The Education System is not a Pure Meritocracy - Evan Baker

posted Jun 1, 2017, 7:02 AM by Daniel Laurison

For some, the idea that the American school system is a meritocracy that sorts out people into their various occupations in a way that is more or less based on their intelligence, might seem very common sense. The perception of the school system as the fabled “Great Equalizer” is almost as prevalent today as it was in 1848 when Horace Mann first coined the term. A excellent example of this attitude than Professor Laurison’s dentist’s assertion that he knows: “a lot of people who are teachers, and the smart kids, they can pick them out, and make sure they're OK. I mean maybe if they've got behavior problems or something, but then, that's the parents' fault”. Unfortunately for Professor Laurison’s dentist, income distribution in society does occur by way of teachers picking out “the smart kids” and eventually giving them better jobs. The empiric reality in the United States is that how and which students are “picked out” as “successful” is dependent to such an large degree on those students’ accumulated social and cultural capital as to fundamentally contradict any claims of its pure meritocratic character.

As first formulated by Pierre Bourdieu in the 1970’s and 80’s, the differences between people in taste, manners, cultural knowledge, and education, known as “cultural capital”, and the differences in the types of and amount of social networks people have access to, known as “social capital”, are not just personal characteristics. The various qualities that make up a person’s social and cultural capital function as another type of assets, just like money or financial capital do. In Bourdieu's formulation people use their social and cultural capital, like for example an in-depth knowledge of how to schmooze at high-class social events or a history of prestige in extracurriculars, as a way to gain access to or reproduce their status and position among the upper class of society.

How the American educational separates students out into high achieving/low achieving students and then later onto different tertiary educational tracks and career paths is organized in a way so as to favor students with high social and cultural capital and marginalize those without these resources, regardless of their intelligence. This reality was unmistakably illustrated by Annette Lareau's research and field work in her book Unequal Childhoods: Race, Class, and Family Life. In the book Lareau studies the development of eighty-eight Black and White children of poor, working class, and middle class backgrounds. Through a study of their lives and development, Lareau concludes that middle class families have a different style of child rearing than that of working class and poor families which puts their children at great advantage in US school system. The middle class childhood development strategy of “concerted cultivation”, in contrast to the working class and poor strategy of “natural growth”, puts a very large emphasis on the expansion of a child’s extracurricular portfolio as well as accelerated growth of their social and academic skills through active parental intervention. This difference in parental technique translates into greater higher academic success and later better job prospects for middle and upper class children (Lareau).

These middle and upper class children are again favored in their job prospects by the fact that elite law, business consulting, and financial firms utilize the social and cultural capital accrued during childhood/adolescent “concerted cultivation” in decisions on who to hire. Lauren Rivera demonstrates this in her comprehensive anthropological work, Pedigree, in which she studies the interview and selection process for job candidates in an elite firms. Rivera finds that interviewers put a greater priority on whether candidates have the right types of social and cultural capital to fit into the firm’s “culture”, like having extensive squash playing experience, rather than whether they are the most technically skilled or intelligent candidate.

As shown in both Pedigree and Unequal Childhoods there are many advantages given to upper and middle class children based on social and cultural factors rather than natural intelligence or aptitude. This fundamental reality refutes the foundations of any empirical basis Professor Laurison’s dentist’s opinion, that people are where they are in society because teachers know how to “pick out” the smart kids, could be founded on.