The Tyranny of Merit: Rethinking success in our schools

The last non-fiction book I finished in 2022 keeps rolling around in my head, niggling and nagging, and is The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? by Michael J. Sandel. In this post I’m trying to work out why it’s had such an impact on me. I’m not sure I have the right questions or any answers. But Sandel’s book has slapped me in the face: meritocracy can be poisonously toxic.

Sandel elegantly takes apart the meritocratic ideal. He argues that meritocracy is inherently harmful to society and consists of a cluster of attitudes and circumstances that, taken together, have made meritocracy toxic. These two points from Sandel have stayed with me:

  1. Under conditions of rampant inequality and static mobility, reiterating the message that we are responsible for our fate and deserve what we get is corrosively demoralising.
  2. Insisting that a degree is the primary route to a respectable job and a decent life creates a credentialist prejudice that undermines the dignity of work and demeans those who have not been to university.

In reading Sandel’s impressive take-down, I thought repeatedly about my school and our local community. We are in an area of high deprivation. We have a high percentage of disadvantaged children in our school. Poverty’s stranglehold has not loosened its grip; it’s got tighter and tighter. We have generations of families that have been repeatedly told by Prime Ministers, and echoed overseas by American Presidents, that those who work hard and play by the rules deserve to rise as far as their talents and dreams will take them. This rhetoric of rising, as Sandel calls it, has been around for decades. Reagan used it, Clinton used it, Blair used it, Obama used it, May used it. We saw it in the 2000s and 2010s when a proliferation of pithy values appeared overnight in school halls across the country: Dream. Believe. Achieve. Apparently, you get what you deserve. Dream it and you can do it if you really try. But I’d wager that many in our communities see this sham for what it is, because not everyone does get what they deserve, do they? It’s a lie.

What about the families that graft and strive and still can’t make ends meet? What about the mums and dads who work two jobs each but still can’t put enough on the meter to keep the house warm? What about the children who want to go to university but are put off by a future of years and years of debt? What about the children who want to carry on with the trade that has been in their family for years, but don’t feel like it’s valued by society as ‘successful’ enough? This rhetoric of rising and deservingness rings rather hollow. And not only does it ring hollow, it’s also toxic. Because if you haven’t ‘risen’, if you haven’t ‘got on’, then implicitly a meritocracy suggests it’s your fault. As Sandel argues, belief in the efficacy of work as a route to success reflects the broader conviction that we are the masters of our destiny, that our fate is in our hands. And how many times have you heard ‘Invictus’ reeled out in our schools as a mantra for rising and succeeding against the odds? How many times have you seen it on Twitter, in your feed, plastered on school walls? It’s not necessarily a bad thing. I love poetry, and I love ‘Invictus’. But I’m not sure we can claim as some sort of edu-holy truth that the children in our schools are the masters of their fates. God knows I want them to be. But it just doesn’t work like that. Inequality, luck, and good and bad fortune play a big part too.

Meritocracy has a dark side. Sandel explains to us that if those who end up on top, and those who fall to the bottom, are wholly responsible for their fate, then social positions in society reflect what people deserve. A meritocracy says that we get what we deserve. Whilst that may give a brief morally comforting dopamine hit for those who came out on top (“I worked hard. I deserve it.”), it ain’t half galling for those at the bottom. Sandel cites Thomas Frank, who criticised liberals’ focus on education as the remedy for inequality, “The professional class is defined by its educational attainment, and every time they tell the country that what it needs is more schooling, they are saying: Inequality is not a failure of the system; it is a failure of you.”

Sandel goes on to explain that a meritocracy unwittingly promotes credentialism – an insidious prejudice against those who have not been to university. A credentialist prejudice is, Sandel argues, a symptom of meritocratic hubris. While he does acknowledge that a divide between those on top and those at the bottom is, in large part, due to inequality, he identifies that meritocracy is the toxic catalyst that has caused huge rifts in society. And so Sandel asks us to imagine we lived in a society where we had magically solved these social injustices. Would, then, meritocracy be fair? He argues not. Sandel claims that meritocracy is inherently toxic leading to hubris for those at the top and humiliation and resentment for those who lose out. Those who end up on top fail to acknowledge the role of luck because, “We worked hard. We dreamed big. We deserve it.” As Sandel says, “The meritocratic ideal is not a remedy for inequality; it is a justification of inequality.”

So where does this leave us in schools? Rightly, we should promote hard work and effort. I don’t think overcoming the problems with merit means we should bin it. Instead, I think we need to rethink what we perceive ‘success’ to be. As Sandel says, in a meritocracy there is a tendency to valorize the ‘smart’ and stigmatise the ‘dumb’. Take a look at your social media feed. Go on, look. You’ll see many respected voices out there lauding colleagues as ‘smart’ – the adjective du jour for bright/intelligent (oft-used by Obama, as Sandel shows) and criticising people they don’t agree with as ‘dumb’. Language is important, it frames our reality. And if a meritocracy claims that you can make it if you try, then those who haven’t gone to university are not ‘smart’ – they are ‘dumb’ or ‘lazy’ – implicitly sneered down upon for their lack of ambition and supposed stupidity. Uncomfortable thinking, isn’t it?

I thought about my own family. My grandfather was a farm labourer and a gardener. My dad was a publican and then worked for an insurance company. My mum did many different jobs, including working in pubs, and then ran a playscheme. No one in my family went to university before my older sister did, and then I did. But there was dignity in my family’s work. They led decent lives. They lived and loved and contributed to making this world a better place for the time that they were here. Ignoring that aspiration: dignified work – whatever work that is, and living a decent life – is insulting. We have to rethink what we mean by success and rethink what we value in society. Should we aspire for all our children to go to university? Well, maybe, but perhaps they don’t want to go? What if it’s not the right thing for that child? There’s a history of tradespeople where my school is in Birmingham; many of our kids want to go into the trades of their parents and grandparents. They want to live a decent life. Isn’t that a good thing? As Sandel says, constantly admonishing our fellow citizens to get a degree if they do not have one can be more insulting than inspiring. If we’re not careful, we will entrench a polarised civic life further, stoking hubris and anchoring humiliation. What about valuing those who care and who help their communities as much as those who make a lot of money? Let’s reset. Neglecting opportunities for our children to consider other types of success and honour (working as a plumber, for example) expresses an insidious lack of respect for that job or role in society. There is dignity in being a plumber or electrician just as there is in being a doctor or a lawyer – all should be respected and valued as contributing to the common good. And yet disparagement of the working class happens regularly, often unconsciously; an elite, privileged condescension of those who are working hard in their jobs but are nameless, unseen, hidden, ‘dumb’, ‘lazy’.

I want to be clear. It’s not that I think some meritocratic performance indicators are wrong (exam results; university degrees etc.) – these are vital and important. A rich, academic curriculum is key for all our children, introducing them to things and concepts and ideas they wouldn’t have come across if they hadn’t learnt them at school. A rich, academic curriculum ensures our children possess knowledge so they can think, argue, refute, testify and, crucially, so they know enough to have the choice of doing whatever it is that they want to do when they leave school.

But I do think we need to rethink success, rethink what we value, and rethink how our children and communities contribute to the common good. I want all our children to be able to pull up a chair with confidence and conviction at any table because they are valued by society for their inherent dignity and honour, whoever they are and whatever it is they do.

Work referenced:

Michael J. Sandel (2020) The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?