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How the Myth of the Meritocracy Ruins Students

The biggest problem afflicting students isn’t standardized testing – it’s our cultural myth of meritocracy.

So long as we remain trapped in the meritocratic arena, we ensure a mean and uncertain future for our children. (Image: Stressed student via Shutterstock)

The plight of the over-scheduled, over-tested, stressed out student has become the subject of much hand-wringing and several good educational policy prescriptions. ​But if youth are to escape the educational pressure cooker, we need to understand how the pervasive myth of the meritocracy traps them in it.

As the instant classic 2009 film, Race to Nowhere, and its 2015 sequel, Beyond Measure, expose, middle-class youth feel overwhelmed with pressure to achieve academically, artistically and athletically to gain admission to top colleges; poor students, meanwhile, worry that they won’t even be able to pass the culturally biased high school exit exam.

Both sets of youth are riddled with anxiety and depression. Their struggles to cope can lead to everything from perfectionistic over-striving to cheating, dropping out, substance abuse and suicide. And both sets of youth are suffering the tedium of curricula that teach to the test and marginalize art, music, physical education and any subject that can’t be tested on a Scantron.

Media coverage of the issue has sparked a backlash against standardized testing and opened up an important dialogue around teaching methods and the right amount of homework and extracurricular activities in light of kids’ need for hands-on learning and unstructured downtime. Some teachers are dialing back on rote drilling and homework. Policymakers are reconsidering the pros and cons of standardized tests.

As the parent of a teen, I’m all for doing away with testing and homework and creating space in the classroom and at home for kids to just hang out and discover for themselves what ignites their curiosity. No argument there (so long as my son’s journey of self-discovery doesn’t involve Minecraft marathons).

But missing from the dialogue is an examination of a deeply ingrained two-part, half-true narrative that drives the entire dynamic: 1.) The middle-class is disappearing and their financial security and standard of living deteriorating (true); and 2.) The best thing parents and educators can do for children is help them compete against each other for a passport into the ranks of the middle class.

Standardized testing and mountains of homework are not causes of the rightly maligned race to nowhere; they are symptoms of the pervasive cultural presumption that the game of life is a contest. If we treat only the symptoms and not the cause, we’re likely to see testing go away only to be replaced by some new mechanism for requiring children to compete.

Everyone wants children to succeed in school, but schools exist in a society increasingly polarized into haves and have-nots, and the number of haves is shrinking. Therefore, for a student to “succeed” no longer means cultivating a lifelong love of learning and the intrinsic motivation to explore intellectual and artistic pursuits; success, rather, means out-competing peers for a slot in a top college because this is the first and crucial step toward joining the 1% or the 2% or the 20%. Parents and educators may feel virtuous in helping their students participate in this competition but, so long as it’s a competition, there will be winners and losers. Mostly losers.

Most of us, liberals included, are to varying degrees beholden to the Myth of the Meritocracy.

Why do we as a society accept this fate for ourselves and our children? Enter the Myth of the Meritocracy, the notion that unequal outcomes are “fair” because the people at the top earned their position by dint of their (take your pick) superior intellect, talent, hard work, or (for aristocrats and bigots) family pedigree, race or gender.

Competition in the mythical meritocracy is taken for granted as a fact of life in the United States. For libertarians, competition is the highest expression of human nature and should be relentlessly encouraged. Others see competition as neither good nor bad, but simply a given in light of the (mistaken) assumption that there’s simply not enough to go around and that competition is the fairest way to apportion resources.

In fact, there’s plenty to go around, and competition is a fundamentally unfair distribution mechanism because the playing field is not and never will be level. Low-income students and students of color are more likely to be malnourished, sleep-deprived, lead-poisoned, traumatized and subject to teachers’ low expectations and harsh disciplinary measures. LGBT students are dealing with a host of social, emotional and family dramas. Special needs students bring physical, learning or development challenges into the arena. In a meritocracy, they’re as good as disqualified from the outset, guaranteed a slot at the bottom rungs of the social order.

Privileged students, on the other hand, enter the educational arena able-bodied, well-fed, well-supplied and equipped with an entourage of supportive parents, tutors and coaches devoted to pressing their advantage. May the best man win or, as they ironically intone in The Hunger Games, “May the odds be ever in your favor.” Right.

When the winners of the educational rat race try to enter and navigate the workforce, they encounter new varieties of unfairness. Women’s resumés are viewed less favorably than men’s, even if they’re substantively identical. Ditto for people with names that sound Black or Latino. Women who are unattractive by conventional standards are less likely to be hired or promoted (or, according to Donald Trump, elected to high office). Women earn 78 cents to the dollar of their male counterparts, and women of color far less. Add to all those flavors of discrimination bias against assertive women and people of color, family connections and the countless subjective evaluations that make or break people’s careers, not to mention cheating and luck, and it’s hard to see how professional or financial success can ever be called fair.

The inequitable outcome of the meritocracy is hiding in plain sight in every facet of society – in schools, workplaces, prisons and neighborhoods. We don’t like inequality and we’re alarmed by how fast the underclass is growing, but we believe that it’s a fact of life because, let’s face it, some people are just better than others. Most of us, liberals included, are to varying degrees beholden to the Myth of the Meritocracy.

Liberals are all for trying to level the playing field. We support basic civil rights measures that prohibit blatant discrimination and affirmative action programs that groom the cream of the crop for middle-class membership. But for all the leveling that has supposedly occurred since Martin Luther King Jr.’s time, things are still very lopsided. King’s dream of economic equality was sidelined, because most Americans believe that once the shackles of overt discrimination are removed, the next logical step is for everyone to compete for as big a share of the spoils as possible.

We raise our kids to aspire to the “American Dream,” which is understood to extend the promise of upward mobility only to the winners of the rat race. Theoretically, every individual has the opportunity to win the competition and live the dream. But so long as there are winners and losers (with outcomes largely predetermined at birth), the “American Dream” is a Trump-like zero-sum game, and our misplaced allegiance to it has led to nightmarish levels of inequality and social breakdown. As the late George Carlin said, “It’s called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

So long as we remain trapped in the meritocratic arena, we ensure a mean and uncertain future for our children.

Meritocracy is taken for granted as part of the natural order but, in reality, it’s a political choice. The alternative to meritocracy is the organized, formal redistribution of wealth on the basis of need, not achievement, but this notion is not (yet) given air time because it upsets the Myth of the Meritocracy. What if some loser gets something he doesn’t deserve? What if I have taken away something I deserve to keep?

There’s a “me” and there’s a “them,” and they’re in competition and conflict. We’d rather they be homeless, imprisoned, deported or fired than take what we believe is rightfully ours. There is, it seems, a little bit of The Donald in all of us.

We’ve been conditioned to prefer a society in which everyone has at least some chance of climbing to the top to one in which everyone’s basic needs are met. And so it is. And so our society unravels because we’d rather fight each other and fetishize individual success than share.

This reflex to compete rather than cooperate stems from the modern delusion that humans are separate from one another and from nature. When we pause to reflect, we can readily sense and observe that all beings are interconnected and our fates intertwined. But we don’t pause to reflect, because we’re too busy reacting defensively to perceived threats to our well-being, threats that are amplified 24-7 by the media.

The biggest actual threat to our well-being is the hyper-individualist ethic that frightens us into participating in the war of all against all, the endgame of which is social collapse and, at the rate we’re plundering a natural world we feel disconnected from, human extinction.

Dr. King said:

We must see that whatever diminishes the poor diminishes everybody else. And the salvation of the poor will mean the salvation of the whole nation. For we’re all tied together in an inescapable network of mutuality. We are tied in a single garment of destiny.

Our culture conditions us to believe the opposite – that each of us can and must strive to rise above the fray. Schools do their part, training children to put a premium on personal excellence or be condemned to a lifetime of drudgery, poverty and, most horrifying of all, low status.

We can abolish homework and testing. We can turn classrooms into innovative hands-on laboratories of learning. We can tell our kids that their lives will be just as happy with a degree from a community college as from Princeton. We can run programs for at-risk youth and, with enough progressive elected officials in office, we can even wrangle some extra money for public schools.

And we should do all of those things. But so long as we focus on each individual child’s success rather than the collective well-being of all children and families, we will not be able to extricate our children from the corrosive zero-sum game of “race to the top or get left behind” they are forced to play. So long as we remain trapped in the meritocratic arena, we ensure a mean and uncertain future for our children, a future in which most will be consigned to the underclass and even those closer to the top will unhappily strive to surpass thy neighbor.

Politics and culture keep the Myth of the Meritocracy alive. Market fundamentalism ensures high levels of economic inequality that have people worried enough to want to elbow their fellow citizens (and non-citizens) out of the race. Culturally, we’re conditioned from such an early age to enter the race to the top and to believe that those at the top belong there, that we never consider what it would look like to cooperate instead of compete.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The United States is blessed with more than enough to go around, enough food, enough medicine, enough housing, enough money to create space for every child to graduate from a university or vocational college and earn a decent living doing something they enjoy. We just need to get better at sharing and cooperating.

That, in the end, is our choice: Redistribute wealth equitably and invest in schools that honor and inspire students or force our children to run the gauntlet, knowing that only a fraction of them will succeed and the rest eliminated like Celebrity Apprentice contestants. Either Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream will be realized, or Trump’s will.

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