Tuesday, January 11, 2011

"Myths & Mismatches" Part 5: The Myth of Academic Meritocracy

Today's "myth" from Jo and Julie is possibly the biggest one of all, and thus the most destructive should you buy into it whole-heartedly. It ties in with every other point that's been made thus far in this series...

"Myth #3: Merit is Everything."

I just want to point out that my response to this issue is always a very personal one, for reasons I will partially explain below.

For the record, the ideal of meritocracy--that you succeed at academic work primarily because of how smart you are--is a myth (as Jo and Julie state: "Excuse our language, but this is all a fucking load of steaming crap"). And there are plenty of examples that illustrate it. One of them is the issue of socioeconomic class, something that has an effect literally from birth. In the research on post-secondary education (PSE), SEC is a clear factor and yet one that various researchers attempt to mitigate by making the claim that cultural capital matters more than economic capital. Any study you've seen that makes claims about the improving influence of the "number of books in the house" is a study making claims about class and culture in this way. The problem is that if you used the available statistics to draw a nice Venn diagram, you'd discover that the overlap between "class (economic) privilege" and "cultural capital" makes the diagram look more like one circle than two. Translation: you may have more books in the house, but you might not have the money to pay for an academically elite private school, or even for the extra tutoring that improves your grades and helps you win that merit scholarship. Money matters at least as much as "merit".

Money also matters when you decide it's not worth going into $35,000 worth of debt to finance your degree, even if a degree is "an investment that really pays off" as the research tells us (again and again). I know I didn't want to go to graduate school if it meant I'd have to increase my student loan burden. Does that mean I would have been somehow "less smart" if I hadn't gone? As it turns out, my grad degrees have been financed primarily by merit-based scholarships. Does that mean I'm now, somehow, inherently smarter than you? (Hint: the answer is "no".) In the PSE research literature, this attitude of mine is called "debt aversion". To me, coming from what would financially be called a working-class background, it's called "common sense".

Socioeconomic class is only one of the reasons why "merit" is a concept that draws a veil over the causes of "success" and "failure" in academe. But it's the one with which I have the most intimate familiarity, and it's why this response of mine is mostly about money/class/privilege vs. merit.

Jo and Julie write that the myth of merit-based success "doesn'’t build us up -— it makes us live in fear that, any day now, someone is going to figure out that we aren’t as smart as they think we are, and then they’ll kick us out." This is why so many (particularly female) graduate students suffer from what's known as "imposter syndrome".

But what I've noticed is that some people seem completely impervious to the crippling threats to self-confidence--the daemons of self-doubt--that I know I have wrestled with in the past and continue to battle on a regular basis. Who are those people, and why do they seem so certain of their own place, of the value of their work, and of their intelligence? Career development in academe is dependent not only on how "smart" you are, but on your own assessment of your capacities and how your put that to work; and because we want to believe in "merit", we often denigrate our own efforts and doubt ourselves even when we succeed (it was "luck", or something else). The required confidence is harder to develop when you've spent your life not being outstandingly successful, and you've been assuming it was entirely due to your own deficiencies as opposed to other factors.

That self-interrogation of course informs the comparisons we're (tacitly) encouraged to make between ourselves and others in grad school. We look at what other are doing, wondering why they seem to be "succeeding" when we're not. Why do some people seem to be able to effortlessly afford that trip to the conference in San Francisco or Sydney or that three-month stint touring the Far East? Significantly, success in academe also depends on the capital you can invest in further professional experience, where additional available resources mean not having to take on two extra jobs to finance your conference travel (or pay the rent!), thereby losing time you could have spent on researching. Success, in the form of useful capital, builds on itself.

As someone who's currently riding out my second large merit-based fellowship, obviously I have extremely mixed feelings about the concept of "merit"...on the one hand I represent, statistically, an aberration that should prove the effectiveness of meritocracy: a student without economic means who's been able to get to the doctoral level, and to do it by winning awards for academic excellence. But sometimes all I see are the thousand other ways in which this story could have ended, the many times I felt like dropping out because I was so sick of being broke and angry and tired and stressed, and the others I knew who were smart and talented and dedicated and still didn't win the scholarships I won, and who did leave, blaming themselves all the way. I tell myself I made the right friends, got the right advice, stepped into the right subject area at the right time. Surely these were the things that stood between me and a return to a past where I washed dishes for a living instead of marking undergraduate essays.

The line feels that slim--a paperwidth of possibility--one that can be "re-crossed" at any time, given the assumed tenuousness of my success. Because I will probably never feel as if I truly deserve what I have.


Previous posts in this series...
Part 1: "Myths and Mismatches", Oh My!
Part 2: "Mismatches": Time, Place, and Opportunity
Part 3: Assessing Your Qualifications
Part 4: Structural Faults?

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