Wednesday, April 05, 2006

It's a wonder tall trees ain't laying down..

Wikipedia states that:
A Meritocracy is a system of government based on rule by ability (merit) rather than by wealth, race or other determinants of social position.

What has been drilled into us from an early age is that intelligence, ability and especially effort will get us where we want to be. "You can do anything you set your mind to!" That statement fills us with dreams and so much hope, yet countless people will drag this unrealized hope to the grave. But we only hear about the triumphs of people who started out with nothing and worked their way to the top. Those stories, however, are the exception and not the norm.

America is not a meritocracy, but everyone believes it to be, to a certain extent. Why else would there be an "American Dream" and immigration issues? Evidence against it:
- The power of social networks : "It's not what you know, it's who you know"
- The privilege of the wealthy
- The overrepresentation of minorites in the working and destitute class
- I'm sure you can think of plenty more examples in your own life.

Anyway, do we truly want a meritocracy? We all clamor for it like it's a good thing, but do we really want everyone to start out on a level playing field? But also, don't we want the most able people running our country? I dunno about you, but the implementation of this type of mechanism for social stratification strikes fear in my heart. (I may get good grades in school, but what does that really mean or measure?) Having this sort of rule means that I would not be able to enjoy the plentiful benefits of growing up in a middle class family, which includes being able to pay for SAT prep, more parental involvement and influence in the schools, riding the "model minority" stereotype, networking by getting to know my professors, and learning how to work the system. There is no working the system if status is based on merit. So people with advantage want to keep it - what's wrong with that? Well, someone/ some group has to get screwed, so who's it gonna be?

In a hypothetical situation, having a meritocracy would probably produce some very unexpected and undesireable results. To simplify measurements, let's consider the use of an IQ test to measure intelligence (based on M. Young's satire The Rise of the Meritocracy):
- Privileged parents would get very nervous if their kids weren't very bright. There will be no extra tutoring or preparatory schooling, since intellectual ability is something you are born with. So there will be a significantly large mass of frustrated parents who are upset that they cannot transfer their huge capital to their children, that maybe their children have to fend for themselves and stop living in an unearned lap of luxury (what an idea!).
- What about the people who aren't "smart"? They will have all the reason in the world to be depressed, since they cannot blame society- they were given an opportunity to prove themselves, and they did. What should be done with them, if they're "stupid" and not very useful?
- What about education? Should the state educate all students, or not waste time with the "stupid" kids and just seek to develop the potential of the "smart" kids? In a way, this is also a dilemma in the real world. There is a thing called tracking which puts kids in different levels of "tracks" according to their perceived ability. Perhaps you were in Honors/AP/IB courses in high school, rather than in Regular. Even though the measurement methods for placing kids are quite inaccurate, it still happens and many students fall in the cracks. But it's efficient, no? Is it fair? What's the point of the education system? Now that's a whole 'nother debate.

OK, so you say, "Silly Frances, success in America is acquired not only by one's intelligence, but through hard work and diligence. There are geniuses who are total idiots when it comes to communication and social skills, and that prevents them from getting the best jobs." You are very correct, but that still doesn't get you off the hook: would you want to live in a society where everyone is rewarded for his/her own efforts only, and there would be no such thing as working the system? It resounds with much more fairness, but it's a chilling concept. The sentiment of response generally seems to be "yeah, that's good for everyone else, but let me do my own thing."

O, I should end every post with something like: it's more complicated than it seems.

Provocative quotes drawn from a relevant reading:

"How could men be equal in the eyes of God and yet unequal in the eyes of the Psychologist?"

"As men became more like machines, machines became more like man."

"All babies are creeping socialists and some never grow out of it."

"There are so few clever parents with nothing but stupid progeny, with a whole brood of ugly ducklings."

On an entirely other note,

Wal-mart grows, looms and threatens..
p.s. Future Economist, this issue should be especially important to you because they are are a huge threat to global economics. article

"We want clean air, clear water, good living conditions, the best health care in the world - yet we aren't willing to pay for anything manufactured under those restrictions." That's right, America!

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