Credentialing Higher Education History Meritocracy

Schooling the Meritocracy: How Schools Came to Democratize Merit, Formalize Achievement, and Naturalize Privilege

This a new piece I recently wrote, based on a paper I presented last fall at the ISCHE conference in Berlin.  It’s part of a larger project that focuses on the construction of the American meritocracy, which is to say the new American aristocracy of credentials.

Schooling the Meritocracy:

How Schools Came to Democratize Merit, Formalize Achievement, and Naturalize Privilege

David F. Labaree

Merit is much in the news these days.  Controversy swirls around the central role that education plays in establishing who has the most merit and thus who gets the best job.  Parents are suing Harvard, for purportedly admitting students based on ethnicity rather than academic achievement.  Federal prosecutors are indicting wealthy parents for trying to bribe their children’s way into the most selective colleges.  At the core of these debates is a concern about fairness.  To what extent does the social structure allow people to get what they deserve, based on individual merit rather than social power and privilege?  There’s nothing new about our obsession with establishing merit.  The ancient Greeks and Romans were as concerned with this issue as much as we are.  What is new, however, is that all the attention now is focused on schools as the great merit dispensers.

Modern systems of public schooling have transformed the concept of merit.  The premodern form of this quality was what Joseph Kett calls essential merit.  This represented a person’s public accomplishments, which were seen as a measure of character.  Such merit was hard won through good works and had to be defended vigorously, even if that meant engaging in duels.  The new kind of merit, which arose in the mid nineteenth century after the emergence of universal public schooling in the U.S., was what Kett calls institutional merit.  This you earned by attending school and advancing through the levels of academic attainment.  It became your personal property, which could not be challenged by others and which granted you privileges in accordance with the level of merit you acquired.

Here I examine three consequences of this shift from essential to institutional merit in the American setting.  First, this change democratized merit by making it, at least theoretically, accessible to anyone and not just the gentry, who in the premodern period had prime access to this reputational good.  Second, it formalized the idea of merit by turning it from a series of publicly visible and substantive accomplishments into the accumulation of the forms that schooling had to offer – grades, credits, and degrees.  Third, following from the first two, it served the social function of naturalizing the privileges of birth by transposing them into academic accomplishments.  The well born, through the medium of schooling, acquired a second nature that transformed ascribed status into achieved status.

Essential Merit

From the very start, the country’s Founding Fathers were obsessed with essential merit.  To twenty-first century ears, the way they used the term sounds like what we might call character or honor or reputation.  Individuals enacted this kind of merit through public performances, and it referred not just to achievements in general but especially those that were considered most admirable for public figures.  This put a premium on taking on roles of public service more than private accomplishment and on contributing to the public good.  Such merit might come from demonstrating courage on the battlefield, sacrifice for the community in a position of public leadership, scientific or literary eminence.  Think Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and Franklin.  It extended well beyond simple self-aggrandizement, although it often spurred that among its most ardent suitors.  It was grounded in depth of achievement, but it also relied heavily on symbolism to underscore its virtue.

Merit was both an enactment and a display.  The most accomplished practitioner of essential merit in the revolutionary period was George Washington.  From his earliest days he sought to craft the iconic persona that has persisted to the present day.  His copybook in school was filled with 110 rules of civility that should govern public behavior.  He constructed a resume of public service that led inevitably from an officer in the colonial militia, to a representative to the continental congress, to commander in chief of the revolutionary army, and then to president.  A tall man in an era of short men, he would tower over a room of ordinary people, and he liked to demonstrate his physical strength and his prowess as an accomplished horseman.  This was a man with a strong sense of his reputation and of how to maintain it.  And he scored the ultimate triumph of essential merit in his last performance in public life, when he chose to step down from the presidency after two terms and return to Mount Vernon – Cincinnatus laying down his awesome powers and going back to the farm.

This kind of merit is what Jefferson meant when he referred to a “natural aristocracy,” arising in the fertile fields of the new world that were uncorrupted by the inheritance of office.  It represents the kinds of traits that made aristocracy a viable form of governance for so many years:  educating men of privilege to take on positions of public leadership, imbued with noblesse oblige, and armed with the skills to be effective in the role.  Merit was a powerful motivator for the Founding Fathers, a spur to emulation for the benefit of the community, a self-generating dynamic for a hyper-accomplishment.  And it was a key source of their broad legitimacy as public leaders.

But essential merit also had its problems.  Although it left room for self-made men to demonstrate their merit – like Franklin and Hamilton – it was largely open to men of leisure, born into the gentry, supported by a plantation full of slaves, and free to serve the public without having to worry about making a living; think Washington, Jefferson, and Madison.  When politics began the transition in the 1820s from the Federalist to the Jacksonian era, the air of aristocracy fit uncomfortably into the emerging democratic ethos that Tocqueville so expertly captured in Democracy in America.

Another problem was that essential merit brought with it unruly competition.   How much essential merit can crowd into a room before a fight breaks out?  How can everyone be a leader?  What happens if you don’t get the respect you think you earned?  One response, quite common at the time, was to engage in a duel.  If your reputation was maligned by someone and that person refused to retract the slur, then your honor compelled you to defend your reputation with your life.  Alexander Hamilton was but one casualty of this lethal side effect of essential merit.  Benedict Arnold is another case in point.  An accomplished military officer and Washington protégé, Arnold was doing everything right on the battlefield to demonstrate his merit.  But when he sought appointment as a major general, politics blocked his path.  This was a slight too much for him to bear.  Instead of a duel (who would he challenge, his mentor Washington?), he opted for treason, plotting to pass along to the British his command of the fort at West Point.  So the dynamic behind essential merit was a powerful driver for behavior that was both socially functional and socially destructive.

The Rise of Institutional Merit

By the second quarter of the nineteenth century, a new form of merit was arising in the new republic.  In contrast to the high-flown notion of essential merit, grounded in high accomplishment in public life and defended with your life, the new merit was singularly pedestrian.  It mean grades on a report card at school.  Hardly the stuff of stirring biographies.  These grades were originally labeled as measures of merit and demerit in academic work, recording what you did well and what you did badly.  Ironically, ground zero for this new system was Benedict Arnold’s old fort at West Point, which was now the location of the U.S. Military Academy.  The sum of your merits and demerits constituted your academic worth.  Soon the emerging common school system adopted the same mode of evaluation.

The sheer banality of the new merit offered real advantages.  Unlike its predecessor, it did not signal membership in an exclusive club accessible primarily to the well-born but instead arose from a system that governed an entire population within a school.  As a result, it was well suited to a more democratic political culture.  Also, it provided a stimulus sufficiently strong to promote productive competition among students for academic standing, but these marks on a report card were not really worth fighting over.

So institutional merit emerged as a highly functional construct for meeting the organizational needs of the new systems of public schooling that arose in the middle of nineteenth century America.  What started out as a mechanism for motivating students in a classroom grew into a model for structuring an entire system of education.  Once the principle of ranking by individual achievement was established, it developed into a way of ranking groups of students within schools and then groups of schools with school systems.  The first innovation, as schools became larger and more heterogeneous in both age and ability, was to organize groups of students into homogeneous classrooms with others of the same age and ability.  If you performed with sufficient merit in one grade, you would be promoted with your peers at the end of the year into the next grade up the ladder.  If your merit was not up to standard, you would be held back to repeat the grade.  This allowed teachers to pitch instruction toward a group of students who were at roughly the same level of achievement and development.  It also created a more level playing field that allowed teachers to compare and rank the relative performance of students within the class, which they couldn’t do in a one-room schoolhouse with a wide array of ages and abilities.  So the invention of the grade also led to the invention of the metric that defines some students as above grade-level and others as below.  Graded schooling was thus the foundation of the modern meritocracy.

The next step in the development of institutional merit was the erection of a graded system of schooling.  Students would start out in an elementary school for the lower grades, then gain promotion to a grammar school, and (by the end of the nineteenth century) move up to a high school for the final grades.  Entry at one level was dependent on successful completion of the level below.  A clear hierarchy of schooling emerged based on the new merit metric.  And it didn’t stop there.  High school graduation became the criterion for entry into college, and the completion of college became the requirement for entry into graduate school.  A single graded structure guided student progress through each individual school and across the entire hierarchy of schooling, serving as a rationalized and incremental ladder of meritocratic attainment leading from first grade through the most elevated levels of the system.

Consider some of the consequences of the emergence of this finely tuned machinery for arranging students by institutional merit.  When you have a measure of what average progress should look like – annual promotion to the next grade, and periodic promotion to the school at the next level – then you also have a clear measure of failure.  There were three ways for students to demonstrate failure within the system:  to be held back from promotion to the next grade; to be denied the diploma that demonstrated completion of particular school level; to leave the system altogether as a particular point in the graded hierarchy.  Thus emerged the chronic problems of the new system – retardation and elimination.

A parallel challenge to the legitimacy of the merit structure occurred at the level of the school.  By the early twentieth century, level of school became increasingly important in determining access to the best jobs.  As a particular level of schooling began to fill up, as happened to the high school in the first half of the twentieth century, then that level of diploma became less able to provide invidious distinction.  For a high school graduate, this meant that the perceived quality of the school became an important factor in determining the relative merit of your degree compared with other high school graduates.  When college enrollments took off in the mid twentieth century and this level of the system emerged as the new zone of universal education, the value of a college degree likewise became dependent on the imputed merit of the institution granting it.  The result is a two-layered hierarchy of merit in the American educational system.  One was the formal graded system from first grade to graduate school.  Another was the informal ranking of institutions at the same formal level.  Both became critical in determining graduates’ level of institutional merit and their position in the queue for the best jobs.  Consider some of the consequences of the dominance of this new form of merit.

Democratizing Merit

As we saw, essential merit had a bias toward privilege.  The founding fathers who displayed the most merit were to the manor born.  They were free to exercise public service because of birth and wealth.  Yes, it was possible as well for an outsider to demonstrate essential merit, but it wasn’t easy.  Benjamin Franklin was sui generis, and even he acted less as a leader and more as a sage and diplomat.  Alexander Hamilton fought his way to the top, but he never lost his outsider status and ended up dying to defend his honor, which was hard-won but never fully secure.

What gives essential merit face validity is that it is based on what you have actually accomplished.  Your merit is your accomplishments.  That’s hard to beat as a basis for respect, but it’s also hard to attain.  Washington could prove himself as a military officer because his gentry status automatically qualified him to become an officer in the first place.  Jefferson became a political figure because that’s what men of his status did with themselves and his election would be assured.  As a result, what made this kind of merit so compelling is what also made it so difficult for anyone but the gentry to demonstrate.

So the move toward institutional merit radically opened up the possibility of attaining it.  It’s a system that applied to everyone – not just the people with special access but everyone in the common school classroom.  All students in the class could demonstrate their worth and earn the appropriate merits that measured that worth.  And everyone was measured on the same scale.  If essential merit was the measure of the member of the natural aristocracy, institutional merit was the measure of the citizen in a democracy.  You’ve got to love that part about it.

Another characteristic of institutional merit also made it distinctly democratic.  What it measured was neither intrinsically important nor deeply admirable.  It didn’t measure your valor in battle or your willingness to sacrifice for the public good; instead it reflected how many right answers you got on a weekly spelling test.  No big deal.

But what makes this measure of merit so powerful for the average person was its implication.  It measured a trivial accomplishment in the confined academic world of the classroom, but it implied a bright future.  If essential merit measured your real accomplishment in the world, institutional merit offered a prediction of your future accomplishment.  It said, look out for this guy – he’s going to be somebody.  This is a major benefit that derives from the new measure.  Measuring how well you did a job is relatively easy, but predicting in advance how well you will do that job is a very big deal.

Does institutional merit really predict future accomplishment?  Do academic grades, credits, and degrees tell us how people will perform on the job?  Human capital theorists say yes: the skills acquired in school translate into greater productivity in the workforce.  Credentialing theorists say no:  the workforce rewards degrees by demanding them as prerequisites for getting a job, but this doesn’t demonstrate that what is learned in school helps a person in doing the job.  I lean toward the latter group, but for our purposes this debate doesn’t really matter.  As long as the job market treats academic merit as a predictor of job performance, then this form of merit serves as such.  Whether academic learning is useful on the job is irrelevant as long as the measures of academic merit are used to allocate people to jobs.  And a system that offers everyone in a community access to schools that will award them tokens of institutional merit gives everyone a chance to gain any social position.  That’s a very democratic measure indeed.

Formalizing Merit

Part of what makes institutional merit so democratic is that the measure itself is so abstract.  What it’s measuring is not concrete accomplishment – winning a battle or passing a law – but generic accomplishment on a standardized and decontextualized scale.  It’s a score from A to F or 1 to 100 or 0 to 4.  All of these scales are in use in American schools, but which you use doesn’t matter.  They’re all interchangeable.  All they tell us is how high or low an individual was rated on some academic task.  Then these individual scores are averaged together across a heterogeneous array of such tasks to compute a composite score that tells us – what?  The score says that overall, at the end of the class, you met academic expectations (for that class in that grade) at a high, medium, or low level, or that you failed to meet the minimum expectation at all.  And, if compared to the grades that fellow students received in the same class, it shows where your performance ranked with that of your peers.

It’s the sheer abstraction of this measure of merit that gives it so much power.  A verbal description of a student’s performance in the class would be a much richer way of understanding what she learned there:  In her biology class, Joanie demonstrated a strong understanding of heredity and photosynthesis but she had some trouble with the vascular system.  The problem is that this doesn’t tell you how she compares with her classmates or whether she will qualify to become a banker.  What helps with the latter is that she received a grade of B+ (3.3 on a 4.0 scale) and the class average was B.  The grade tells you much less but it means a lot more for her and her future.  Especially when it is combined with all of her other grades in classes across her whole career in high school, culminating in her final grade point average and a diploma.  It says, she’ll get into college, but it won’t be very selective one.  She’ll end up in a middle class job, but she won’t be a top manager.  In terms of her future, this is what really matters, not her mastery of photosynthesis.

In this way, institutional merit is part of the broad process of rationalization that arose with modernity.  It filters out all of the noise that comes from context and content and qualitative judgments and comes up with a quantitative measure that locates the individual as a point on a normal curve representing everyone in the cohort.  It shows where you rank and predicts where you’re headed.  It becomes a central part of the machinery of disciplinary power.

Naturalizing Privilege

Once merit became democratized and formalized, it also became naturalized.  The process of naturalization works like this.  Your merit is so central and so pervasive in a system of universal schooling that it embeds itself within the individual person.  You start saying things like:  I’m smart.  I’m dumb.  I’m a good student.  I’m a bad student.  I’m good at reading but bad at math.  I’m lousy at sports.  The construction of merit is coextensive with the entire experience of growing up, and therefore it comes to constitute the emergent you.  It no longer seems to be something imposed by a teacher or a school but instead comes to be an essential part of your identity.  It’s now less what you do and increasingly who you are.  In this way, the systemic construction of merit begins to disappear and what’s left is a permanent trait of the individual.  You are your grade and your grade is your destiny.

The problem, however – as an enormous amount of research shows – is that the formal measures of merit that schools use are subject to powerful influence from a student’s social origins.  No matter how your measure merit, it affects your score.  It shapes your educational attainment.  It also shows up in measures that rank educational institutions by quality and selectivity.  Across the board, your parents’ social class has an enormous impact on the level of merit you are likely to acquire in school.  Students with higher social position end up accumulating a disproportionately large number of academic merit badges.

The correlations between socioeconomic status and school measures of merit are strong and consistent, and the causation is easy to determine.  Being born well has an enormously positive impact on the education merit you acquire across your life.  Let us count the ways.  Economic capital is one obvious factor.  Wealthy communities can support better schools. Social capital is another factor.  Families from the upper middle classes have a much broader network of relationships with the larger society than those form the working class, which provides a big advantage for their schooling prospects.  For them, the educational system is not foreign territory but feels like home.

Cultural capital is a third factor, and the most important of all.  School is a place that teaches students the cognitive skills, cultural norms, and forms of knowledge that are required for competent performance in positions of power.  Schools demonstrate a strong disposition toward these capacities over others:  mental over manual skills, theoretical over practical knowledge, decontextualized over contextualized perspectives, mind over body, Gesellschaft over Gemeinschaft.  Parents in the upper middle class are already highly skilled in these cultural capacities, which they deploy in their professional and managerial work on a daily basis.  Their children have grown up in the world of cultural capital.  It’s a language they learn to speak at home.  For working-class children, school is an introduction to a foreign culture and a new language, which unaccountably other students seem to already know.  They’re playing catchup from day one.  Also, it turns out that schools are better at rewarding cultural capital than they are at teaching it.  So kids from the upper middle class can glide through school with little effort while others continually struggle to keep up.  The longer they remain in school, the larger the achievement gap between the two groups.

So, in the wonderful world of academic merit, the fix is in.  Upper income students have a built-in advantage in acquiring the grades, credits, and degrees that constitute the primary prizes of the school meritocracy.  But – and this is the true magic of the educational process – the merits that these students accumulate at school come in a purified academic form that is independent of their social origins.  They may have entered schooling as people of privilege, but they leave it as people of merit.  They’re good students.  They’re smart.  They’re well educated.  As a result, they’re totally deserving of special access to the best jobs.  They arrived with inherited privilege but they leave with earned privilege.  So now they fully deserve what they get with their new educational credentials.

In this way, the merit structure of schooling performs a kind of alchemy.  It turns class position into academic merit.  It turns ascribed status into achieved status. You may have gotten into Harvard by growing up in a rich neighborhood with great schools and by being a legacy.  But when you graduate, you bear the label of a person of merit, whose future accomplishments arise alone from your superior abilities.  You’ve been given a second nature.

Consequences of Naturalized Privilege: The New Aristocracy

The process by which schools naturalize academic merit brings major consequences to the larger society.  The most important of these is that it legitimizes social inequality.  People who were born on third base get credit for hitting a triple, and people who have to start in the batter’s box face the real possibility of striking out.  According to the educational system, divergent social outcomes are the result of differences in individual merit, so, one way or the other, people get what they deserve.  The fact that a fraction of students from the lower classes manage against the odds to prove themselves in school and move up the social scale only adds further credibility to the existence of a real meritocracy.

In the United States in the last 40 years, we have come to see the broader implications of this system of status attainment through institutional merit.  It has created a new kind of aristocracy.  This is not Jefferson’s natural aristocracy, grounded in public accomplishments, but a caste of meritocratic privilege, grounded in the formalized and naturalized merit signaled by educational credentials.  As with aristocracies of old, the new meritocracy is a system of rule by your betters – no longer defined as those who are better born or more accomplished but now as those who are better educated.  Michael Young saw this coming back in 1958, as he predicted in his fable, The Rise of the Meritocracy.  But now we can see that it has truly taken hold.

The core expertise of this new aristocracy is skill in working the system.  You have to know how to play the game of educational merit-getting and pass this on to your children.  The secret is in knowing that the achievements that get awarded merit points through the process of schooling are not substantive but formal.  Schooling is not about learning the subject matter; it’s about getting good grades, accumulating course credits, and collecting the diploma on the way out the door.  Degrees pay off, not what you learned in school or even the number of years of schooling you have acquired.  What you need to know is what’s going to be on the test and nothing else.  So you need to study strategically and spend of lot of effort working the refs.  Give teacher what she wants and be sure to get on her good side.  Give the college admissions officers the things they are looking for in your application.  Pump up your test scores with coaching and learning how to game the questions.

Members of the new aristocracy are particularly aggressive about carrying out a strategy known as opportunity hoarding.  There is no academic advantage too trivial to pursue, and the number of advantages you accumulate can never be enough.  In order to get your children into the right selective college you need send them to the right school, get them into the gifted program in elementary school and the right track in high school, hire a tutor, carry out test prep, do the college tour, pursue prizes, develop a well-rounded resume for the student (sport, student leadership, musical instrument, service), pull strings as a legacy and a donor, and on and on and on.

Such behavior by upper-middle-class parents is not a crazy as it seems.  The problem with being at the top is that there’s nowhere to go but down.  If you look at studies of intergenerational mobility in the US, the top quintile of families have a big advantage, with more than 40 percent of children ending up in the same quintile as their parents, twice the rate that would occur by chance.  But that still means that 60 percent are going to be downwardly mobile.  The system is just meritocratic enough to keep the most privileged families on edge, worried about having their child bested by a smart poor kid.   As Jerry Karabel puts it in The Chosen, the only thing U.S. education equalizes is anxiety.

As with earlier aristocracies, the new aristocrats of merit cluster together in the same communities, where the schools are like no other.  Their children attend the same elite colleges, where they meet their future mates and then transmit their combined cultural, social, and economic capital in concentrated form to their children, a process sociologists call assortative mating.  And one consequence of this increase concentration of educational resources is that the achievement gap between low and high income students has been rising; Sean Reardon’s study shows the gap growing 40 percent in the last quarter of the twentieth century.  This is how educational and social inequality grows larger over time.

By democratizing, formalizing, and naturalizing merit, schools have played a central role in defining the character of modern society.  In the process they have served to increase social opportunity while also increasing social inequality.  At the same time, they have established a solid educational basis for the legitimacy of this new inequality, and they have fostered the development of a new aristocracy of educational merit whose economic power, social privilege, and cultural cohesion would be the envy of the high nobility in early modern England or France.  Now, as then, the aristocracy assumes its outsized social role as a matter of natural right.

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