One Man’s Merit is Another Man’s Privilege.

Meritocracy has long been held as the most fair and unbiased method for determining relative achievement. Even in a society that might otherwise express contempt toward cut-throat competition, a contest of merit is still considered acceptable—if there are to be winners and loser, better it be determined by individual performance and skill than by external biases. Unfortunately, while praise of meritocracy is nearly universal—few would be so bold as to argue against it directly—our standard for determining “merit” seems, at times, to be filled with strategic ambiguity. When inequality is perceived in a given system or environment, a lack of meritocracy is often one of main criticisms leveled; a clear definition of merit, however, is often lacking. While there can be no doubt that meritocracy is real and important, it is not especially useful for evaluation unless we can answer a key question: how do we know when it isn’t present?

This may seem like a silly question, but it carries significant weight. If one were to look at samples of people who succeeded and of those who failed, how would it be determined whether the selection were meritocratic? This dilemma is especially important to the current debate surrounding college attendance and undergraduate performance. It is often claimed, with some convincing statistical support, that attaining a bachelors degree depends more on the socioeconomic status of a student’s family than on said student’s academic ability. As a result, higher education is often claimed to be an institution lacking in meritocracy. The actual truth of this claim is, for the sake of the current discussion, largely irrelevant . Instead, it is useful to focus on how we would determine its truth. What do we look for? On one hand, it could be argued that the mere presence of a strong correlation between wealth and graduation is enough to rule out meritocracy. The wealth of your family cannot possibly be an indicator your personal abilities, so the argument goes, therefore a true meritocracy would not result in any connection between money and success. However, this seems like a weak approach, as it inappropriately rules out the possibility of of wealth being directly associated with increased merit. It might very well be the case that having more money allows one to acquire greater skill and amass more talents—in this sense, it could be argued that the acquisition of merit is itself not a meritocracy.

Conversely, one could approach the issue from the opposite end; the mere fact that a particular group succeeds implies that they had the greatest merit. This method effectively establishes a “definition” of merit by working backwards from the outcome—merit simply means that a person had what it takes to succeed, regardless of what that entails. By doing this we abandon all pretense of striving for some greater sense of fairness, instead settling for a laissez faire notion of what it means to be worthy of attainment. In the context of higher education, this means that being wealthy is merit by definition, because it is a characteristic shared by those most likely to graduate from college. On the whole, this approach to meritocracy seems patently absurd, as the mere fact that a trait is associated with success should not be sufficient to declare it an example of merit; through such an argument, one could easily demonstrate that white skin is meritorious, conveniently ignoring that such disproportionate success results from significant racism.

If nothing else, we can derive from the previous discussion one key revelation: meritocracy is subjective. You can approach the evaluation of merit from multiple perspectives, and no one approach is objectively “correct.” What one considers to be meritocratic will depend largely on what one thinks is fair—it becomes a matter of what should be valued rather than what is valued. When it comes to college, some might have no problem with the notion that wealth determines success; maybe higher education is best left to those living at highest echelons of society. Of course, many people will find this proposition abhorrent, and instead advocate for equal performance in higher education regardless of socioeconomic status, even if this means conveniently ignoring the possibility that academic talent results from a more privileged background.

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