Sunday, September 11, 2011

Meritocracy and Its Limits

Tests, of various kinds, assure us that we have a way of sorting wheat from chaff, only the fittest are permitted into our best schools and universities, and the ablest run our institutions. These tests are designed by honest psychologists and educational experts, and takes years and millions of pounds of investment to build and refine. If we only look at the credentials of people who develop them, and the effort that goes in, it is easy to think that they are an effective ticketing mechanism to keep our societies in safe hands.

But, at times like this, when our institutions prove less than efficient, and people who run them, clueless, there should be a crack of a doubt whether we are doing things right. Are we measuring the right abilities, would be the first question. Beyond this, there will be the question about whether these tests are worth anything at all, or are they just designed to justify the social stratification which exists anyway.

The literature on whether we are measuring the right abilities is extensive, and the answer is self-evident: We are not. While we have refined the measurement of one kind of intelligence, we are far from measuring others, though these other sorts of intelligences are becoming more critical for success as the societies move beyond narrow technical rationalities. The important values are all too difficult to measure, while we struggle to ensure that the people who run our public institutions are morally capable and are inspired by a sense of service. In a way, we have given up on these after various attempts, and accepted privately that the tests are mostly useless in measuring these abilities.

But tests continue to flourish and has become an export item from America to other countries. With it, goes the illusion of meritocracy. While one of the advisers of the Indian Prime Minister recently complained that India has an examination system rather than an education system, a big company CEO told me why he prefers to recruit only MBAs: "Though they may have learned nothing in their B-Schools, they must be fit enough to survive through the grueling entrance test regime".  I question exactly this kind of faith in meritocracy, which I believe to be a rather dangerous illusion, and would think that the tests are a tool to maintain social stratification of the past and counter-productive for our future.

Apart from what the tests measure, mostly narrow technical rationality, the problem comes from how they measure it. They do it in a controlled environment and a set of rules, which confers an additional advantage to a group of people who are familiar with the environment and the rules, and excludes others who would have come up to the same level of practical competence following different rules. It measures against a socially accepted benchmark, which is necessarily set up past standards of social achievement, but may prove useless going forward. And, finally, it is easy to build a bias for linguistic capabilities, which we all know depend on social class: A poor man's English is different from his rich neighbour's. In short, the tests as they are, are tools to provide justifications of existing social systems rather than developing a true meritocracy.

I am indeed not claiming that all the bright boys are impostors. But I object to the tremendous social waste such testing regimes impose, when they would leave out people or at least make it harder for people outside a charmed circle to make it in life. It gets worse when tests are imposed, from one culture to another. Someone recently commented on one of my blog posts on English Language in India that in India, articulation is taken as a proof of competence. While my reply to him was that this happens more or less in any society, there is a grain of truth in the claim that being able to speak in English puts you in a higher strata in many societies than you will otherwise be. Tests solidify this bias, which comes from nothing other than colonial hangover, and ensure that the same old boys' mentality passes on from one generation to others.

The problem with this is that societies become disabled to deal with change, and move forward. This leads to, in the end, complete implosion of our social and economic systems, of the kind we face now. The most painful aspect of such events in history is our inability to comprehend and to act, which is evident in various social institutions at this very time. However, this is where our faith in meritocracy got us: It is not very unlike the emperor who thought his advisers knew best and the advisers forgot to tell him he had no clothes.

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