Tyranny of the Meritocracy

Book coverLani Guinier’s new book The Tyranny of the Meritocracy will be of interest to many in the connectivist circles where I run. We believe that individual knowledge is created in social contexts and through social interaction. We prize collaboration skills. We’ve heard it all, and buy it – that this is an increasingly connected age, that good jobs will involve work in teams, that globalization and demographic change will require the abilities to negotiate diversity, that the “problems of the twenty-first century” are only solvable by multidisciplinary teams, that in fact many of those social and political problems have roots in people who can’t communicate outside themselves or their home group. We want to work for an America (for a world) where all people have equal prospects regardless of the color of their skin and circumstances of their birth.

Then we exist in an educational system which mostly rewards people for individual accomplishment, and trains them accordingly in individualistic methods which are remarkably vulnerable to the privileges of class and race.

Guinier points out that this is out of step. She uses Amartya Sen’s definition that merit is the “incentive system which rewards the actions a society values” and points out the stunning disconnect between the skills we claim to value for democracy, and the “testocratic” skills of the K-Ph.D system. This focus on individualized tests and grades actually serves to reinforce power relationships in society – first, because those with the means to impact curricula or hire tutors have a massive incentive to do so, and perhaps more ominously, because students who succeed in the testocracy are allowed to believe that they have achieved success alone, without noting the assistance of their teachers, parents, and classmates. More democratic education would do a better job of reinforcing the importance of working together across difference – and provide that benefit more equitably to those locked out of our current system.

The argument against the SAT is iron-clad. It predicts family income and race much better than grades in the first year of college, and was never designed to assess anything further out than the first year. Yet I found Guinier’s hope for a system like the Posse Foundation’s Dynamic Assessment Process a bit optimistic. Surely, if elite colleges shifted admissions to some form of behavioral interview, it would create a market for coaching. Such tutoring might be more socially valuable than classes on “SAT words” and how to answer a multiple choice question, but it would still be unevenly distributed. We can already see this in admissions processes which do value extracurricular and community involvement. Anyone can take such opportunities, and it makes the admissions process better to consider them. Kids whose families don’t need them to work, or whose parents can shuttle them from school to club to volunteer site, can take advantage of more of them. It might still be better than the system we’ve got, but not quite as diverse as Guinier argues.

IDIC symbol from Star Trek
“Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.” How you gonna grade that?

Guinier goes on to critique college recruitment strategies, and suggest alternatives in college preparation, recruitment, and pedagogy. As someone who works with college professors on teaching issues, it’s easy for me to hear the argument that we need to make changes in K-12 schools and the college admissions office. (It’s always easier when someone else has to change.) Then she points out that it wouldn’t be fair to bring students into college for their collaborative skills, and demand of them the same individualized pedagogy we tend to use now. Students selected for democratic skills will prosper most in a democratic classroom. Oh. That’s a challenge.

It struck me as interesting that the models here weren’t particularly new to me. It seems impossible to read 5 articles on improving college teaching without someone bringing up the peer instruction work of Eric Mazur, as Guinier does. Yet most of the work in the “blended learning” sphere focuses simply on how group work and class discussion is better for retention and transfer of domain knowledge. It’s an easy sell to get people to accomplish their existing goals better; it’s harder to ask professors to actually shift their learning goals in a collaborative classroom. Guinier frames these potentially fractious issues within the purpose of higher education in a democracy, and if you’ve accepted the assertion through the first half of the book, perhaps you’re ready to hear what’s required from you.

Of course, the assertion that college exists to develop good citizens is not universally accepted. Even among those who accept the general idea, we debate exactly what the proper components of a liberal education are. Guinier asserts that colleges exist to fill a democratic need, without much considering the counter-arguments, and other than skills related to diversity and teamwork, she doesn’t have specific recommendations for a curriculum. Given how much we hear about colleges as paths to “good jobs”, though, or how much “student development” can be taken for granted within the academy, Guinier provides a clear argument, crisply stated and well worth the read.

Image Credits:

Image 1: Book cover, design by Bob Kosturko, art “Seeing the World in Black and White” by Connie Cagampang Heller. Taken from http://bibliotikus.net/i/p/1422999544.jpg

Image 2: “Idic1.jpg” by Paulo Galvão. Released by author into public domain. Taken from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Idic1.jpg


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