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The View of Institutions as Meritocratic in Some Principles of Sratification

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A definition of meritocracy offered by Levinson, Cookson and Sadovik is that “meritocracy conceptualizes merit in terms of tested competency and ability, and most likely, as measured by IQ or standardized achievement tests” (Levinson, Cookson and Sadovnik, 2014). The idea of a meritocratic education system would imply that those who are more intelligent and those work harder, will achieve higher in their lives than those who do not necessarily share these attributes. This view is widely debated in society as to whether education really is meritocratic and the implications of this system on individual students. Alternative views, such as the marxist view on education, disagree with this idea and offer a more totalitarian view of education. This essay will explore the extent to which we can consider modern day education meritocratic. This will be done by first defining what is described as merit in this case, then exploring what theorists argue a meritocratic education system would look like. Alternative views on education that argue against the meritocratic view will then be assessed. Finally a comparison will be made with modern day examples of education in society with the meritocratic and opposing views. However, it must be noted that due to the diverse education systems around the world, the conclusion may not be true for all systems, but rather for the most prominent education systems in the world i.e Western education systems.

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Defining merit in the context education can be particularly broad. When referring to merit in this essay, what is meant is an abstract quality held by an individual, in the case of this essay a student, that enables them with the ability of intelligence, skill and/or talent. This can be achieved through the input of effort from the individual (Liu, 2011). As a meritocratic education would mean that individuals are placed into positions that suit their abilities, this would mean that merit does not only refer to test scores and grades, but also cultural achievements, sporting ability and leadership skills (Liu, 2011). Due to the vast range of career options available today, it is necessary to consider all these attributes as merit.

Arguably two of the most significant names when discussing meritocracy and stratification in education would be Davis and Moore. Davis and Moore argue that stratification is abundant and necessary in society (Davis, Moore and Tumin, 1993). Stratification links to the theory of meritocracy in education as it involves individuals being placed into roles based on their ability to play that role in society. Meritocracy would be concerned with the process of allocating those roles to individuals and in this case, based on their achievement in education. A book written by Michael Young -“The Rise of Meritocracy”- had stated that merit is the outcome of intelligence and effort and that those who possess this are identified at an early age (Young, 1979). This supports the idea of meritocratic education as in the early age of most Western individuals lives, education is just beginning and this is an individual’s first chance at showcasing their ability in different aspects of society. Support for meritocracy stems from the idea that it is a fair system, individuals are given roles that suit their ability e.g. a notable music student in school will find a career as a musician, a student with mathematical ability will find success in economics. This system seems fair on paper, however in practice it is argued that the reality is far from the nature of the theory.

The reality of the education system in the opinion of Pierre Bourdieu is conflicting with the theory of meritocracy. Bourdieu’s perspective on education involved his idea of cultural capital to explain the differences in the outcomes of students studying the French educational system (Harker, Mahar and Wilkes, 1990). Cultural capital refers to cultural knowledge that has been accumulated by an individual and can affect power and social status (Fowler, 1997). The idea that cultural capital has an influence on an individual in education would mean that the system is not meritocratic. The three types of cultural capital; social, economic and cultural all have an effect on an individual’s ability to gain access to education. The more cultural capital someone has attained, the higher their chances of gaining access to prestigious schools. However, cultural capital can be gained by different individuals in different ways, economic cultural capital may refer to assets and property and, which is varies between students, therefore is not a fair system. A students cultural capital in most cases is determined by their parents. As a young student, students do not generally have the abilities to gain cultural capital by themselves. Parents education, work, success and many other factors contribute to cultural capital (Sullivan, 2001). Therefore, inadvertently not all students starting off education are in an equal position.

A study done by Alice Sullivan which surveyed two co educational and two single sex comprehensive schools in England in 1998 assessed the effect social class, educational credentials and parental cultural capital when assessing pupils on cultural activities, language and knowledge. The study was done on the year 11 students, those in the final year of compulsory education. The study proved to show that significant parental cultural capital had an effect on students cultural activities that made their social class and educational credentials considerably less relevant. The language scores assessed showed a similar outcome to the cultural activities, however in lower proportions as parental cultural capital had a lesser effect. It was also found that cultural capital had an effect on pupils language score. The final test on knowledge showed that parental cultural capital too had an effect on the students scores, along with language skills and pupils cultural activities having a similar effect on pupils knowledge scores (Sullivan, 2001). In this test gender also had an effect of an advantage towards boys when cultural activity was imposed on the results (Sullivan, 2001). The outcome of the study showed that differences in scores can be attributed to factors that are outside of the pupils control. This supports Bourdieu’s outlook on education and challenges the view of meritocratic education.

Another challenge towards educational meritocracy is Marx’s concept of social reproduction. This concept refers to activities and structures that transfer social inequalities from one generation to the next of a social group (Doob, 2012). To demonstrate an example of social reproduction hindering access to education, the situation of educational equality in South Africa will be assessed. South Africa is relevant to this example due to the history of apartheid which saw limitations on access to education for those people of colour. Since the abolition of apartheid government in 1994 there has been reform to redress the atrocities of the past, such as schools not being able to observe race as a basis for accepting or rejecting students, however the effectiveness of these initiatives is questionable as there is evidently social reproduction among students. A study found that the greater number of African students live in rural areas which allows them access to only those schools managed by educational departments of government (Fiske and Ladd, 2005). It was also found that majority of those students of colour that lived in urban areas also found access only to government funded schools due to the costs of transportation and school fees (Fiske and Ladd, 2005). This proves that even with initiatives from the government to aim for a more fair and meritocratic education system, social reproduction still exists as a challenge.

A meritocratic education system as explored in this essay, would mean that society is able to give its members the opportunities they deserve based on what they have earned in education. This would be desirable in society, however, the reality society is faced with is that there are too many external factors which have such profound influence on students and their access to education and resources to allow them to excel in education, that due to the inconsistent availability of these factors to each student, students do not all have a fair opportunity against each other in education. Cultural capital, tuition and geographical positioning due to historical atrocities are among many factors that limit meritocracy in education. In current society a meritocratic education is simply far from possible due to influence of factors on education that are outside of a students control, therefore unless it was possible for education to be completely uniform and free from outside influence, a meritocratic education is unfortunately not a concept that is relevant to modern day education.

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