I met an ex-student of mine a little while back. He was a great lad. Still is. He went through a tough time at school and left without any grades. And now, as he worked in menial labour for cash-in-hand and far less than minimum wage, his sole desire – to become a plasterer – eluded him: it turns out the stain of academic failure follows you, and locks you out, for a long time after you leave school.
It has bothered me ever since, but this is the logic of meritocracy. We are what we have achieved, and what we have achieved is the result of who we are. No room for luck, no space for good fortune, no need for outdated notions of providence here. He was simply living with the fruits of his failure, right? Yet one cannot shake the feeling that with our inability to factor in the arbitrary to this judgement, we become unbearably self-justified.
For in this new meritocratic world, woe betide those who fail. Woe betide those ill-suited to the assessment of the meritorious. Those who fail merely they reap what they sowed; the losers deserve to have lost, because they are losers who lost.
And all the while those who determine our measure of merit happily discover that it looks much like them, and reap the rewards accordingly.
The result? A whole stratum of society locked out and left behind, disregarded as the authors of their own misfortune and responsible for their own subsequent degradation. After all, with hard work and determination they could have turned it round, they could have written their own fate in the stars, but chose not to – incapable or incompetent, they are nonetheless no more or less than how hard they worked to get where they are.
Any reaching out to support them, to give them a second shot, is one of unearned charity – the lingering virtue of the empowered – rather the legitimate demands of justice.
Education has embraced the same cold ethic, elevating competence as the principal value that can justify status, dignity, worth. Teachers judged by their efficacy, students by their results, leaders by their legacy. A good teacher can become a bad teacher overnight, an effective school leader an ineffective one, as the storms of life or the mechanisms for telling the difference between the two give all the justification and impetus for casting aside those suddenly deemed ‘not up to the job’.
It’s the same for our children. They leave our care, their life determined according to their success within a system the already-successful design, and we declare almost without exception that these results are the inevitable outcome of the efforts they put in along the way. The moral responsibility for success, and failure, is theirs, and failure is largely a chosen destiny – locking children out of future pathways becomes easier to defend when you can convince yourself that justice requires it, that they receive only what they deserve, the authors of their own disinheritance.
But what if this gets justice, and each other, wrong? What if this world of efficiency, of prowess, of cold utilitarianism sells us all short? Makes us all vulnerable? Maybe we need to stop looking at each other through the eyes of what we can contribute, stop judging each other’s worth according to the value of that contribution. Maybe we need to remind ourselves that what we cannot do is no vice any more than our limitations constitute a stain on our dignity. Maybe we must demand that even those who society deem to be failures deserve to be loved. Indeed maybe those who society deem to be failures deserve most to be loved.
When you confront your own limitations, when you recognise your own good fortune, when you concede your own ultimate vulnerability in the drama of life, you come to realise the horror of this way of viewing the world and those within it. Life is more than what we might write on a CV, the sum total of our performance, our technical capacity at any particular point in time. When we go through bad times, when our contribution to an institution, to society, to GDP, is limited, we’re still of infinite value, better than merely what we can give, and we deserve a shot at the good life regardless of merely what we can give.
If we forget that, we degrade ourselves as much as anyone else. The moral demand on all of us to set aside cold assessment of worth and assist the downtrodden, regardless of earned merit, is no more diminished by the asking than it is limited by the giving.
In other words, we’ve become too ready to accept sham accounts of merit, neglectful of the coincidence that often its superficial appeal to justice is simply the rationalisation of our own good fortune. But this is limiting, corrosive, of ourselves and others. Ultimately, life trumps this illusion of logic. And love must always trump competence.