• Project Saathi

The Mirage of Meritocracy

Tania Choudhury*

All of us, at one point or another, have been reminded by our elders of how student life is the best time of one’s life, followed by the advice to make the most of it while it still lasts. However, there is one aspect of student life which every student fears, some more than others, and never wishes to remember: Exams. We always feel this pressure to score high marks in examinations because not doing so would mean jeopardising our future from getting into the best educational institutions and later into the top high ranking jobs. This need to prove ourselves as the best in scholastic criteria and come out on top has risen because of the growing shift of societies towards “meritocracy”. However, the revolutionary idea of students not being mere numbers or GPA scores is more valuable than merit itself.

As a contrast to past societies where a person’s social position was predetermined by birth, we now live in a world governed by the ideology of “meritocracy” that advocates allocation of wealth and power solely based on merit. Theoretically, a meritocratic society would be a just society as it provides freedom of choice and equality of opportunity to all by introducing the idea of open competition. It would not only reduce the existing gap between the rich and the poor but would also establish a competent society by placing only the best suited and deserving candidates for different jobs. As we now continue to attribute our educational and professional achievements more and more to our merit, some of us may detest affirmative actions, claiming that it is unfair to favour particular groups instead of letting one’s merit decide their fate. However, what we often fail to ask ourselves is whether our society is truly meritocratic where only talent and hard work matter? Is the starting point for this “open race” the same for all? Is an open competition enough to battle years old inequalities entrenched in our social structures?

“If hard work pays off, show me a rich donkey”- is an ancient idiom which challenges what we learnt for years. Nevertheless, we cannot deny the truth in it. An open race surely has allowed some people from the lower rungs of the society to achieve positions earlier unattainable, but these are mainly exceptions rather than the new rule. There are still other factors such as financial status, better educational guidance, supportive family, and social connections etcetera which continue to influence one’s success significantly. The upper classes, who, for generations, have assumed the top positions in societies, carry an upper hand. While the disadvantaged communities are still unprepared and unequipped to enter this race, let alone overcome those additional obstacles which the privileged do not face. Thus, ultimately, it is again the upper classes that form the new meritorious class. However, they can now validate their social position under the pretence of “merit” while their privileges, like an invisible hand, continue to help them.

The dilemma with meritocracy does not just end with the lack of a level playing ground to compete. A meritocratic society must also decide as to which talents, amongst millions, it counts worthy of rewarding. Arguably, talent itself is an ascribed characteristic that we are born with. As such, it becomes hard to deny the role of luck in awarding us with different talents and placing us in societies that may or may not value those talents. Thus, the entire moral logic behind “meritocracy” of getting what we “deserve” becomes invalid when posed with the question: “are we really meritorious or just fortunate to be born in a society that values the skills we coincidentally have?”

Furthermore, the current evaluation system is not an accurate scale to measure the immensely diverse skills, some of which are even unquantifiable. Instead, exams measure one’s ability to display their potential rather than the potential itself. However, despite all the flaws, GPA scores continue to be the yardstick to judge one’s worth.

Thus, meritocracy, which supposedly was the harbinger of equality and justice, has, in reality, consolidated the existing inequalities further by attributing the condition of the poor to their supposed “low” intellectual capacity. Moreover, the struggle to avoid being stamped as a “loser” continues to cause anxiety and depression among students. Sometimes they even feel pressured to take extreme measures to escape the horrors of exams. It has never been more important than now when the entire education system is struggling under the pandemic, the mirage of meritocracy shatters. There is a dire need for reformation in the current valuation system because the label of merit is not enough to prove one's worthiness. Moreover, it is time to demand that everyone gets accepted as worthy in their unique ways. Only then can we have an egalitarian society.

*Tania is a sophomore student at Kamala Nehru College, University of Delhi. She serves as a Volunteer under the Capacity Building Workshops Division of Project Saathi.

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