[Column] Are meritocracies really fair?

Posted on : 2020-09-19 19:12 KST Modified on : 2020-09-19 19:12 KST
Some scholars say meritocracies not only exacerbate inequality but justify it
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg gives a commence speech at Harvard University on May 25, 2017. (AFP/Yonhap News)
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg gives a commence speech at Harvard University on May 25, 2017. (AFP/Yonhap News)

Tests measure ability, which is the foundation for a meritocracy that justifies a new — and cruel — system of social classes. Because meritocracy provides a justification for inequality, it makes it even harder to achieve equality.

This is the gist of an argument stated by British sociologist Michael Young in his 1958 novel “The Rise of the Meritocracy.” In it, he depicts a fictional 2034 Britain based on social principles of intelligence and ability, where stratification has become entrenched and riots are erupting. The book ends with the main character -- a scholar sharing the author’s name -- being killed in a revolt.

Very designer of UK’s meritocracy questioned its legitimacy

The book was quite controversial, as the author Young was the one of the very same people who had developed the meritocracy-based educational system in the postwar UK and coined the word “meritocracy” itself. Through a major expansion of schools, he sought to provide opportunities for systematic education to the general public. Under this system, students would undergo intelligence testing at age 11 to decide whether they would continue on toward labor or clerical education. Students would subsequently be winnowed down through more testing, leaving those who would have the opportunity for higher education. Students who received higher education would gain greater access to jobs that offered leading roles in society and high compensation.

But in his novel, Young reflected a reality where the scholastic ability-based meritocracy designed by him used equality of opportunity as a means of justifying inequality. Early this year, Yale University law professor Daniel Markovits touched off a controversy in the US with his book “The Meritocracy Trap,” which scathingly critiqued the US education system and meritocracy centering on academic performance (grades).

He even took aim at Young. According to Markovits, Young failed to understand that the meritocracy itself was not actually rooted in “ability,” but in hereditary environment. In particular, Markovits observed that the meritocracy issue had intensified with the adoption of the SAT, an examination to assess the academic abilities of high school graduates.

Higher SAT scores more common among wealthy

The system symbolized by the SAT, in which college admissions are determined primarily by grades, served to supplement an elite entrenched through the Ivy League universities, he argued. Once the complacent schooling grounds of children from a finite aristocratic class, the Ivy League was transformed into a tool to “rank” all US students, where only those who passed through it would gain access to the highly rewarded jobs and professions that would allow them to influence society. According to Markovits’ analysis, this meant fewer advancement opportunities for children from ordinary families -- the reason being that grades were the pathway to Ivy League admission, and family environment was a crucial factor determining grades.

Markovits’s book has been lambasted by critics who have asked what alternative there is, and whether things were better up under the hereditary elitism of the past. But this has only amplified the debate over whether the meritocracy really is fair. According to a 2015 analysis by the US higher education news site Inside Higher Ed, the lowest SAT stores on average were found among students from families earning under US$20,000 a year, while the highest scores on average were received by students from families earning over US$200,000.

Some universities even removing SAT as admissions standard

Because of the controversy over the SAT, over 50 US universities have removed that test and other standardized tests from their admission requirements for next year. The University of California campuses -- elite universities that also represent the single biggest public university system in the US -- announced in May that they would be postponing the use of standardized testing in their admission requirements through 2024. They also said that if no new test comes out through 2025, they plan to permanently remove the SAT and other standardized tests as requirements.

One California court determined that the SAT should not be used for university admissions at all. The California Superior Court of Alameda County issued a preliminary injunction on Sept. 2 barring the use of the SAT and other standardized tests by all UC campuses even optionally for admission purposes. As a reason, the court cited the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic placed disabled students at a disadvantage in taking tests such as the SAT, which would result in even further opportunities for non-disabled students with high SAT scores.

South Korean society has been crying out for fairness. The medical students who are refusing to sit for the Korean Medical Licensing Examination have argued for the fairness of the “schoolwide first-place meritocracy,” although a majority of South Koreans would undoubtedly reject the notion of fairness they are proclaiming. But is there a consensus within South Korean society that directly repudiates this kind of meritocracy, where rankings are determined by grades? Do the South Koreans in their 20s and 30s who are crying out for fairness believe this meritocracy to be unjust? It’s a question that I have to ask after seeing the ways in which certain young people have been denouncing the transitioning of Incheon International Airport Corporation irregular workers to regular status, or how people living in flophouses have fretted that a comprehensive real estate tax is unfair.

By Jung E-gil, senior staff writer

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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