Do We Live In A Meritocracy?

By: Peter Segall


Do we live in a meritocracy? The “American Dream,” as most commonly understood, is the idea that anyone from any background can be successful if they work hard enough. “Successful” is not defined necessarily as “wealthy,” but “able to earn enough for a decent life.” Perhaps the most motivating incentive behind the American Dream is the belief that your children will go on to be more ‘successful’ than you are. Yet, emerging evidence suggests that success in America is not quite based solely on one’s own ability, but on one’s access to resources.

In fact, a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, published in September of last year, argued that the lowest achieving children from wealthy families end up better off than high performing children from poorer backgrounds. The Boston Globe recently published a series of stories about valedictorians from Boston’s public high schools. These students came mostly from working-class backgrounds, many of them from immigrant families. While some of these students went to Ivy League schools on full-scholarships, few of them ended up graduating.

Why? Shouldn’t these students, who were the “best in their class,” have gone on to lead successful lives? The answer lies in the fact that success in American society is based on a number of factors that include accidents of birth. College-graduated parents are better able to guide their children through the process of applying to and navigating higher education. If not able to provide the help themselves, college-educated parents are more likely to have the means to pay someone who can. College entrance exams like the SATs have been shown to favor students of means. Students who have access to test-prep services, special tutoring and PSATs, all programs that cost money, tend to do better on these entrance tests.

In Our Kids, Robert Putnam argues that a child’s exposure to language can deeply affect their mental development. College-educated adults are more likely to use advanced language around their children. As a result, children who hear more words in general, and more complex words in particular, tend to have better language skills. This interaction between parent and child affects their child’s education down the road and provides them with a step up when it comes to overall school performance.

A belief in a meritocracy can have negative effects on students who fail to achieve within the system. When students are told that they are rewarded according to their abilities, and then they fail, they can face serious self-esteem issues. Conversely, students from privileged backgrounds who do succeed can have a false sense of their own abilities, and perhaps even a sense of entitlement.

What kind of society do we - or you - live in, and what changes might we make? Does a meritocracy work for all our kids?

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