Plants

BOTH THE SCIENCES AND political conservatism tend towards interpreting the world in terms of iron law, and the principle that there is a way things naturally are that can be discovered through inquiry. That's in contrast to the alternative, more humanistic tradition, in which theoretical models have utility for explaining things, until they don't, at which point the honest thinker throws it away and makes a new model. Neither are intrinsically good or bad; the first tends towards stubborn stuffiness, the second towards fashion and cliques, but they're just approaches. Let me propose, in the first tradition, an Iron Natural Law of my own: given enough time, any previously radical left-of-centre writer, who prioritises 'merit', will tend inexorably towards reactionary, and hierarchical, ideas about how society should be ordered, and then, when presented with inequality, will use their skills to justify it. I am thinking in particular of Freddie de Boer, who is tracing his own intellectual Bell Curve towards elitism.

We should strive for a world in which all seeds grow in healthy, well-tendered soil, out of a fundamental commitment to the equal moral value of all. But just as no plant can grow in full from poor soil, no amount of tending to the soil can make some seeds taller than some others. Some seeds are meant to spawn taller plants. That is the way of things. All plants have their own beauty, and all human beings have something of value to contribute to society. But to act as though every human being has the same potential in academic life is no more sensible than expecting every sapling to grow to the same height.

This starts with the obvious point that some students do better at university than others—of course, or else why have gradated exams? What's implicit here is that these obvious differences in ability to study at university, to pass tests, to succeed in the sorting mechanism, are natural proxies for human 'merit'—and therefore, because Western societies are ostensibly meritocracies, to justifying the holding and the exercise of power. If what you prioritise is the kind of society where inequality is justified by ideas of 'merit', and you justify existing patterns of exam-passing (who is practiced in schools to get the best marks, who has the money to stay at uni, who has onerous caring responsibilities, who has the support of well-read parents and peers?) as politically natural, then you couch it in scientifically natural frameworks like the above.

The concept of human 'merit' leads to ever-more abstruse ways to measure and assess aptitude, and stress on individual performance over group context. It's why football managers and recruiters, despite all the evidence that teams playing together for longer tend to perform better, go immediately to recruiting 'stars'. 'Merit' creates its own frameworks in increasing complexity, as any Australian public servant will be able to explain, in the STAR format for job application criteria response. Even Donald Trump, one of the most aggressively anti-intellectual people in American political history, justifies his success not on having lots of money (which would have been more than enough justification in another age), but on his own cleverness, his 'stable genius', and intrinsic merit.

But back to de Boer, who bells the cat:

It’s been argued that the value of college stems largely from its function as a screening mechanism. By instituting admissions criteria like standardized tests, grade requirements, and the ability to pay, the thinking goes, college acts as a sieve, allowing employers to pick through those who have the underlying academic talent and soft skills, like time management, needed to succeed at work. This is particularly useful because in many states, employers are barred from using certain criteria, like intelligence testing, to judge applicants. I certainly don’t think that college’s value is only screening. But I do think that making college less exclusive necessarily means making its signaling value to employers much less useful and thus undercuts the economic value of the degree.

As a companion piece, read instead My Eighty-Six Jobs, an autobiography of the way our society actually relates atomistic human 'merit' to economic and political success: not at all.

those simple rules of work hard, don’t be late, you earn what you deserve mean little today, if they ever meant anything at all. It turns out our dreams were filled with booby traps, ladders with busted rungs, and required money to achieve...

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Liam · 2 September 2020, 13:17 · #

See also Francesco Pacifico

Our class is a scam.
There is no merit in success. Until we destroy the impression of merit in people’s success, every discussion will be muffled by fascination—by the apparently objective, natural, collective fascination with success and successful people. This already happened with aristocrats. At some point in the 20th century they lost the bulk of their ability to impress. It should happen to us, too. We must lose our allure.

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