—make the vast majority of the school’s decisions. Routinely putting decisions in the hands of a few simultaneously consolidates the power, skills, knowledge, connections, wealth, and entitlement of a few individuals and at the same time takes that power away from most. The less most people are directly involved in the decisions that affect their lives, the less interested they are in such decisions.

Furthermore, prestige-hungry schools like Harvard relentlessly seek to distinguish their faculty and students in significant part by professionalizing knowledge, strengthening alumni connections, and plucking the most promising youth from across the world, including its most troubled communities. Professionalizing knowledge concentrates the production and consumption of legitimate knowledge in the hands of fewer people. Strengthening alumni connections turns putatively meritorious students into social climbing graduates who climb as much, if not more, because of their connections as their merit. Plucking promising youth from troubled towns may advance a school’s prestige, but this individualistic approach does little to solve community problems as it propels those youth up the social ladder, rarely to return to their troubled communities.

These points about meritocracy, education, equality, and democracy inspire the following ideas to nurture participatory democracy in schools. First, schools that practice, rather than simply espouse, participatory democracy do not assume that a few individuals make the decisions while the others in the school community study physics, teach classes, clean floors, or serve meals. If democracy entails sharing in the making of history or decision-making through everyday life, rather than when an election rolls around, then schools need to be democratized so that all a school’s participants—including students, teachers, and administrators, but also custodians, clerical workers, and cafeteria workers—participate together, routinely in school decision-making large and small. Routine and shared decision-making helps to bridge the all-too-silent social divides between teachers, students, and workers, and it instills some of the most significant education—about community, decision-making and power—as a lifelong process for all rather than the province of a credentialed few.

Second, rather than pluck promising students from troubled communities to propel them up the social ladder, democratic schools build long-term partnerships with communities near and far to together address their respective needs. Such an approach engages schools in directly tackling community problems—from poverty and crime to pollution and war—rather than extricating a few from social problems, leaving the problem in place for those remaining to endure. In return, the school community gains ongoing, invaluable, hands-on education in addressing public problems.

Third, schools committed to democracy more than prestige can accordingly devote their alumni networks to sustaining students’ nurturing relationships with communities as much as, if not more than, fundraising and social climbing.

Fourth, schools can democratize by popularizing more than professionalizing knowledge. The democratization of knowledge can be achieved in a variety of ways, including: reforming education, tenure and promotion so that students and faculty are rewarded as much for communicating with ordinary citizens as academics; moving knowledge beyond the printed word to other media more people consume, from film, radio, television and the internet to posters, cartoons, and popular art; stressing the teaching of knowledge production as much as consumption to thin the dividing lines between knowledge producers and consumers; making education a lifestyle rather than a passing period in one’s life by moving education into arenas beyond schools, proliferating reading, writing, and science clubs, provocative radio debates and lectures, scholarly film festivals, and more.

Of course, these are by no means the only possible paths to a more democratic education, nor is democracy limited to schools. But if we, as members of Harvard and other school communities, support genuinely participatory democracy, we have every reason to question and start changing some of our schools’ most taken-for-granted goals and practices. Democracy begins at home.

Paul Lachelier is a Teaching Fellow in social studies at Harvard and a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at University of Wisconsin-Madison.