Jack Winterton explains how students at elite universities feel pressure to protect their meritocratic credentials, sometimes at the cost of rendering them incapable of engaging in self-doubt and self-criticism.
To compete with others in higher education (HE) requires talent, drive, ambition, hard work, and resilience. These are the attributes of a modern-day, successful, meritocratic student. It is, therefore, unfortunate that to learn in a classroom setting requires an entirely different set of co-created dispositions namely trust, humility, and empathy between the teacher and students. Recent books and commentaries highlight the contradictions at the heart of meritocracy and the pain it has unleashed on its winners and losers across modern society. In this post, I offer a cursory glance at meritocracy’s influence on learning in an elite university setting. Our students have won the uneven and imperfect meritocratic race to secure a place at a prestigious university, but at what cost to learning?
Our students have won the uneven and imperfect meritocratic race to secure a place at a prestigious university, but at what cost to learning?
The pressure of belonging to a ‘haven of the world’s most ambitious scholars’ is acutely present for our students and it filters into the classroom. Daniel Markovits, a law professor at Yale University describes in his book, The Meritocracy Trap how his undergraduate students are ‘…precious and fragile, but not in the manner of the special snowflakes that derisive polemics describe. They do not melt or wilt…, so much as shatter under the intense competitive pressures to achieve that dominate their lives. They are neither dissolute nor decadent, but rather tense and exhausted.’
This is a generalisation, of course, but it does capture something important that I’ve also noticed in classrooms and one-to-one discussions with my own students. I’m reminded of several occasions when I’ve been in classrooms where no-one is prepared to speak as they sit with copious notes in front of them, saying nothing. Having graduated from the London School of Economics not so long ago, I recall being one of them – occasionally, too fearful to say anything that might expose me as an imposter and dent my meritocratic credentials. There are any number of reasons that might explain a student’s hesitancy to engage in academic discussion. One that is acutely present in elite higher education institutions is a ‘collective anxiety’ according to Markovits, induced by the struggle to live up to meritocratic ideals.
At the beginning of the academic year, I regularly have office hour appointments with students who are trying to navigate the unsafe terrain of classroom discussions. I find it a challenge to encourage them to give it a go. Classrooms are inherently unsafe for someone wanting to keep their meritocratic credentials intact – they are likely to have only just been introduced to unfamiliar ideas and concepts and are surrounded with peers, making comparison is easy. Under this pressure, students are less likely to risk losing face by being wrong or expressing themselves imperfectly. Communicating in fear, according to John Dewey, chokes the ‘give and take of ideas, facts and experiences.’ Meritocratic success has burdened our students with a fear of getting the wrong answer.
Meritocratic success has burdened our students with a fear of getting the wrong answer.
Writing in the Financial Times, Rana Foroohar (2020) suggests that millennials are turning away from the highly pressurised and vacuous pursuit of credentials. I don’t know if this is true. Many students (and parents) are still hungry for prestige demonstrated by the college admissions scandal that uncovered the illegal ways in which the rich and famous secured access to elite US colleges. What’s more, students themselves, even under the pressure of meritocracy, are unlikely to want the dismantling the very system that maintains their privilege.
Michael Young, who coined the term meritocracy, saw that the meritocratic elite would ‘no longer [be] weakened by self-doubt and self-criticism’ as they wholeheartedly believe that their high status in society transpires from their hard work and talent. I would take this in a slightly different direction and suggest that the pressure of protecting your meritocratic persona might also make some incapable of engaging in activities that could allow for self-doubt and self-criticism.
As higher education becomes more competitive, there is less chance for our students to recognise their fallibility openly and to own their limitations and biases
As higher education becomes more competitive, there is less chance for our students to recognise their fallibility openly and to own their limitations and biases as Michael Lynch describes in his article for the Chronicle for Higher Education, Teaching Humility in an Age of Arrogance. In considering the purpose of education, we have steered too far towards education as qualification. That’s to say, education is increasingly a tool for the development of skills and knowledge that shows that students are qualified to do a certain activity. Pressure from employers and sites such as LinkedIn that use data analytics to sift through large amount of applicants has driven the quantification of learning outcomes and reduced education to mere qualification-building and skills development. Higher education institutions are under significant of pressure to demonstrate their competency in qualifying students to do things. For example, take a look at this recent Financial Times article with the jarring headline (for anyone working in higher education at least): ‘Employers shift focus from education to skills.’
This single-mindedness neglects to consider the way that our education is imbued with norms, values, and practices that highlight the embeddedness of our classroom learning within dominant social structures, and the way that education informs the development of the subjectivities of our students. Academic humility, if we can access it, offers a way to reconnect to each other and ourselves in learning spaces. This requires an acknowledgement that ‘individuals are unfinished, uncompleted beings in and with a likewise unfinished reality’ to quote Paulo Freire. The problem is how do we get there with the weight of meritocratic success on the shoulders of teachers and students alike?
I don’t have a good response to this question, but its importance is clear. Ronald Barnett describes the new roles that universities need to play in a time of supercomplexity, one of which is the development of new pedagogies that allow for the ‘formation of human being that maintains a purposive equilibrium in the face of radical uncertainty and contestability.’ This task is all the more difficult with the growing pressure on the shoulders of students to continuously perform to their meritocratic potential.
Note: A version of this post first appeared on 10 May 2021 on the Contemporary Issues in Teaching and Learning Blog, part of the PGCertHE programme at the LSE.
This post is opinion-based and does not reflect the views of the London School of Economics and Political Science or any of its constituent departments and divisions.
Image: Shubham Sharan on Unsplash