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Merit and Difference

by Benjamin Baez - 2006

Using the arguments over college admissions as a point of departure, this article analyzes the idea of merit in education. Situating the concept of merit historically and philosophically, it advances the argument that merit should be considered not as an individual construct but as an institutional one. The debates over merit focus on which individual abilities should be privileged in college admissions. But the author argues the merit does not—indeed, cannot—exist outside the institutions that use it. The article suggests that it may be counterproductive for educators to insist upon an individual basis for merit, even when it is linked to furthering emancipatory goals. In other words, the predominant definitions of merit privilege an idea of the individual that itself should be questioned for how it justifies the institutional practices that create difference, practices that ensure that such an idea never materializes in fact.

The concept of merit has been a primary subject of debate in American politics (see Crosby & Van DeVeer, 2000). The Supreme Court’s decision in 2003 narrowly upholding affirmative action in college admissions brought national attention to the idea of merit in educational institutions (see Grutter v. Bollinger, 2003). Indeed, the debate over merit focuses on how these institutions define and operationalize the concept. Educational opportunity, as Lemann (1999) argued, has “become a national obsession, with a politics, a jurisprudence, and a philosophy” (p. 6). This obsession illustrates that merit—however it is defined—is the principle by which educational institutions assign individuals to hierarchically ordered social classes (see Bourdieu, 1984, p. 23). Thus, the debate over merit belies a larger political struggle over how and to whom societal resources will be allocated. As a result, the educational system—and especially its postsecondary component—is the stage, but also the prize, for the struggles over what merit means, struggles that seem to embody class conflicts.

I wish to contribute to this debate over what merit means, but I will argue that the concept has no meaning in itself.1 Its meaning is determined by its institutional use, a use that paradoxically obscures its institutional bases. The problem with the debate over merit, I will argue, is that it focuses predominantly on individual abilities rather than on institutional uses. Despite the various definitions given to merit, the idea of merit itself—its logic, irrespective of any operationalization—is rarely questioned.

Although the idea of merit functions in other contexts, I limit my discussion largely to how it functions in college admissions, which is the context in which definitions of merit seem most contentious. In the rest of this article, I discuss briefly the origin and uses of merit, uses that currently focus attention on standardized admissions tests. I then argue that merit may be thought about as an institutional construct and that it does not—indeed, it cannot—exist outside the institutions that use it. I suggest that it may be counterproductive for educators to insist upon an individual basis for it even when it is linked to furthering emancipatory goals. I end the article with the argument that it is the idea of the individual itself that should be questioned for how it justifies the institutional practices that create difference, practices that ensure that such an idea never materializes in fact.

I would like to say a few preliminary words about how I will proceed with my argument. I want this article to reflect an ambiguity that I believe to be unavoidable. My argument is, in its simplest form, against the idea of merit.2 I hope, however, that the article is not read as arguing that merit is irrelevant or that it does not exist. Rather, I want to argue that it is relevant and does exist, but only because it is legitimated by moral, scientific, and institutional discourses that create, police, and use the concept to ensure and justify the institutional arrangements that support these discourses. I want also not to be understood as saying that merit is worse than previous forms of social classifications, or, conversely, that merit does not have beneficial aspects. Rather, I want only to argue that we should consider the idea of merit as indicating not something about individuals per se, but about the institutions that individuals have created but over which they are not able to provide effective control.

My argument is primarily philosophical rather than empirical, but I hope that its usefulness is concrete. I want to shift the focus of attention in education away from individuals and toward institutions. That is, I hope to spark discussion and research that focuses not on the question of which individual deserves this or that, but rather on the institutions that benefit when such a question is posed in the first place. In effect, the focus would shift away from tests and individualized reviews of students and toward sociological analyses of education, institutionalization, and redistributive justice. I want educators to reconsider the predominant ways of thinking about merit and its usefulness; such ways assume that the concept of merit helps us understand individuals. I will argue that the concept of merit actually helps us understand institutions and the allocation of resources. Such thinking forces educators to reflect critically about the macro-level of education rather than the micro-level at which individuals are governed.

Despite arguing against merit, I resist offering an alternative even though academic convention compels me to do so. I believe that if I am even remotely correct, the alternative to merit at this point can only be no alternative at all. And that is because the predominant account of merit as the only viable alternative to past systems for distributing social resources prevents one from imagining other arrangements that do not focus attention on individual abilities. The prevailing ideas of merit structure our view of the world as one in which limited resources exist and in which the distribution of these resources must be a zero-sum game. If we deem that world static and obdurate—as the way it is—then there can be no other alternative to merit as an organizing principle in that world. I hope that by questioning the concept of merit, we can allow ourselves to imagine a different social order. I ask the reader, therefore, to suspend judgment and engage with the arguments that I will advance.



1. That which is deserved or has been earned, whether good or evil; due reward or punishment.

2. a. The condition or fact of deserving . . .


Government by persons selected on the basis of merit in a competitive educational system; a society so governed; a ruling or influential class of educated people

(Oxford English Dictionary, 1989)

Merit means deserving, a meaning that suggests an individual quality, something that an individual possesses or does. Meritocracy, however, denotes a political system premised on individual merits. Thus, merit is a definition of individuals, meritocracy a definition of institutions. Yet, much of the discussion in education is on individual ability (i.e., on merit) rather than on institutions (i.e., on the meritocracy).3

For example, much of debate about college admissions focuses on traditional indicators of quality, such as test scores and grade point averages. Conservatives tend to defend these indicators as the most efficient way of identifying individual talent (see Farber & Sherry, 1997). Progressives tend to argue that these indicators are culturally biased and guarantee social inequalities, so they seek to redefine merit to make it more equitable by accounting for such things as varied experience, capacity to overcome adversity, and leadership ability (see Olivas, 1997; Strum & Guinier, 1996; Tierney, 1997). All these definitions, however, acknowledge that merit standards help institutions differentiate among applicants for college, and they do so by focusing attention on individual abilities.

Because I am concerned with institutional uses of the idea of merit, I would like to shift attention to the idea of meritocracy. This idea is not a recent one, and so its origin is worth exploring. Young (1961) coined the term meritocracy in a brilliant satire set in the year 2033. In The Rise of the Meritocracy, Young warned about the consequences of various practices in postwar Britain, especially (1) allocating children to different schools on the basis of psychometric testing, (2) preparing children for different kinds of work through curricular offerings, and (3) using education as a means to employment rather than as an end in itself. In this fable, the use of intelligence testing leads to a meritocracy that replaces an inefficient and unpopular social order that allocates rewards and statuses on the basis of a hereditary system. The meritocracy, however, allocates rewards and statuses on the basis of this formula: Merit 5 IQ 1 effort. Young’s meritocracy, reinforced by social science, has negative consequences on people’s lives and on a democratic form of government. Eventually, the masses revolt, a revolution that leads to the death of the narrator himself.

Young’s fable rings true even today. He could be seen as describing our present system when he stated that

[we] have an elite selected according to brains and educated according to deserts, with a grounding in philosophy and administration as well as in the two S’s of science and sociology. . . .Today we frankly recognize that democracy can be no more than aspiration, and have rule not so much by the people as by the cleverest people; not an aristocracy of birth, not a plutocracy of wealth, but a true meritocracy of talent. (p. 21)

Today, education and qualifications attained through talent and effort serve as the bases on which individuals are supposed to be allocated different social positions and differing levels of income and prestige. And this differentiation of individuals, and consequent stratification of society, can now claim legitimacy not only on the grounds of efficiency but also on moral grounds because individuals tend to believe that merit is the basis for “both material and symbolic benefits” that, when possessed, seem genuinely earned and deserved (Breen & Goldthorpe, 2001, p. 81). Nearly all people seem to believe in merit as the only possible alternative to a hereditary system even if they disagree with others about what constitutes it.

Young’s fable was one of warning, but rather than having the meritocracy discounted, as he had hoped, it was taken up as an ideal and celebrated (see Lemann, 1999, pp. 119-121). Indeed, some took up the cause of defending the meritocracy after Young’s book was published. Gardner’s Excellence (1961), for example, was also a tale of warning, but he warned against the strict egalitarian principles that prevented the establishment of a meritocracy. Gardner claimed to be concerned with the “difficult, puzzling, delicate and important business of toning up a whole society, of bringing a whole people to that fine edge of morale and conviction and zest that makes for greatness” (p. xiii). Unlike Young, Gardner assumed equality with respect to certain political rights, but individuals are “not equal in their native gifts nor in their motivations; and it follows that they will not be equal in their achievements” (p. 12).

Although Gardner (1961) couched his view of merit in individualistic language—that is, language purporting to protect “the best man” against discrimination—his real interest was in preserving a particular social order. As he put it, “Many Americans have always assumed that the only sensible way to organize society is to allow each individual to enjoy whatever status, privileges and power he is capable of winning for himself out of general striving” (p. 16). The problem he saw as resolved by merit, therefore, was societal, not individual. Indeed, merit, for Gardner, transcended any individual and was “[a] concern for all. A democracy, no less than any other form of society, must foster excellence if it is to survive; and it should not allow the emotional scars of old battles to confuse it on this point” (pp. 77-78).

As in Young’s fable, in Gardner’s book, the education system sorts individuals according to talent, and the best way to do this was through standardized testing “because [it is] objective” and “remarkably effective in sorting out students according to their actual and potential performance in the classroom” (pp. 48-50). Such sorting required a

diversity in our higher educational system to correspond to the diversity of the clientele. . . . Such diversity is the only possible answer to the fact of individual differences in ability and aspirations. . . . [and] is the only way of achieving quality within a framework of quantity, (pp. 83-84)

It may seem easy today to discount Gardner’s (1961) vision of society, with its rigid stratification determined by standardized tests. Yet, Gardner would allocate leadership positions not just on the basis of one’s talent but also on one’s “commitment to the highest value of the society” (p. 120). And, in this regard, his view of merit is not very different from Bowen and Bok’s (1998) as it is expressed in The Shape of the River. Bowen and Bok set out to explain the extent to which affirmative action policies at elite colleges and universities (1) enriched the educational experience by enrolling more diverse students, and (2) filled the “national ‘deficit’ by preparing larger numbers of talented minority students for positions of responsibility in the professions, the business world, academia, government, and every other sector of American life” (p. xxxi). This view seems to follow Gardner’s by adhering to notions of talent, traditionally defined, while expressing a strong commitment to other important social goals.

Bowen and Bok (1998) amassed empirical data highlighting the benefits of attending elite private and public colleges and universities such as Bryn Mawr, Duke, Princeton, Stanford, Yale, Penn State, Michigan, and North Carolina. They found that the earnings of graduates of these institutions are substantially greater than those of graduates of other 4-year institutions. These graduates also go on to the most prestigious graduate and professional schools and are more “civically committed” than graduates from other institutions. Bowen and Bok’s findings provided compelling evidence that affirmative action is essential for prestigious institutions because it ensures a racially and ethnically diverse student body, and because the graduates of these institutions will succeed in ways that matter in American society, important aspects of that society will also be more diverse. Bowen and Bok did defend traditional indicators of merit, but argued, as did Gardner, that leadership positions should also be based on other important societal needs, such as diversifying “every sector of American life” (p. xxxi).

Like Gardner, however, Bowen and Bok (1998) ultimately wound up defending what is an inequitable social order even as they sought to espouse more egalitarian objectives. They argued that

one reason why we care so much about who gets admitted “on the merits” is because, as this study confirms, admissions to the kinds of selective schools included in the College and Beyond universe pays off handsomely for individuals of all races, from all backgrounds. But it is not individuals alone who gain. Substantial additional benefits accrue to society at large through the leadership and civic participation of the graduates and through the broad contributions that the schools themselves make to the goals of a democratic society. . . . The limited number of places [, therefore,] is an exceedingly valuable resource— valuable both to the students admitted and to the society at large— which is why admissions need to be based “on the merits.” (p. 276)

Bowen and Bok (1998) defended their meritocractic practices, then, not as important only from an individual standpoint but as politically imperative to preserve a society that allocates its rewards to those fortunate enough to have gained “an exceedingly valuable resource.” For all the talk about democracy within such studies, what is ultimately defended is a social order that distributes resources and statuses unevenly. And the justification for this stratification is either the supposedly innate abilities that one is born with (i.e., intelligence) or abilities that one acquires through attending selective colleges and universities.

Viewed from this perspective, the meritocracy that many educators defend is not all that different from the hereditary-based system that it replaced: In the earlier system, one benefited either by being born into privilege (replaced by born with intelligence) or by acquiring it through, say, an advantageous marriage (replaced by advantageous admission to an elite institution). The meritocracy, like the hereditary system it supposedly replaced, presumes the inevitability, if not desirability, of an inequitable social order; it merely provides an alternative way of managing and maintaining it.

Yet, the standards used to maintain the meritocracy are deemed natural and even morally right. For example, Farber and Sherry (1997), who misread the critiques of merit as denying that standards exist rather than that they are subjective, argued that traditional merit standards are objective, rational, just, and colorblind because they allow society to select those individuals who will create social value. "Biased" criteria, such as race, wealth, or family connections, they argued, are unfairly subjective, irrational, and race conscious. To argue otherwise, Farber and Sherry claimed, is racist because it ignores the successes of groups such as Asians and Jews.

The merit standards that Gardner (1961), Bowen and Bok (1998), and Farber and Sherry (1997) defended, however, are best viewed as cultural constructions. As Williams (1991) argued, “The mind funnels of Harvard and Yale are called standards. Standards are concrete monuments to socially accepted subjective preference. Standards are like paths picked through fields of equanimity, worn into hard wide roads over time, used always because of collective habit, expectation, and convenience” (p. 99). Merit standards, regardless of how well they can be defended, are ultimately culturally biased; they reflect that which our society currently deems worthy (see Roithmayr, 1997).

Although standardized tests play a dominant role in allocating societal resources, Bowen and Bok (1998) correctly claimed that test scores are not the sole criterion for admissions to elite schools. Such factors as grades, recommendations, personal qualities, athletic talent, socioeconomic status, geographic origin, leadership potential, and the projected composition of the class as a whole also play a role. Yet, test scores remain the most important criterion for admission to selective colleges and universities. The students at selective institutions tend to have high scores on the SAT or the ACT. As Lemann (1999) put it, a “test of one narrow quality, the ability to perform well in school, stands firmly athwart the path to success. Those who don’t have that ability will have much less chance than those who do to display their other talents later” (p. 6). Indeed, as Lemann argued, the “national regime of IQ-descended standardized tests that everyone takes and that lead the chosen few into the higher reaches of the university system is the embodiment, and the only possible embodiment, of the principle of meritocracy” (p. 343).

The social stratification of individuals and institutions, therefore, is accomplished primarily through standardized testing, the scores of which many tend to see as evidence of merit.4 Although many educators recognize that such tests lead to social stratification, most colleges and universities use them because they are "efficient" indicators of the probability of academic success (i.e., getting good grades, graduating on time, getting into leading graduate schools) and also because an institution’s national reputation tends to be based on the scores of its students. Standardized testing for selecting students for higher education was originally developed by a small group of Ivy League academics who worried that America might be degenerating into a class-stratified society. The only way to access the full range of talent, they believed, was a standardized test of ability (see Hoffman, 1962; Lemann, 1999). Yet, standardized tests went only so far in furthering social mobility; the class structure that is traceable to the old hereditary system remains very much intact.

As soon as these tests were introduced, questions about their validity arose. Hoffman (1962) provided an early critique of such tests and warned that they stifle creativity and innovation and penalize those who wish to exhibit depth, subtlety, and critical acumen. But even more problematically, these tests have a negative impact on certain social groups, such as African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, and people with low incomes, who generally score lower on standardized tests than wealthy Whites and Asian Americans of similar backgrounds (see Bowen & Bok, 1998; Crouse & Trusheim, 1988). Recognizing this problem but valuing racial and ethnic diversity, elite colleges and universities have established policies giving preferences to racial and ethnic minorities. Legal challenges to such preferences, however, have been successful (see Baez, 2002; Gratz v. Bollinger, 2003). So, many institutions are giving more weight to evidence that prospective students have overcome social disadvantages (see Butler, 1996).

The critiques of standardized testing are gaining ground, and although still emphasizing moral arguments (for example, the negative impact on racial and ethnic minorities), certain researchers are increasingly using social science evidence to question the claims about validity and reliability made by developers and users of the tests. For example, Crouse and Trushiem (1988) used extensive statistical evidence to argue that the SAT does not predict college success any better than high school performance, and so the Educational Testing Service (ETS) has been "overselling" the predictive value of the test. Such critiques have been instrumental in changing institutional practices; some colleges have eliminated the SAT for admissions purposes or at least have made it optional (see Hiss, 2001; McCarty, 2001). In response to threats by institutions to eliminate the use of the SAT, the College Board has modified the SAT to include a writing sample and has provided new reading questions and more advanced math equations to “adequately reflect classroom learning and give us a better picture of a student’s core skills that relate to success in college” (Wayne Camara, the College Board’s Vice President of Research and Development, quoted in Hoover, 2002, p. A35). Not surprisingly, there has been a concerted defense of the SAT, not just from the ETS but from academics as well, who argue that the tests measure academic accomplishment and help institutions distinguish among applicants (see Bowen & Bok, 1998; Marx, 2002).

Given the prominent use of standardized tests in college admissions, their importance in social stratification, and the unlikelihood that their use will soon end, there is a good deal of criticism of their validity. Olivas (1997), for example, noted that standardized tests are used because of administrative convenience and predictive validity. He pointed out, however, that there is a good deal of evidence that such tests, especially for racial and ethnic minorities, do not accurately predict academic performance.5 Olivas argued, therefore, that such tests can be justified only as administratively convenient, which is not a legitimate basis for using them. He argued that institutions should consider a wider range of criteria in admitting students, such as their capacity to overcome economic and racial adversity.6

Guinier (2001) similarly insisted that diversity should not be framed as oppositional to merit, arguing that to do so will lead to the exclusion from elite schools of a large number of poor and working-class people of all racial groups. Such a policy also fails to account for the “most important elements of merit in a multicultural society: who will contribute to the society as a whole after graduation” (p. B10). Guinier’s major concern is that current definitions of merit rely on standardized tests that “cannot measure the capacity of students to solve complex problems or to lead others in resolving the complicated issues of our day” (pp. B10-B11). Not only do those tests fail to measure the “range of intelligences [that] are relevant” in all situations, but they also fail to measure “attributes of leadership” (p. B11). Furthermore, such tests correlate less with first-year grades than with parents’ socioeconomic status. 7She concluded, as do most critics of standardized tests, that "merit" should be seen as a “functional rather than generic concept, one that is ultimately connected with each institution’s specific mission and the democratic purposes of higher education” (p. B11).

These critiques do shed doubt on the usefulness of standardized admissions tests, but one should not ignore that such tests have their roots in intelligence testing. The SAT in particular has its roots in the IQ tests used by the military to weed out undesirables, especially racial and ethnic minorities (see Lemann, 1999, pp. 23-24). There is an undertheorized link between intelligence, merit, and race, a fact that both conservatives and progressives take pains to deny. In other words, conservatives, relying on a rhetoric of "colorblindness," tend to deny that concepts of merit and intelligence have a historical link to those of race (e.g., how the former concepts were shaped by the latter ones), and progressives want to redefine merit and intelligence to ensure that such a historical link is severed.

Balibar (1994) noted the inherent racism in principles such as reason, individuality, and intelligence. He theorized that no universal “definition of the human species . . . has been proposed which would not imply a latent hierarchy” based on “natural characteristics, or because of personal and social functions, behaviors, and habits” (p. 197). Racism, for Balibar, is a mode of thinking that establishes racial differences as natural and universal and thus justifies the inequitable allocation of social resources. Bourdieu (1993) argued more explicitly that there exists a “racism of intelligence” and that it is exercised by the dominant class to justify its dominance. The most widespread use of “IQ racism,” as Bourdieu called it, is the “scientific discourse” invoked to justify IQ racism in educational selection. Through the educational classification of students and institutions, “social discrimination is legitimized and given the sanction of science” (p. 178). Following this line of thinking, it may be counterproductive for social justice to deny the link between race and merit because doing so only obscures the fact that any definition of merit will contain latent social, often racial, hierarchies no matter how well intentioned the definitions might be.

The current critique of merit and testing, therefore, does not go far enough. The solutions proffered by many of these critiques merely devise alternatives to reliance on tests in admissions decisions, alternatives that include evidence of community service, experience, leadership, and so forth. Thus, the privilege given to tests is questioned but the underlying exclusion is not. In other words, whatever is used in place of tests will still exclude those who do not have whatever it is. It is the assumption about individual abilities, the latent (often racist) hierarchies, and hidden institutional interests associated with merit that must also be questioned. Crouse and Trusheim (1988), Guinier (2001), Lemann (1999), Olivas (1997), and many others not mentioned here, who question the racial hierarchy supported by standardized tests, provide the groundwork for such a critique of merit. But the critique must move beyond questioning tests and proposing other criteria for admissions decisions. The critique must also question the internal logic of merit itself. I propose that such a critique should begin with exposing and problematizing the institutional bases for merit.


Despite the focus on individual abilities in the discussions of merit, I argue that it does not, and cannot, exist outside the institutional interests and practices that use it. Indeed, the “merit system” was established to replace a social order that was premised on hereditary privilege. The critique of merit should focus attention not on individual talents and abilities but on the institutional practices and arrangements that create, define, and use those talents and abilities. Such a critique should uncover, therefore, the institutional interests that create merit but that disguise themselves in individualistic rhetoric.

To illustrate this point, note that Olivas’s (1997) study of admissions policies at law schools explained commonly held beliefs about merit: (1) “institutions care about the fit between students and the program”; (2) “every faculty member wants to teach the ‘best’ students they can attract and enroll”; and (3) “in elite undergraduate colleges and in highly competitive graduate and professional programs, the places to be filled are simply too precious to award to persons unlikely to finish or successfully complete the course of study” (p. 1067). The purpose of using standardized tests in admissions decisions, others argued, is to “help compare students from different high schools fairly” (St. John, Hu, Simmons, & Musoba, 2001, p. 135). It must be stressed that these are concerns of institutions of higher education, which seek to “compare students fairly” and to ensure that students “fit [in]” or “successfully complete” the program. That is, these are not interests of individuals per se.

But what sorts of institutional interests are these? Note how Glen Loury introduced Bowen and Bok’s The Shape of the River (1998). After discussing how important the book is to the affirmative action debate because of its empirical findings, he stated,

Yet, even if the evidence were more equivocal, the authors’ articulate defense of their goal—to integrate elite higher education consciously by race—would still be both enormously important and highly controversial. . . . [The] goals and purposes openly espoused by our leading colleges and universities are public purposes. (And, given their considerable influence on national life and culture, this is no less true of private institutions. What a Harvard or a Princeton seeks to achieve is, in some measure, what America strives after.) (p. xxii)

The underlying logic of merit is that any individual or institution can attain what it is. Yet merit establishes difference: There will be those who have it and those who do not—there will never be more than a Harvard or a Princeton. At any rate, how is it true that what “a Harvard or a Princeton seeks to achieve is . . . what America strives after”? Merit practices, it seems, ensure the existence of the institutions that use them, and such use is deemed in the public interest. The “public interest” here, however, seems to be the private interests of a few selective institutions.

The individualistic language associated with merit, however, deflects attention from what institutions, especially prestigious ones, do, how they work, and whom and what they actually benefit. Merit practices differentiate individuals in order to allocate social resources by and through particular institutions, a differentiation that is justified through processes such as testing that establish difference as natural. Yet, the critique of merit does not question the notion of difference as the effect of institutional practices, and thus it ensures that institutionally created differences, so to speak, will continue to structure individuals’ lives.

Indeed, differences are understood to be natural. For example, note these comments from Stephen Lewis (2001), the former president of Carleton College, which seem at first glance to be a critique of a limited understanding of merit:

Higher education is by nature a meritocracy, in which the best and the brightest are rewarded and celebrated. We rightly have high expectations of ourselves and others, but at the same time we must guard against the smugness of hierarchy. . . . Without diminishing our high standards, we need to find ways to celebrate differences, appreciate all levels of success, and allow people to come to terms with their limitations without being labeled as failures. (p. B5)

That the terms differences and limitations are used in the same sentence suggests something important about merit: It works by establishing difference and limitation. Indeed, how are such differences and limitations established, if not by the current practices functioning under the rubric of merit? Difference should not be taken to signify anything natural but as created by the very practices that we use to uncover it, such as educational testing. The critique of merit must also attend to how difference is often linked with deviance, especially in psychological studies, and with the admissions practices at many prestigious institutions that establish such difference/deviance through "regular" and "special" selection practices.

Individuals view the outcome of these practices as indicating something important about themselves, but these practices ultimately legitimate the institutional interests in differentiating and classifying individuals and ensure that some institutions will gain power over individuals by allocating resources based on the differences they create. Studies seeking alternatives to merit must account for (1) the underlying power to establish difference, (2) how the processes of differentiation work and take hold on individuals, and (3) which political interests and institutional arrangements are associated with such processes.

A critique of merit that focuses solely on particular criteria, rather than on the idea of merit itself, fails to uncover, and actually reinforces, the interests that ensure that certain institutions will be, following Lemann (1999), “all-powerful arbiters of our fate” (p. 345). Given the rhetoric of college admissions, in which one is to take as given that there are limited places and so competition for them is inevitable, it then becomes necessary that criteria for those places be decided upon by the very institutions that ensure competition and reinforce the belief in its inevitability.

I wonder whether it is possible for educators to think outside the established institutional order and whether they might be able to imagine a world with other institutional arrangements that might allow for an end to the effects of social inequality. The elite institutions in particular force one to think solely in exclusionary ways, and educators cannot seem to imagine a world without such exclusions. The “real political task” for educators is to “criticize the working of institutions which appear to be both neutral and independent, and to criticize them in such a manner that the political violence which has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked so that we can fight them” (Ball, 1994, p. 27). This questioning has risks; most notably, it may mean that educators will question the very institutions that authorize them to act as educators in the first place.

Some suggest that merit can be understood outside of institutions—a kind of moral entitlement that is “logically prior to and independent of public institutions and their rules” (see Feinberg, 1999, p. 83). Others suggest that merit as a basis for entitlement is purely institutional but that there are noninstitutional forms of merit, such as those centering on the person— for example, hard work (see McLeod, 1999, p. 192). I think it is the belief that individuals are prior to, and separate from, institutions that may be at the root of the problems associated with merit. This notion of the “individual” works on either side of the debate over merit. The conservatives espouse individualism to justify the status quo (see Farber & Sherry, 1997). But progressives also espouse a kind of individualism when they argue that “leveling the playing field” will allow all individuals to pursue their interests fairly (see Levit, 1999). It is to the idea of the individual supporting the notion of merit that I direct the rest of this article.


An article in the New York Times Magazine illustrates how individuals incorporate institutional interests. Hope Reeves (2000) began the article by stating that one consideration in marrying an Englishman was that she “knew he would never ask me what I got on the SATs” (p. 98). She admitted that she scored only 1,000 on the test, and when she learned her score, it was the most humbling and humiliating day of her life. Her friends, parents, and brother all received scores hundreds of points higher. Her mother told her, “You’re just average, Hope. And there is nothing wrong with that,” though to her mother, Hope could no longer be a Supreme Court justice because she “was in the same league as a mailman.” Hope saw herself as a “certified loser.” Though she graduated cum laude, she was embarrassed to reveal her SAT scores at a dinner party 10 years later, when “someone decided it would be fun for everyone to reveal their scores.” After that, she retook the test and received a score of 1,180, and although she was happy, she planned to take the test again and again until she “beat the 1,360 my mother says she got.”

Why would Hope Reeves measure her worth according to the SAT? How could she define herself, and allow others to define her, so completely on the basis of that particular institutional practice, one that not only structured her experiences with her relatives but even influenced whom she would marry? To say that institutional interests constitute merit implies that institutions are disembodied entities. They are not, of course, and so one must understand how individuals incorporate institutional practices and act on institutions’ behalf. Such practices regulate individuals by knowing, sorting, classifying, and distinguishing them (see Foucault, 1977). Individuals incorporate these practices and act accordingly to perpetuate them. To work in this way, I propose, the discourse on merit must privilege an individualistic understanding of it.

Daniel Bell (1973) seemed correct at first glance when he argued that progressives have effaced the "person" in their defense of affirmative action:

The historic irony in the demand for representation on the basis of an ascriptive principle is its complete reversal of radical and humanist values. The liberal and radical attack on discrimination was based on its denial of a justly earned place to a person on the basis of an unjust group attribute. The person was not judged as an individual but was judged— and excluded—because he was a member of a particular group. But now it is being demanded that one must have a place primarily because one possesses a particular group attribute. The person himself has disappeared. (p. 419)

The person, however, has not disappeared at all in the so-called “liberal and radical attack on discrimination,” as Bell suggested; it has taken on a new form, one whose defining characteristic is not intelligence as historically defined, but leadership, adversity, experience, and so forth. The new “meritorious individual” for progressives is one whose "experiences," say, overcoming adversity, can make him or her succeed in college (see Strum & Guinier, 1996).

Thus, the privilege given to the individual in the idea of merit is alive and well. Merit usually is defined, regardless of content, as relating to (1) ability, generally understood as cognitive ability or intelligence and operationalized by IQ tests and their derivatives, achievement tests; (2) effort, treated as effort in early life and especially, therefore, that made in relation to schooling and operationalized by test scores, grades, and academic and extracurricular activities; and (3) educational attainment, which results from ability and effort (see Breen & Goldthorpe, 2001, p. 85). Those advocating the elimination or restriction of standardized tests want to privilege evidence of leadership or overcoming adversity, which also implies cognitive ability, effort, and achievement, just different versions of them. Much of the debate about merit, it seems, takes for granted that whatever content merit is given indicates something significant about individuals (e.g., their abilities, motivation, and experience). Thus, progressives, as much as conservatives, couch merit in individualistic terms.

This debate over merit, then, is not really one at all, because an institutional order is legitimated through the establishment of an "intending" individual. What if Nietzsche (1967) was correct that the doer “is merely a fiction added to the deed”? (p. 45). The arguments over admissions practices suggest the “sublime self-deception that interprets . . . being thus-and-thus as a merit” (p. 46). The idea of the intending individual supports the myth of equality of opportunity, which is, as Freeman (1998) suggested, presented both as a description and a transcendental ideal. It incorporates the twin universals of personal desert (self-fulfillment) and societal advantage (maximize the product). But in either form, it presupposes a world of atomistic individuals without a class structure, and an objective, transcendent notion of merit or qualification. Equal opportunity, however, Freeman argued, is neither a description nor an ideal but an institutional ideology, one that is the major rationalization of class domination in this country. Central to its effectiveness, Freeman argued, is the lived, internalized experience of lower class status as personal failure and as lack of ability. I would add that also central to the efficacy of this ideology is the belief in the hero who overcomes adversity. The disparity between the ideal and its practical realization, Freeman argued, should debunk it as a practice, but it continues to work because the idea of merit works to legitimize class distinctions (p. 112).

Given this institutional understanding of merit, one may well question what seems the intuitive order of operation that functions to legitimate the allocation of resources. This reversal of the order of operation can go like this (at the risk of appearing tautological): From an a priori individual who establishes a meritocracy to the meritocracy who establishes that individual. The meritorious individual is not prior to the meritocracy but is its effect. To understand this point, one must see the individual as the creation of institutional practices and social relations that attempt to know, differentiate, classify, and individualize him or her. It is difficult to see this because the notion of the a priori individual is central to our understanding of our social world. Nietzsche (1968) theorized that in all elaborations of an event or act, an agent is invented. Any interpretation of an act, then, presupposes an agent, a fabrication that is essential to our concept of moral responsibility. Foucault (1977) theorized that regimes of truth, such as the sciences, create individuals through the production of knowledge about them. These regimes are forms of control but not in the ordinary sense of the word. They dominate by defining individuals as “this or that,” and individuals embody these definitions and act accordingly. In this way, individuals see themselves as agents rather than as effects of power.

If any of this is possible, one may ask, then, whether the critiques of merit actually mirror rather than contest the effects of power. Educators must let go of the idea of the meritorious individual and focus attention on the distinctions that educational institutions make. As Bourdieu (1984) stated, “The official differences produced by academic classifications tend to produce (or reinforce) real differences by inducing in the classified individuals a collectively recognized and supported belief in the differences, thus producing behaviors that are intended to bring real being into line with official being” (p. 25). And the distinctions made within the field of education, Bourdieu argued, carry particular force: They not only classify but also ensure, through the attribution of status given by degrees and certifications, the assignment of individuals to hierarchically ordered social classes. Thus, the distinctions that educational institutions make exercise a form of power that reinforces material domination. The ability to create difference, therefore, is a function of institutional power, a power that legitimates itself by justifying the differences that it creates.

Indeed, the differences created by social science need to be analyzed particularly for how they tacitly structure our lives. The social scientist’s role in classifying the world must be understood. Hoffman (1962) stated that

the professional testers are becoming powerful people . . . Considering their narrow professionalism, their faith in statistics, their relative indifference to the powerful side effects of their activities, and the enormous impact of these activities on the lives of all of us, we must ask ourselves whether the testers are not already too powerful. (p. 41)

Young (1961) similarly pointed out how the “[social] scientists have inherited the earth” (p. 107).

More recently, Bourdieu (1993) argued that scientists generally are

. . . social engineers whose function is to supply recipes to the leaders of private companies and government departments. They offer a rationalization of the practical or semi-theoretical understanding that the members of the dominant class have of the social world. The governing elite today needs a science capable of (in both senses) rationalizing its domination, capable of reinforcing the mechanisms that sustain it and of legitimizing it. It goes without saying that the limits of this science are set by its practical functions: neither for the social engineers nor for the managers of the economy can it perform a radical questioning. (p. 13)

These critiques of scientists, however, seem to fall into the trap of individualizing scientists. A more nuanced critique treats the issue sociologically. One should understand scientists as subjects of their own practices; they too must differentiate themselves from others and each other. And, ironically, as the recent social science evidence against testing suggests, the “scientists [who] have inherited the earth” by establishing standardized tests may now be unable to undo them. Furthermore, although the power to distinguish is most effective when exercised by scientific institutions, such power is also exercised by other institutions for different purposes (e.g., schools differentiate between boys and girls in sports).

Furthermore, the critique of merit that focuses on standardized tests may be focusing its attention on too limited a subject. The reason that the SAT grew in importance may have been because social science was around to create such a test. It may be correct that the SAT brought down the old hereditary system, but it was science itself, not the SAT, that changed our society into an arguably meritocractic one. At any rate, the focus on the SAT and not on the institution of science more generally may illustrate how science protects itself from critique. It sets up the tools for contesting its creations but leaves its power to control through differentiation intact.

Bourdieu (1984) theorized that people distinguish themselves from, and try to gain dominance over, others by the distinctions that they make (p. 6). These distinctions are effects of power because power works by establishing something as legitimate and worthy, and something else as not. And its effects are incorporated by individuals, who then act accordingly to dominate others or to be dominated by others. That is, individual and group identities shape themselves according to these distinctions, as the article by Hope Reeves illustrates. To put any one definition of merit over another is to attempt to gain control over the power to do that. And one must understand power for that very fact rather than attempt to explain the definition of merit as if it had any meaning in itself. The power to distinguish is what is at stake in political struggles over merit, but this power is obscured by the embodiment of the distinctions themselves, which appear to be natural, obvious, and inevitable. It is, however, a power that dominates individuals, institutions, and, in short, the world.

The overall point here is that one of the most significant forms that power takes is the ability to create distinctions among individuals, and this is a power that educators wield. One must understand that, as Talcott Parsons (1951) indicated, the educational system is a key agency of socialization into a meritocracy. Levins (1982) read Parsons as indicating that the socialization of individuals into accepting meritocractic values consists of imparting both cognitive skills and moral attitudes. Schools not only teach students how to do different things, but they also teach them the “differential valuation of achievement” (p. 17). To place obstacles in the path of this socialization, one needs to question the obvious. Here, Nietzsche may be instructive, although many of us will be unwilling to follow. For Nietzsche, individuals must reject valuations—including the educational ones that define them as meritorious and that allocate to them social resources—and must suffer the alienation of breaking away from the differentiating practices that define them (John-stone, 1998). Individuals must, in other words, reject their meritorious selves.

One may ask after reading this, If not merit, then what? How are individuals to be allocated scarce social resources? If my premise is correct, no legitimate grounding exists from which to formulate an answer to such questions, because to ask them is to assume the inevitability of the present social order, with its institutional arrangements that force us to ask those questions and to answer them by figuring out ways to distinguish individuals from each other. Is it possible to ask other questions? Is our present inevitable? Do we have to live in a world like this one? How might we change it?

To begin to answer such questions, we may have to ask ourselves how prevailing mechanisms of power and the social relations they engender can be resisted. We must understand the power to regulate through the establishment of differences. If differences are created within educational institutions and if they reflect power at work, then it is the idea of difference itself that we must avoid. To act against the differences established by the meritocracy is to refuse to give them legitimacy. That may be the critical measure of our lives, the one that challenges the differences that define us. Once we do that, I think—or, I hope—that we can begin to consider seriously the question, If not merit, then what?


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 6, 2006, p. 996-1016
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12515, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 9:02:21 PM

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About the Author
  • Benjamin Baez
    Georgia State University
    E-mail Author
    BENJAMIN BAEZ is associate professor in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at Georgia State University. His research interests include legal issues in education, diversity in higher education, and privatization of public education. His the author of Affirmative Action, Hate Speech, and Tenure: Narratives About Race, Law, and the Academy (Routledge Falmer, 2002) and “The Study of Diversity: The ‘Knowledge of Difference’ and the Limits of Science” in The Journal of Higher Education.
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