While on the treadmill a few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a podcast delivered by the ‘intelligence squared’ where they interviewed Mark Mardell who has written a new book on the history of “meritocracy.” Originally, like the term ‘suffragette,’ it was a term of derision but since the 1950s the term has grown a following among left and right.
Merit is a strange thing, as Mardell points out it can within a single lifetime propel someone into the very opposite, aristocracy or privilege. How does this happen when the former usually means we are given advantage at birth? Well, it usually comes in the form of barriers, such as the entry criteria for institutions which when entered then pose no obstacles in the way of continuous development or refreshing by lifelong learning. You can see the root of the productivity crisis here when average life expectancy is increasing.
But beyond someone’s professional career, the greatest threat to Merit in the modern age is the idea that it justifies intergenerational privilege. Mardell pointed out how it is now more common for couples to marry at an identical socio-economic level. The age of a professional marrying a labourer are over as particularly university education drives a social wedge in people’s lived experience.
This means that when it comes to such couple’s having children, they will without hesitation plough resources into them via private school fees, expensive trips abroad and the latest gadgets without a thought to how such advantages impact the community as a whole. It’s a peculiar situation when one considers that many of the post-war generation (perhaps unknowingly) where lifted out of poverty through social programmes such as social housing or secondary education – granny’s pebble dashed two up two down isn’t a source of shame but was a steppingstone to your success.
If we go right back to the early nineteenth century, Napoleon Bonaparte smashed through the old regimes of Europe in his mission to make enlightenment values the accepted norm. Arguably he succeeded in this endeavour, merit was something he instilled into the French military which had the added benefit of helping him win battles against pampered aristocrats who’d bought their commission rather than earning it.
Fast forward to our own world and a similar Napoleonic battle is playing out in the arena of culture. You could probably reduce the so called “culture wars” to a battle of merit and privilege. The ‘woke left’ so caricatured as products of parental merit now spending their privilege on questioning society and the ‘reactionary right’ so determined to ignore all forms of privilege and charging others as anti-meritocrats.
When Ivanka Trump was asked about nepotism by the BBC some years ago her response was [paraphrase] “well how come you can run a family bakery in America, live above it and not get accused of nepotism?” To some extent Ivanka is right, we all need to challenge ourselves when it comes to this and ask if we seriously reward merit anymore or even if we can reward it in a ‘pure’ sense?
Mardell thinks academic selection (that old chestnut) should be introduced at a later age than 11 with more accurate testing rather than an 11+ style assessment, he posits that this would reinject a sense of merit through examination and rigorous assessment. But beyond this (bearing in mind school is a fraction of an average lifespan) what does merit today mean? Is merit under threat?
Jay is a Derry native now living in south Antrim and working in Belfast. His writing spans Law, Economics and International relations.