THE BLOG
11/17/2014 10:18 pm ET Updated Jan 17, 2015

Who Put the 'Merit' in 'Meritocracy'?

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We love to think of the US -- every last red, white and blue nook and cranny of it -- as a meritocracy. Want to get ahead in life? Just be excellent. Show merit. Or just, you know, possess merit. Or develop merit. Or be filled with merit? Soaked in merit? Steeped in merit?

You can start to see our problem already -- we don't seem to know much about the nature of merit. Are you just born with it? Do you develop it -- and if so, how? Is it a quality that one simply possesses? I mean, we say that an idea "has" merit, not that it grows it or acquires it. Is that also true for humans? Or, rather than a static quality, is merit only conveyed through action or expression, the same way that you can't just have loudness without actually creating noises that carry the quality of loudness with them? Does it come in increments -- can I be 100 percent meritty or 75 percent? Does it have volume, as in I have five gallons of merit but that guy only has a few meritalicios ounces? And is it static -- does a person with merit have merit 24/7, or can I get all through Monday filled with merit (and am I filled with merit like a lungful of air or do I carry merit like a backpack) and then wake up Tuesday morning suddenly meritless again (what about that -- what is the word for someone who doesn't have this highly reward-worthy quality) only to greet Wednesday only about half-meriticious?

Merit reminds me a little bit of ether. Not knock-you-out-while-someone-cuts-a-cannonball-out-of-your-gut ether. The other kind. Back when we figured that light was simply made of waves, somebody pointed out that water waves traveled through water, so what did light waves travel through? Couldn't be air, cause light traveled through space and other vacuums. "Um..." said physicists. "Must be something. We'll, uh, call it...er...ether." And they went looking for it, but could find it. So we could say that the idea of ether didn't have merit. Did the people who studied it for science have merit? Carry merit? Ooze merit?

So merit enters the hall of ideas everybody believes but nobody can explain other than something vaguely like Do Stuff Good (or maybe Do Good Stuff).

And yet we are certain that it is the basis of pour whole society, and absolutely must be instilled in our educational system for students and teachers alike. Because we live in a meritocracy.

If we operate by meritocracy, we must come up with a way to measure this critical quality that we can't explain. Cool. How hard could that be? I'm going to go with "practically impossible."

Because the one thing all the different views I've discussed so far share one thing in common -- the idea that merit is some sort of absolute purely objective quality. Except that's probably not true, either. Because another way to describe a meritocracy is to say it's a system that rewards the best.

So do we have a system that senses merit? No, not even in the commerce-driven free market private sector. Do the rewards go to the highest-quality product or the most canny marketing or the most profitable production methods? No, don't tell me those approaches all have merit! Or, if you must, tell me which approach has the most merit in some sort of verifiable manner. And not only should we discuss classics like VHS versus Betamax, but we could discuss products like Coca-Cola with no obvious merit at all. What merit did the investment engineers of the 2008 financial meltdown display that kept them out of jail and in comfy corner offices?

But let's move on to education. Is the immutable, measurable, timeless, impervious-to-subjective-judgment quality of merit visible among teachers or students?

Think about every teacher you've heard described by some former students as "best":

* He was great because he was so demanding and strict that he forced us to do our best
* She was so incredibly smart that we learned just from being in the room with her
* I don't remember what I actually learned from her, but she made me feel like I was a great person, and that made all the difference in my life
* I wasn't any good in that subject, but he made me feel like that was okay
* She got me excited about that whole field
* He was really interested in me as a person, and that helped me learn, I guess
* She didn't worry about who I was at all and just helped me focus on learning things

I guarantee you that every teacher you will ever meet can list examples of all of the following student types

* Student who really liked me
* Student who really hated me
* Student who swears he learned a ton from me
* Student who swears he didn't learn a thing from me

Plus unusual variations. I used to teach downstream from a teacher whose students would swear they never did anything or learned anything in her class last year, and every time I would start a new unit I would check to see who knew something about the content, and they all did, and I would ask how and they would look surprised and answer, "Well, last year, I guess!"

And that's before we even get to the varied administrative definitions of teacher merit. Should students be seated, motionless and attentive, or active, energetic, and engaged? Is a teacher's merit related to the timeliness with which administrative tasks are completed? Is a teacher's merit related to willingness to serve on committees and other "extras."

Ask parents, future employers, community members, students, school leaders, and teachers themselves what qualities are needed for a good teacher, and the list would be huge. Huge! Kind, considerate, good communicator, knowledgeable, professionally up to date, good with tech, nice to students, reasonably professional dress, master of many (try to pick a number!) pedagogical techniques and on and on and on. And every single teacher would present a different constellation of those qualities, and if I asked you, "Which quality has the most merit?" you would say, "Well, they all have merit." But that's not good enough. We have to rank all the teachers, so we have to know which qualities have the most merit.

Students, too. Let's ask everybody -- oh, heck, let's just ask the parents. What qualities do you most want to see in your child? Good at math, good reader, likes to write, likes to run fast, happy, strong spirit, good problem solver, healthy friendships, excited about developing own special talents, passionate about something, knows some history, likes science, confident, strong -- I'll just stop because this list is even longer. Now quick: Which qualities have the most merit? In our meritocracy, we are going to give the greatest rewards to the students who display which quality? No, they can't all have equal merit -- this is a meritocracy, so we have to be able to pick the best!

I'm not going to try to sort out these answers now, because I only want to make one point.

I believe in excellence. But I also believe that it is a complex, varied, multi-dimensional quality. Ranking, rating, and rewarding the merits of human beings in a meritocracy is really, really, really, really, really, really, REALLY complicated.

So somebody please explain to me how the hell we decided that the solution to this complex problem is that merit can be measured with a standardized math and reading test?

How did we decide that the best measure of student's merit is her score on a bubble test? I mean, damn -- was that even on the list?

How did we decide that the only teacher quality we want to measure is his ability to get students to score well on the standardized test?

Who decided that the "merit" in "meritocracy" is a standardized test score? And does anybody have a clue what the justification, the basis for that definition of "merit" might be? Or did it because measuring merit is really hard, but scoring bubble tests is really easy? Because I think your definition of "merit" is without merit. This was the judgment, the subjective judgment, of some individuals. And don't try to slide off with your baloney about how you're totally calling for "multiple measures" because those are similarly one-size-fits-all meritless -- and in most cases they are a thin screen of smoke trying to hide that, yes, in fact, our major measure of merit is supposed to be a standardized test score.

Here's what I think about merit. I think most of us reach a personal definition of merit that reflects our experiences and our strengths and our weaknesses. I think our concept of merit, just like our concept of good and bad, comes from our values. And any time somebody comes along to tell to try to tell us what we should or should not value, what we should consider good or bad, that person is a problem. I am aware that I am, with a high level of irony, advocating here for my own values, my own idea of merit. But here's the difference -- I am not trying to use the force of law or pseudo-law to impose my values on you. You can read my argument, decide I'm full of it, or decide that my points have merit. I am not telling you that you must accept my values or I will find a way to punish you.

I am not arguing that meritocracy is bad. I am arguing that deciding what is good and bad, truly human and truly rotten -- that's a process that is ongoing and involves discussion and and a system that allows for the probability, or even certainty, that we will arrive at different answers. A meritocracy that insist we have but one measure, and that everybody should be made to use that one standard and measure -- that's not a meritocracy. It's something darker, something uglier, something that is offensive both to human and (if you so believe) divine sensibilities.

Meritocracy is about excellence, and human excellence comes in a gazillion forms. If we have everybody make a list of the 15 most excellent people in history, those lists will not be identical, and no two examples of excellence from those lists will look the same. Because the road to excellence is an individual path, a personal path. You cannot standardize it. You cannot standardize a meritocracy, not even if you pretend to find a standardized measure of merit. We have a long history of awesome excellence in this country; we did not get it through widespread standardization.

The "merit" in "meritocracy" is not an objective quality. It will always be something chosen by a particular human, and trying to make it the standard of merit for all humans always involves imposing one person's values on everybody else. That's wrong. That's immoral. And it's a very bad way to run a nation's educational system.

Originally posted at Curmudgucation