Meritocracy revisited

I’ve been thinking again about meritocracy, prompted in part by reading Adrian Wooldridge’s bracing book The Aristocracy of Talent. From one angle, the Paula Principle is exactly about meritocracy: it deals with our failure to reward talent and competence fairly and appropriately. So it’s been very welcome to have had access to such a broadly-informed and readable volume.

The notion of meritocracy is itself contested, as shown by a recent Intelligence Squared debate between Wooldridge and the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel. Sandel’s view is that merit is fine but meritocracy is not: it is a system of rule that allows those who rise to the top to justify their winnings. Wooldridge, on the other hand, defends it as a precious way of defeating nepotism and corruption, and enabling all members of society to benefit from the proper use of talent.

For me Wooldridge had by far the better of the debate. Sandel is right on the etymology: ‘cracy’ means rule. But this does not necessarily mean that the rulers necessarily exploit their position unreasonably or without morality. Nor does it mean that meritocrats cannot operate within a strong social-democratic framework such as Sandel wishes to see. I suspect Sandel’s position is heavily influenced by the dire current American context of corrupt and massively unequal populism; whereas Wooldridge is refreshing in his historical and comparative assessments of attempts to introduce or increase meritocracy.

Wooldridge devotes a chapter, titled Girly Swots, to the link between meritocracy and gender. He covers the philosophical and political debates of the 19th century and the emergence of women at the peak of the education system. This culminated in Philippa Fawcett – the daughter of two leading members of the intellectual aristocracy, Millicent Garrett and Henry Fawcett – starring as a mathematician and being given the rank of ‘above the Senior Wrangler’ when she scored highest of all in the Cambridge university exams; the curious title is the result of women not being allowed to take formal degrees, so she couldn’t actually be named as Senior Wrangler.

Wooldridge has a tendency to imply that the gender revolution is done and dusted. He acknowledges that ‘aspirations have outpaced achievements’, as women find the upper rungs of major companies are out of reach, and that combining careers with having children is problematic. Yet he misses the way women are outperforming men in the most obvious forms of merit-demonstrating capability, namely educational qualifications, and doing so to an increasing extent. And he has nothing to say about how women go on developing their talents by learning more than men across the life course.

Indeed, the absence of a life course perspective is a major gap in most of the discussions of meritocracy. Focussing on selecting future meritocrats early means that the chances of late developers emerging are greatly reduced. Just as importantly, it exacerbates the tension between social mobility and genuine meritocracy. Enabling people to develop their latents at any age is surely a fundamental condition for an efficient and equitable meritocracy, but this almost never figures as an issue, in this book or elsewhere.

Wooldridge provides an illuminating account of the various approaches used to test for merit over the centuries, including the immensely elaborate examination systems of China and other countries. The issue of what counts as ‘merit’ remains central, and it will not be solved by refining single tests, however sophisticated. Recognising merit is a challenge not just to our education system but to our workplaces and to society more generally, and it involves difficult questions about power relationships. Wooldridge might argue that it is markets rather than men that decide what counts as valuable competence, but it will take a long time for the more personal values which imbue our systems to change sufficiently to recognise and reward the full range of competences.

In a recent London Review of Books number Stefan Collini reviewed a couple of books on meritocracy (not including Wooldridge’s). This prompted me to write to the LRB as follows:

Stefan Collini rightly observes that ‘meritocratic’ has now become an overwhelmingly positive term, contrary to Michael Young’s original satire (Snakes and Ladders, 1 April).  Much of the current debate is around whether education enables young people to compete fairly for ‘good’ jobs, but we should also pay attention to how merit is rewarded.  Collini points to soaring inequalities, notably in the massive shift in the returns enjoyed by financiers and lawyers relative to occupations such as teaching.

If educational achievement is central to positive meritocracy we should be more worried than we are about gender equality.  Indeed, it may be that the term ‘equality’ itself has some distorting effects, suggesting as it does that the goal is ‘no gender difference’.  For many years now, in every OECD country, women have been outperforming men educationally, at almost every level and in almost every subject (the exceptions generally being engineering, some sciences and maths).   But the male/female pay and careers gap stubbornly refuses to close at the same rate as the female/male competence widens.  This growing divergence generates what I call the Paula Principle: that most women work below their level of competence.   It is a major component of the  meritocratic shortfall.

The interactions between meritocracy, equality and social mobility are complex. Moreover they need to be looked at in a life course context, not only in terms of how far we can give all young people equal opportunities. That’s easy to say, but a formidable challenge.

A personal anecdote by way of conclusion. Wooldridge refers to a Jennifer Williams who came 3rd out of 493 candidates in the civil service exam in 1936. (This for him is an example of exams as the conclusion of the revolution in gender meritocracy.) Jennifer married Herbert Hart, an outstanding legal philosopher. I went to school with their children, and remember being puzzled why the adults around me fell about laughing at Jennifer Hart’s dazzlingly bright blue stockings.

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