The belief that we live in a meritocracy is the idea that people get what they deserve. At school you don’t get a good grade because of your skin colour or because you have a nice smile but because you demonstrate the required skills. When I was young, the idea helped me to gain a lot of confidence. Being what is now called a first-generation student, I thought I owed my opportunity to study to a meritocratic society. I had this wonderfully confident belief that, if you’re good or trying hard enough, you’ll get where you want. Today, I think that there is so much wrong with this idea that I don’t really know where to start. Meritocratic beliefs are mostly false and harmful. In the light of our sociological knowledge, still believing that people get what they deserve strikes me as on a par with being a flat earther or a climate change denialist. At the same time, beliefs in meritocratic principles are enormously widespread and deep-rooted, even among those who should and do know better. In what follows, I attempt to make nothing more than a beginning to look at that pernicious idea and why it has so much currency.
Perhaps one of the greatest problems of meritocratic ideas is that they create a normative link between possibly unrelated things: There is no intrinsic relation between displaying certain qualities, on the one hand, and getting a job, on the other hand. Of course, they might be related; in fact, displaying certain qualities might be one of the necessary conditions for getting the job. But the justification structure suggested by meritocratic beliefs clearly obscures countless other factors, such as being in the right place at the right time etc. Here are two variants of how this plays out:
- “I’m not good enough.” – This is a common conclusion drawn by most people. That is, by those, who don’t get the job or grant or promotion they have applied for. If there is one job and a hundred applicants, you can guess that a large amount of people will think they were not good enough. Of course, that’s nonsense for many reasons. But if the belief is that people get what they deserve, then those not getting anything might conclude to be undeserving. A recent piece by a lecturer leaving academia, for instance, contends that part of the problem is that one always has to show that one is “better than the rest”, insinuating that people showing just that might get the job in the end. But apart from the fact that the imbalance between available jobs and applicants pushes such demands to absurd heights, the question arises whether any employer could be sufficiently good to be able to recognise the enormously refined qualities of the applicants.
- “My qualities are not recognised.” – The more confident applicants among us might thus draw quite another conclusion, namely that they are good enough, but that their qualities are simply not seen. The counterfactual behind this reasoning seems to be the following: Had my prospective employer seen how good I am, she would have hired me. As I see it, both kinds of reasoning are fallacious in that they construe the relation between performance and getting the job / grant etc. too tightly. Of course, most people know that. But this knowledge does not prevent one from going along with the fallacious reasoning. Why is that? Well, my hunch is that meritocratic beliefs are deeply ingrained in our educational system and spill over to other contexts, such as employment relations. Let me explain.
Most education systems hold a simple promise: If you work hard enough, you’ll get a good grade. While this is a problematic belief in itself, it is a feasible idea in principle. The real problem begins with the transition from education to employment relations in academia. If you have a well performing course, you can give all of your thirty students a high grade. But you can’t give thirty applicants for the same position the job you’ve advertised, even if all the applicants are equally brilliant. Now the problem in higher education is that the transition from educational rewards to employment rewards is often rather subtle. Accordingly, someone not getting a job might draw the same conclusion as someone not getting a good grade.
It is here that we are prone to fallacious reasoning and it is here that especially academic employers need to behave more responsibly: Telling people that “the best candidate” will get the job might too easily come across like telling your first-year students that the best people will get a top grade. But the job market is a zero sum game, while studying is not. (It might be that there is more than just one best candidate or it might be impossible for the employer to determine who the best candidate is.) So a competition among students is of a completely different kind than a competition between job candidates. But this fact is often obscured. An obvious indicator of this is that for PhD candidates it is often unclear whether they are employees or students. Yet, it strikes me as a category mistake to speak about (not) “deserving” a job in the same way as about deserving a certain grade or diploma. So while, at least in an ideal world, a bad grade is a reflection of the work you’ve done, not getting a job is not a reflection of the work you’ve done. There is no intrinsic relation between the latter two things. Now that doesn’t mean that (the prospect of doing) good work is not a condition for getting a job, it just means that there is no relation of being deserving or undeserving.
Or to put the same point somewhat differently, while not every performance deserves a good grade, everyone deserves a job.