Is Our System Really Producing the Best Outcomes?
To narrow the opportunity gap, we have to ask questions of the system that produced it. There are many reasons social and political inequality exist, but in this country, one of the most significant drivers of the gap between the poor and wealthy is our education system.
I’ve written before about whether or not we truly live in a meritocracy. Research shows that the system evaluation for college admission, particularly standardized tests, disproportionately favors the rich. Not out of some conspiracy to exclude the working class from higher institutions but because we’ve created a system that reproduces itself. The bar for entry into elite institutions is continually raised (better grades, more extracurricular activities, and so on) and thus increasingly limits the number of people who are able to meet those qualifications. Only those with extreme wealth can afford to properly prepare their children for the standards of the elite.
Just this week, an article by Ted Chiang appeared in the New York Times discussing the disparity of opportunity based on wealth,“It’s 2059, and the Rich Kids Are Still Winning.”
Perhaps the most problematic aspect about this system is the difficulty of criticizing it without attacking its participants, who in most cases, haven’t done anything wrong. Any parent would want to provide the best for their children, and wealthy parents simply have more resources to do so. Though they’ve had significant advantages, those children still work extremely hard to achieve what they have. Elites in this country, who are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars or more, work incredibly hard and believe that they are entitled to their extreme wealth. This is simply a system of people logically responding to incentives.
Yale law professor Daniel Markovitz has described meritocracy this way:
Merit is not a genuine excellence but rather a pretence, constructed to rationalise an offensive distribution of advantage. Merit, in short, is a sham...Meritocracy promises to promote equality and opportunity by opening a previously hereditary elite to outsiders, armed with nothing save their own talents and ambitions. But today, middle-class children lose out to rich children at school, and middle-class adults lose out to elite graduates at work.
Meritocracy in fact installs a new form of aristocracy, purpose-built for a world in which the greatest source of income and wealth is not land but human capital and free labor. And merit is not a genuine excellence but rather—like the false virtues that aristocrats trumpeted in the ancien régime—a pretense, constructed to rationalize an offensive distribution of advantage.
Harsh, but accurate. What’s more, Markovitz argues, is that this system causes the elite to be callous and defensive, showing little sympathy for those who fail to meet increasingly high expectations, while going to great lengths to protect their wealth. Those who fail often internalize their failure and blame themselves for not meeting higher and higher standards.
The elite fetishize their perpetual work, even though it’s been shown to cause significant health problems. Conversely, those who are unable to work, jobless or under-employed, are made to feel like failures and have their own set of mental health issues.
The solution then seems simple. If wealthy parents are able to provide outsized resources to their own children, then perhaps society should provide those same resources for children who can’t afford it. Yet if success and failure are seen as deserved, then redistribution of wealth becomes a sensitive subject.
Many have worked hard to provide resources to children at underprivileged schools, some of whom have been profiled in the Our Kids series. But those efforts are most often limited to single communities or regions. Many billionaires have dedicated themselves to philanthropy, promising to donate all of their wealth by the end of their lives. Yet again, those efforts are limited and not part of the country’s governmental infrastructure.
What’s most important is to rethink the way we think about merit and thus the ways we evaluate it. We have seen some movement on this from politicians and business elites who see that the current system is not sustainable, particularly with technology automating a significant number of jobs.
However, like with climate change, small incremental changes aren’t going to work. Radical or exponential change needs to be enacted. Finland abolished its private school system, and in doing so, drastically improved its educational outcomes. Will that work in America? It’s certainly not yet politically viable but if we rethink our notions of merit perhaps it could be? I would argue that this decade is shaping up to be just as transformational as the 1960s were in terms of reshaping politics and societal norms. We just need to maintain that energy and focus it in the right areas. Change education today, and you change inequity tomorrow.
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