First published in The Hindu, 1 July 2023 

He got the seat on “pure merit.” Behind this statement lurks a number of societal assumptions of what merit entails. That a person who gets into a college through merit is truly deserving of the seat. Further, merit as a construct is pure, unadulterated, making it sublime, even. A promotion that is merit-based is earned unlike a placement through a diversity quota, for example. In a meritocracy, genuine talent and skills flourish as competition, though fierce, is fair.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to merit. I too believe that talent and competence should play significant roles in determining who gets placed where. That said, we need to be aware of the many assumptions tethered to the notion of merit. In his book, The Tyranny of Merit, philosopher, Michael Sandel, unpacks suppositions of meritocratic systems.

Reality check

First, merit begets a sense of entitlement or deservingness among those who “make it” in a meritocracy. That merit is often tied to power and privilege is not readily acknowledged. So, when students crack a competitive exam, like the JEE, they exult. But cracking the JEE not only involves intelligence, motivation and years of toil, but also the support of coaches, mentors and parents who can fund extra classes. Impoverished students are often at a serious disadvantage. In the meanwhile, the coaching industry flourishes as more aspirants vie for a seat based on “pure merit.”

Further, the stakes of getting into premium institutes like the IITs, NITs and IIMs get higher. These hallowed portals of learning are not shy in advertising the stratospheric starting salaries offered to students during on-campus recruitments. As a result, these privileged students grow richer, while the gap with their loss-fortunate peers grows wider.

While students have every right to feel proud of their achievements, especially when they have invested considerable effort, there is often a fine line between pride and hubris. Winners, writes Sandel, may “inhale too deeply of their success,” and exude a smug entitlement without necessarily acknowledging the myriad external forces that aided them. Furthermore, those who don’t make the cut, are deemed unworthy and may suffer from humiliation because they too buy into the meritocratic ethos that we each deserve our lot. Those rejected by this sorting system are plagued by a toxic mix of self-doubt and resentment.

But the winners aren’t spared, either, argues Sandel. When students’ self-worth rides entirely on achievement, the drive to remain at the top of the pyramid can exact a psychological toll on individuals, not to mention the social and moral costs. The rise in mental health issues in young people may partly be due to students subjecting themselves to chronic stress.

Sandel explains that the sociologist, Michael Young, who first coined the term ‘meritocracy’ in 1958, predicted that it would create a stratified society plagued by self-conceit and self-doubt, neither of which is conducive to creating a harmonious society that caters to the well-being of every citizen.

Staying grounded

In The Harvard Gazette, Liz Mineo profiles Rehan Staton, a sanitation worker in Maryland who made it to the uber-competitive Harvard Law School and is now all set to graduate. Given that his inspiring story went viral when he was admitted, it is indeed admirable that Staton has remained level-headed about his stellar achievement. While he admits that he worked hard, he also acknowledges the contribution of his family, boss, co-workers, professors and Tyler Perry, the media mogul, who offered to pay his fees after the hearing of Staton’s story.

Before graduating, Staton organized an event to express gratitude to the “custodians and service workers” at the law school, raising money to give each one a $100 gift certificate. He has also pledged to continue to “honour service workers” in the future. With due humility, he says, “I got lucky, but I made the most of my luck.” If more winners follow Staton’s example, we may create a more just and compassionate society.