Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Concept of Democratic Merit

Lani Guinier has written an important book, which is also a pleasure to read, and this is about the concept of Democratic Merit. Part polemic, against the mindless system of SAT-driven education system in the United States, part Education Treatise and partly high minded discourse on how democratic mindsets work, it should be read not just in the US but in other countries and contexts, because education is all too often seen as a technical thing focused on preparing Doctors and Engineers, and divorced from its social role altogether.

The argument in Professor Guinier's book hinges upon a definition of merit given by the Nobel-Laureate Economist, Professor Amartya Sen. In Professor Sen's view, merit is an incentive system for the actions the society values. The merit system as defined by SAT (and other tests), an individualistic, context-blind ability and intelligence, this book argues, is out of step with the requirement of a democratic society. Ms Guinier expands her argument to include a number of examples from institutions cultivating merit according to democratic values, and going beyond the individualistic, competitive ethos. These institutions value diversity, mutual respect and cooperation, and operates without the winner-takes-all approach of the American, and by extension, many other Higher Education systems globally.

Despite all those merits, this is a flawed book. One may start with the title - it sets an expectation which is quite contrary to what it delivers. The point of this book is to redefine the idea of merit in democratic context, indeed a worthy goal and even an urgent one - given the trouble democracy is having globally - but not to undermine the concept of meritocracy itself and argue in favour of some dated system of privilege. The other issue is that the book perhaps tries to do too much at the same time, pointing to how SAT system is technically flawed and how a person of privilege can easily play the system, which detracts from the central theme of what should our concept of merit be in the first place. 

Having said this, the point that the current conception of meritocracy has become just an excuse of perpetuating social privileges - and consequent inequality - is indeed a fair point. Robert Putnam, among others, is pointing to debilitating effects of such a social arrangement, and one needs to be sensitive about the same. However, this part of the argument relates to a very American problem, at least presently. Being a reader living outside the United States, the main takeaway for me is the key conception of democratic merit, and various ways of fostering this within the Education environment, which has global applicability.


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