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How Neoliberalism and Meritocracy Impact on Inclusion

  • 14 Pages
  • Published On: 27-11-2023

Used interchangeably, neoliberalism and meritocracy seem to be perfect in their face value definition. They both seem to be suitable as a means of societal advancement and rewarding individuals in society. Coined by Michael Young in 1958, the principle of meritocracy has gained much support across the society and has now gained a special position in education, sports, economics, and other areas of life (Wijaya et al, 2020). Ideally, as Gavris (2020) defines it, meritocracy or neoliberalism underpins the belief that an individual’s success at work or in school is and should be determined by their efforts and talents. Generally, according to Lawless & Chen (2017), this conceptualization is assuring for those with talent and encouraging for those without because it hints at the fact that at least, both parties have a fair chance. But critics of meritocracy have thought otherwise and suggested that meritocracy might not be presenting equal opportunities as is largely assumed. This essay engages in the discourse of meritocracy and neoliberalism as economic ideologies that have shaped education policy and political discourse. The essay will evaluate how neoliberalism has changed the environment in which schools exist as well as how it has introduced renewed pressures on teachers to produce different effects on schooling and education. A plethora of research studies has criticised how meritocracy creates a functionalist view of education. Scholars have pointed out existing inequalities in access to education as well as how some educational systems indirectly or directly serve the interest of some group in the society over others (Stephens, 2014). Researchers have further expressed concerns over how the institutions operate, and labelled those operations as purely functional, pointing to the imperfections of meritocracy as well as some non- meritocratic tendencies within the practice of meritocratic education. Collectively, these studies show the negative effects of meritocracy on schooling and education. Whatsapp But the negative effects of meritocracy on education and schooling is not new to most scholars. Consequently, policymakers and educationists have made several efforts to equalize opportunities and build more equal schools (Liu, 2011) while attempting to close the existing achievement gaps between students (Noguera & Wing, 2008). However, a closer evaluation of literature justifies some scholars’ enthusiasm for questioning the success of meritocratic policies, and to identify whether there could be some shortcomings in meritocracy. That said, the literature reveals three significant reasons why some scholars think that meritocracy has impacted on education and schooling namely: the distortion of meritocratic processes by schools, the availability of undeserved opportunities for merit and the lack of a neutral conceptualization of ‘merit’. One of the factors influencing the impact of meritocracy on education and schooling is that educational institutions have significantly interfered with and distorted meritocratic processes. Generally, schools differ in many aspects including the number of students and quality of education. Greco (2018) points out that whereas some of these differences occur randomly, there are visible and strong differences between private and public schools as well as in terms of school segregation. Even within integrated public schools, students have varied educational experience due to variance in educational tracking as well as the difference in how they stream into academically and vocationally oriented classes (Chang, 2020). Some schools practice ability grouping that affects the quality of class instruction and create some benefits or harm to the peer groups (Crozier, 2018). This affects other factors such as access to higher education and dropout rates. Moreover, according to Mateos-Gonzales & Boliver (2019), the segregation has direct links with anxiety, school violence and teacher quality. The process followed in allocating the students into various ability groups therefore affects the quality and kind of education students receive and consequently, their chances of success in the society. Research by Van de Werfhorst & Mijs (2010) shows that even in situations where meritocracy is observed in placement and selection, a student’s social class and ethnicity significantly determine what stream or track they may end up into; whereby children from more affluent families are more likely to be placed in higher standard classrooms than their counterparts from less privileged families – despite having equal levels of talent. Kaltefleiter (2019) also observed the same pattern in major educational transitions such as identifying a good pre-school, choosing whether to enrol for more programs beyond the compulsory school programs and enrolling into college. Littler (2020) also demonstrates how even when there is an expansion of schools to make them more inclusive, a student’s social class background remains to be a significant predictor of the level of quality education they get within a tracked school system. According to Owens & de St Croix (2020), part of these processes is based on teacher bias, design of selection procedures and examination, and stereotyping. However, research by Kloosterman et al (2009) and Jackson et al (2007) suggests that parents also play a significant role in these processes that even in the absence of bias, talented children from different social backgrounds would end up receiving a different quality of education. The literature on primary and secondary effects of social class show that parents contribute to their children’s education in two major ways: directly through social context, upbringing and genetic composition; and indirectly through support, motivation and pressure they do or do not provide to their children when they are faced with an educational choice. An example of an educational choice would be to take optional classes or not or to enrol in a two- or four-year college (Agenda, 2017). In addition to the fact that parents significantly contribute to the educational selection process, there is also a problem regarding the principle of meritocratic selection. According to Agenda (2017), merit implies that one deserves their achievement. Furthermore, believers in meritocracy accept just grounds of merits, people’s efforts and abilities (Reay, 2020). Therefore, a student who submits a good manuscript deserves a prestigious publication while an athlete who crosses the finish line first deserves a gold medal. However, are good grades only awarded to students who study hard? The students may have put in great efforts, but they may not just be good enough. Similarly, a fellow brighter student who puts in little effort in preparing for exams, may from a meritocratic perspective, deserve a higher grade when they score a higher grade. Amidst these heavy questions is the notion of unequal allocation of natural endowments such as IQ, natural ability, attractiveness and physical conditions, as well as other factors that determine success in life, which is not equally distributed through birth (Lin & Zhao, 2020). Furthermore, children’s talents are not distributed on a meritocratic basis – meaning that meritocratic principles begin from non-meritocratic and unequal positions. If merit is accepted as the basis for allocating reward, then we must be ready to violate the justness of that creation. Having established, through research, that meritocratic selection bears some non-meritocratic elements, that an important source of merit is undeserved and instead decided by birth, and that the assessment of merit is distorted by institutions that allocate awards based on the influence of social class, it is important to consider how educationists set the standard of merit. Karabel’s (2005) evaluates how Princeton, Yale and Harvard contributed to the definition of merit and the evolution of that term throughout the 20th century by continually adapting to external forces that were considered with these institutions as a threat to their prestige, status and integrity. In response to such perceived threats, the leadership of these institutions revised their definition of merit – and by effect – their admission criteria to legitimize the exclusion of unwanted outsiders who were majorly the Jews, Catholics, women and non-whites. Research by Karabel further revealed the minutes of the meetings in which such criteria were revised to achieve desirable admission outcomes i.e. to keep the prestigious universities only for the privileged white people. Two recent studies (Castilla & Benard 2010; Castilla, 2008) found that even if the decision-makers had no ill-intentions, non-meritocratic tendencies in education and schooling would persist. Castilla (2008), studied a company that explicitly adopted a meritocratic policy to promote equal rights for minorities and women and found that the adoption policy introduced bias in performance evaluation in the relationship between the evaluations and the outcomes such as promotion decisions and wages. This finding was confirmed by Castilla & Benard (2010) by conducting various experiments to confirm the relationship between meritocratic policies and gender bias, ironically – in meritocratic settings. The study found that people in leadership positions may feel more comfortable to discriminate against the minority. These studies confirm the notion that symbolic incorporation of meritocratic practices in organizational settings may hinder meritocratic selection. As if that is not enough, Khan (2010) conducted an ethnographic study in St. Paul New Hampshire boarding school and found that elite schools do not only acknowledge and promote a person’s talent but also make merit them. The study illustrates how students are taught meritocratic habits to achieve success, as well as how colleges reward students for their meritocratic tendencies. Having established that the notion of meritocracy entails inherent shortcomings, the next section of this essay highlights how meritocracy, and indeed, neoliberalism, negatively impacts the schools and the society at large. The immediate next section will highlight how meritocratic norms blames the victims while in the subsequent section, the essay will illustrate how merit threatens equality from an educational policy perspective, leading to serious consequences on social justice and equal opportunity. While those who work hard earn credit by merit, individuals, and not the society is are blame for their failings. It is normal to assume that ‘private problems’ reflect the existence of public issues. But meritocratic policies make society forget such important lessons. For example, Mills (1959) explained that when in a city of more than 100,000 people, only one person is jobless, it is termed as a personal problem, which may be remedied by his skills, character or the availability of unavailability of immediate job opportunities for him. On the other hand, when a country of more than 50 million people employed people and 20 million others unemployed, it becomes an issue that may not be remedied by any opportunities open o one individual. This explains why meritocracy is said to be blaming individuals for their own failures. In the last century, man’s pursuit for economic wellbeing has generally intensified. According to Lin & Zhao (2020), this pursuit for economic wellbeing is largely facilitated by banks and other financial institutions that provide a backbone for household daily expenditures. In the process, supranational agreements and international exchange on trade and commodities such as energy set the price of most products and services. However, as Nair & Vijay (2018) observed, these global processes affect people’s daily lives. Similar remarks were made by Kim & Choi (2017) who noted that people’s lives are irreversibly impacted by factors that are beyond their control. However, the irony is that while people are becoming less in control of factors and processes that affect their lives, there is a constantly increasing stress on personal responsibility. Therefore, failure to criticize meritocratic practices and subsequent adoption of those practices as norms may lead to blaming the victim (Angelo, 2020). Apparently, this notion of blaming the victim has been a topic of academic research for many researchers who believe that human tendency to accept inequality is deserved as it helps people to maintain the belief that they live in a fair world as opposed to addressing those inequalities (Bamberger et al 2019, Rottenberg, 2018). According to Periyan (2020), meritocracy justifies this belief and elevates it into a policy issue. Generally, policies on meritocracy foster the illusion that there is a manageable success and, unfortunately, provides the moral justification for failure (Glick & Dean, 2020). As a result, social justice issues such as joblessness are blamed on individuals. Furthermore, as Allen (2019) adds, it makes the social problems easily attributable to or blamed on psychological issues such as anxiety, guilt, neuroses and conflicts. Ironically though, the individual-society relationship may develop a new sense of urgency, making social crises appear to be individually instigated and not societal (Chang, 2020). Practising the principles of meritocracy means that people accept those principles as the societal standards for judging people. For example, it is the norm in most societies that athletic champions are winners, the company with highest stick price is the industry giant, while the toddler who scores the highest marks tops the class. But acknowledging success also requires that failure is recognized. That said, meritocratic principles require that we look down upon the unemployed and poor academic performers as failures. Gavris (2020) argues that this not only affects one’s self-esteem, but also discourages collective action, eliminate the right to protest and this renders the victim immobile. This corroborates with Khan’s writing that as long as some groups are privileged, inequality will continue to be produced (Khan 2010). “The production of privilege will continue to reproduce inequality while implying that ours is a just world; the weapons of the weak are removed, and the blame for inequality is placed on the shoulders of those whom our democratic promise has failed” (Khan 2010, p. 192). In line with the principles of justice, scholars of moral philosophy differentiate merit from need and equality (Wijaya et al, 2020). Against this backdrop, Gavris (2020) observed that political ideologies have contributed to the rise of different principles of justice, including the dangerous extremes such as ‘equality’ in communism. Some of these principles are held with high regard in modern economies, and the extent to which they are held with high regard depends on the domain individuals interact. Equity, for example, is used as an important element of politics (by giving equal voting rights to all eligible citizens and having each vote count). On the other hand, public citizens expect equality to prevail in the provision of civil services across all bureaucratic systems (Chang, 2020). Similarly, through equity, human’s basic needs are respected as human rights. This explains why countries in developed world have state welfare programs that deliver necessity services such as food and shelter to those in need. Basically, these rights are guaranteed by article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These moral logics are generally developed from the social justice principle. But Miller (1999) proposed that the applicable principles should be governed by the mode of communal relationship between people. Consequently, Miller (1999) proposed three types of relationships in a community. the first type is the community in solidarity, whereby people who regard themselves as having common beliefs and culture come together. The second one is that of instrumental association, whereby people cooperate to achieve goals that can be best achieved through collaboration. An example of instrumental communal relationship, according to Miller (1999) is the economic relation, whereby people relate to each other as buyers and sellers of products and services. Meanwhile, the third type of relationship is that od citizenship, which Miller (1999) describes as any member of modern democracy is a bearer of citizenship rights and obligations of a citizen. Miller further emphasizes that anyone who bears citizenship rights also has is a citizen both in a legal, social and pollical sense. While solidaristic association should be governed by need, citizenship should be governed by equality and instrumental association should be governed by desert. Order Now To further explain the nature of his arguments, Miller points out that it is challenging to assign different domains (e.g. politics of education) to these modes of relationships. For example, education, from an instrumental perspective, entail children with different levels of talent working together to access resources of education based on their capacity to deal with them. Contrastingly, from a citizenship point of view, education matters when children acquire the competence, they need to become good citizens (i.e. the ability to engage in political discourse or cooperate with others). However, contrary to these philosophies, the application of meritocracy in educational policymaking stand a chance to crown out equality and need. For example, according to Gavris (2020), the European Union’s efforts to ‘stimulate excellence’ and develop ‘honour’s students’ have one similarity: they ignore the moral principles of equality and need because they all focus on merit. In conclusion, this paper has drawn from existing literature to highlight the unfulfilled nature of meritocracy and how it negatively impacts on education and schooling. Majorly, the essay argues that in practice, educational institutions distort the meritocratic processes thereby derailing the basic principles of merit. Also, it has emerged that non-meritocratic factors are the major determinants of meritocratic opportunities, making it almost impossible to achieve perfect meritocracy. Lastly, the essay clearly reveals that any definition of meritocracy favours some people in society while discriminating others. Thus, it is possible to extrapolate that the promise of meritocracy and neoliberalism is far from being fulfilled.


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