Equal Opportunity Traps

Equal Opportunity Traps

In democratic societies, the acknowledgment of individual talents and merit should not depend on social heredity and the vagaries of birth. It is not acceptable that, in essence, future elites come from existing elites and that youth fated to the most tiresome, least well-paid jobs should be born to the least well-off classes.

This shocks us all the more in that the mass availability of schooling, by opening long studies up to a greater number, has hardly changed anything: 50 percent of management’s children and 5 percent of blue-collar workers’ children today accede to university preparatory classes (“La Démocratisation de l’enseignement” [“The Democratization of Education”], Pierre Merle, La Découverte, 2002). Therefore, the vigorous assertion of equality of opportunity and of merit appears the sole means to build a fairer society.

In the name of these convictions, it is self-evident that we must fight with all our strength against the thousand discriminations that prevent girls, working-class children and children of visible minorities from asserting their merit to the same extent as the others. Therefore, we must defend all the arrangements that, at the Institut d’études politiques (IEP) [Institute for Political Studies] and in the big Parisian academic high schools, aim to realize equality of opportunity by allowing students from disadvantaged neighborhoods and establishments to accede to better training as soon as they have merit enough to aspire to succeeding at them. That’s the image of social justice that has imposed itself today from right to left, and, apart from making the case for prohibiting the inheritance of social conditions, there’s no reason to oppose it.

But the fact that a principle of justice is excellent does not mean that it does not entail in its turn other injustices. The present consensus on meritocratic equality of opportunities should not blind us to the consequences of its implementation.

The equal opportunity policies that have been developing over several years have riveted all eyes on the elites. If we are outraged by the small share of children from the working class and from discriminated-against minorities among the students in university preparatory classes and in the “grandes écoles,” we are much less so by their overrepresentation in the least attractive fields of studies which promise them the most precarious jobs, the worst paid and most tiresome: close to 80 percent of CAP students are from the working classes. We’re more sensitive to diversity in the “grandes écoles” [France’s elite institutions of higher education outside the public university system – somewhat akin to the Ivy League] than to diversity in mass retailing and public works. In other words, we act as though meritorious social and cultural minorities’ access to the elites were going to change the state of affairs. We even believe it so strongly that our leaders have been able to assert that access to the “grandes écoles” by a few youth from disadvantaged neighborhoods would end up resolving the social question.

Now this elitist tropism is based on a statistical illusion: disadvantaged students who deserve to be helped through special arrangements number, at most, in the hundreds, while the others number in the hundreds of thousands. It is no criticism of the special arrangements for access to university preparatory classes to remind ourselves that they affect some hundreds of individuals while 150,000 students leave school without any qualifications. This imbalance results from the very model of meritocratic equality of opportunity in which the inequalities between social positions are less problematic than the equity of conditions for access to those inequalities.

Still worse, we don’t see why those who have failed in the competition for equality of opportunity should complain once the competition itself is equitable. In effect, meritocracy is a morality of the victor who considers that the vanquished deserve their fate since the competition has been fair and equitable. The fixation on elites is not a perversion of the meritocratic model, it is consubstantial with that model because the model aims to produce fair inequalities, inequalities that would be deserved by the victors and the vanquished, members of each group owing their fate solely to themselves alone.

The justice done to individuals in the name of equality of opportunity sometimes transforms itself into collective injustice. We already know that with respect to the impact of the deregulation of school districting, which increases the gaps between establishments. That justice mechanically degrades the position and the quality of establishments destined to receive only the least deserving who are also the least advantaged socially. In the end, if equality of opportunities increases, the inequality of educational conditions also increases. When we think about it on the level of difficult neighborhoods, it’s much worse. Let us imagine that tomorrow, 10 percent of these neighborhoods’ youth accede to the best schools, which would be perfectly fair; they will leave these neighborhoods which, deprived of their leadership qualities and their dynamism, would sink into a situation even more debased than before. Ghettos will be more and more ghettos; the vanquished will be all the more bitter and outraged in that they’ll be blamed for not having seized their opportunity. We must note well that the countries that have most resolutely chosen these affirmative action policies have succeeded in creating new middle classes from the most discriminated-against social categories, all the while deepening social inequalities. As sociologist William Julius Wilson (“The Truly Disadvantaged,” University of Chicago Press, 1987) showed, a fraction of American blacks have acceded to the middle classes, which is good, but the condition of the black ghettos has significantly deteriorated, which is not. We also know that the share of women in the elites has risen without the average situation of women in the work world improving in parallel: some young women get into the Ecole Polytechnique [France’s foremost engineering school], but 61 percent of jobs requiring little qualification and 82 percent of part-time jobs are occupied by women.

The exclusive attachment to the model of academic meritocracy affects the function of the school itself. The more we think the school alone is capable of defining individuals’ merit and professional performance, the more we believe it’s fair that the diplomas establish professional status. God knows that belief is already strong in France, a country that believes more in the professional and civic virtues of the scholarship student tearing himself away from his fate by his academic virtues than in those of the self-made man.

Yet, the more diplomas determine professional career paths, the stronger their influence, the more students and their families accentuate academic competition in order to expand little academic differences that will make great social differences. And the more the school is perceived as a continuous utilitarian competition, the less egalitarian it is. In theory, equality of opportunities would presuppose that the advantaged classes have the courtesy to ask their children to leave a bit of room for the new merit competitors. In the event, they are developing all the strategies of distinction and all the means to keep their academic advantages that have become indispensable to their social reproduction.

At the end of the day, we observe that the more degrees establish social positions and incomes in the name of meritocracy, the stronger the reproduction of social inequalities: in France, where the influence of degrees is high, 40 percent of children’s income is determined by that of parents, while that rate is less than 20 percent in Sweden, where the weight of degrees is less decisive.

If one thinks that the central vocation of the school is to distinguish students’ merit, their worth, and if one believes that that merit is exact and decisive, academic life comes to resemble a vast competition that progressively distinguishes the victors from the vanquished at the expense of the purely cultural dimensions of education. International studies show that academic systems that strongly adhere to that model are also those in which the students have the least confidence in themselves, are the most pessimistic and the least trusting in institutions. From that perspective, France is in the squad of the least well-placed countries.

Ultimately, the academic career resembles a long sports competition in which no matches are replayed, a cruel competition because all of one’s life depends upon it. In that case, the negative orientation, orientation by failure and the distance from the norm of meritocratic excellence, becomes the rule: it’s understandable that students’ morale should plummet over time and that many of them opt out or close down when they discover that they’re engaged in a game they’re sure to lose. How can we not also see that those who know they’ll lose the game resist a feeling of vague humiliation by turning against the school the cruelty of its conception of social justice?

Today, the meritocratic model of equality of opportunity invades almost the totality of the academic debate. Critics never stop measuring the gap between this ideal and the reality, while leaders justify their policies in the name of the same ideal. People only talk about the arrangements for equality of opportunities and of the measures of support and remediation calibrated to that norm. Ultimately, everyone or almost everyone seems to accommodate themselves to inequalities between social positions and academic training as long as people believe that merit could equitably distribute individuals along the scale of inequalities. No one or practically no one talks anymore about the educative and cultural vocation of the school. The thrall of equal opportunity, associated with the continual lament over student incivility and standards, ends up serving as educational policy.

If we cannot challenge an ideal of justice based on the fundamental equality of individuals and their right to aspire to holding all social and professional positions head-on, we must measure the consequences of a model that has become the ultimate referent and standard. In its very principle, meritocratic equality of opportunity does not in any way limit the formation of academic and social inequities; it does not create any debt with respect to the vanquished because they have no merit, no worth. And then, do we really know what merit, what worth is? It’s not impossible that merit should be nothing but a fiction thanks to which inequalities of talents and birth are “whitewashed” by the school to be reborn as the incontestable products of will and energy. It’s also not certain that academic ordeals reveal the totality of merit or worth, nor that other ordeals would not construct other hierarchies that are neither more nor less fair.

Even though equality of opportunities is incontestably fair, it does not inevitably produce a better or more livable society. It is easier to pick out an elite than to better the fate of the losers; it is easier to distinguish some who are better than to advance the weakest. Today, it seems easier to promise workers’ children that they will escape their social destiny if they deserve to than to ameliorate the life and work conditions of blue-collar workers.

And the fewer social positions there are, the more we accommodate ourselves to the social inequities of the moment as long as the game of musical chairs that allows access to those places seems equitable. But in this case, in the name of the excellence of equality of opportunity and of merit and worth, we end up agreeing to live in a society that is ever harder and more competitive. We also end up forgetting this elementary fact: the greater the inequalities between social positions, the less possible it is to realize equality of opportunity, since the distance that must be covered by those who rise is great, while those who run the risk of descent have too much to lose not to cheat.

In order to attenuate the negative impacts of the monopoly of equality of opportunity and merit, we must therefore resolutely assert the priority of reducing inequalities between social positions so that equality of opportunity does not backfire and does not become an ideology, a simple means to legitimate social inequalities.

Sociologist François Dubet is the director of studies at the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales [School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences] (EHESS) and a professor at the University of Bordeaux-II. After “La Galère” [“The Hell Hole: Youth on the Margins”] (Fayard, 1987), an exploration of juvenile marginality, he has not stopped examining the academic question (“Les Lycéens,” [“The High School Students”] Seuil, 1991, “Faits d’école,” [“School Facts”] EHESS, 2008). Defender of a single secondary school, (“L’Hypocrisie scolaire,” [“Academic Hypocrisy”] with Marie Duru-Bellat, Seuil, 2000), he has concerned himself with the development of our modernity (“Le Travail des sociétés,” [“Societies’ Work”] Seuil, 348 p., 21 euros).

Translation: Truthout French Language Editor Leslie Thatcher