The Difference Between a System and an Ideal

Recently, New York City announced the results of their Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). This aptitude test is taken by eighth grade students and serves as the sole factor for admission to the most selective high schools in the city.

While black and Latino students make up 66% of all NYC students, they received only 10% of these coveted slots.

Hold that thought.

Meritocracy is defined as “a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement.”

Are we to believe that any one group of thirteen-year-old children is that disproportionately less talented than another to justify such as discrepancy as described above?

The term meritocracy was originally coined in the 1958 satirical essay by the sociologist, Michael Young. You read that right, satire.

The essay was a dystopian tale set in 2033, where a historian now living in a so called meritocracy looked back in time to review how they got there

Young’s historian proved also to be a wise futurist, when he recognized the limits of meritocracy. His forecast included a future full of simplistic judgment, saying for example — “the eminent know that success is a just reward for their own capacity, their own efforts and in which the lower orders know that they have failed every chance they were given.” 

He also envisioned a day where merit based systems would ironically lead to the hoarding of advantages amongst those who had worked their way to the top, writing that “nearly all parents are going to try to gain unfair advantages for their offspring.”

We conflate systems with ideals. It is the difference between “this is how things work” and ‘this is how things should work.” We no more live in a true meritocratic system than we live in a true democracy.  As Young foretold, rules get re-written by those at the top who, perhaps naturally, wish to remain there. 

It is the ideal of a meritocracy that we should constantly be striving to live by. 

Ultimately this means ensuring that everyone plays by the same rules and where the playing field is created level for all. 

But it must first start by being honest enough to admit when we’ve gained favor through other means AND recognizing when certain meritocratic practices (such as the test mentioned above) are not as much about merit as we would like to think they are. 

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up.

Leave a Reply