Gekko’s Revenge: How Education Serves Meritocracy

by Shaun Terry

  1. Is education simply screening for ability?


Certainly not. First, things are rarely simple, and to ask whether education is simply screening for ability could be read as to imply one-to-one correlation. The data don’t show this to be true. But let’s assume no such implication. Were the question to ask whether education only screens for ability, it would lead to a similar problem: education may do some screening for ability, but there are lots of other factors that education could account for. We can’t be completely certain (because we can’t be completely certain of anything, can we?), but there’s plenty of evidence to demonstrate that education attainment measures a number of factors; some biological, some environmental. This brings us to the word “ability.” Ability is an idea that implies a great deal about the value of people in such a competitive, exploitative, capitalistic, and moralistic culture, such as America’s. “Ability” may simply refer to a person’s skillset, but often “ability” is used to say something about a person’s inborn capabilities and potential. Such ideas go a long way toward justifying problematic meritocracies. Herein lies much of the problem with America’s education system and the treatment of education by American society and her institutions.

In America, the myth goes that a person who is born exceptionally smart and hardworking is sure to attain a high level of education and earn a good deal of money. At some point, this becomes tautological in our culture because we tend to view wealth as an indication of an individual’s value while we assume that the most valuable Americans will attain a lot of wealth and/or high status. It’s common in America for someone to assume by displays of conspicuous consumption that someone must be smart, industrious, hardworking, powerful, and ethical. At the very least, the common wisdom is that a person with money is someone who deserves respect and to disrespect someone with money is a foolish act that can lead to painful consequences for the transgressor.

In Chris Hayes’s Twilight of the Elites, it’s pointed out that power manifests through people’s wealth, platforms, and/or networks. In the case of each of these, higher education can play an important role in developing these vehicles for power, so in a sense, it can be said that educational attainment is a vehicle for obtaining power. As such, it’s imperative for able, loving parents to exhaust the efforts at their disposal to ensure the educational successes of their children, but even parents who don’t display this parental diligence can ensure that their children will get good educations by simply being the sort of people who have children who get into good schools: rich, white, highly educated, etc.

Michael Marmot’s The Status Syndrome describes how constituent aspects of status affect health and mortality outcomes, but more important to the subject at hand, his book also explains how factors work in conjunction with one another to confound issues that lead to inequalities. Wealthy parents tend to live around other wealthy people, whose children go to schools with other wealthy children, whose parents tend to emphasize the importance of education in their child-rearing, and whose communities tend to create environments in which children can thrive academically, as well as provide a robust, well-connected social network. To give an example, children in wealthy families tend to get better preventive care than children born into lower socio-economic conditions, which can help them to spend more time in school as opposed to having to stay home due to illness. Marmot’s thesis depends a good deal on Amartya Sen’s ideas on the Capabilities Approach.

In Sen’s Development as Freedom, he describes how people’s needs can vary greatly based on the circumstances in which they find themselves. Surely this is true when it comes to education. A child growing up in a crime-riddled area, being reared by a single mother who works two jobs doesn’t need less educational resources and more distractions than a child born to two involved, wealthy parents does; she needs more than the rich child. But this is only reflective of the inequities we see throughout American culture.

Unfettered capitalism is unsustainable and the education system is one of many institutions which are both subject to and contributory to the problems that deregulation, regressive taxation, weak social safety nets, weak unions, and disregard for social justice thrust upon society. Dirk Philipsen’s recent The Little Big Number demonstrates just why and how endless growth is unsustainable and, indeed, neurotic. Ideas like endless growth, deregulation, and work as a moral virtue all serve to benefit the wealthy at the expense of the lower classes. Karl Widerquist’s Independence, Propertylessness, and Basic Income proposes that the modern state of America’s economy is one by which the underclasses are made to serve the wealthy through forced labor, and while this may seem extreme, there seems to be truth in it. Until some point in human history, people were tasked with merely finding the necessary natural resources to build shelter and procure food — nothing more, nothing less — there was no impediment of ownership to prevent them from the necessary procurements. Today, in order for a person to survive and to live a life worth living, she must go and work for a powerful person and be subject to their rules, forced to play a game that benefits the ruling class and under the rules created by the ruling class.

So does education simply screen for ability? It doesn’t. Education is the institution that indoctrinates children with the mythology of meritocracy such that people act against the interests of themselves and of their communities, all so that we can hope to burn what resources we have until there’s nothing left for the sake of ensuring the safety and comfort of old, rich, delusional, white men, who studies have shown have very little empathy. Big surprise.

Educational attainment demonstrates how tall you are, what kind of neighborhood you grew up in, whether your mother was nice to you or not, what color your skin is, and a lot of other arbitrary factors that are inherited through lottery of birth to ensure one’s place in the social order. The education system is a part of a giant machine made to allow the wealthy to feed on the blood and sweat of the anonymous masses of innocent proletarians. The American education system is part and parcel of all the seemingly intractable problems that the world faces.