Recently, someone said to me that competitive examinations provided an equal playing field and were a great leveller. This argument has many takers. Taking the same exam, especially if it is multiple choice questions based, and is evaluated through a scanner, in the same room, under the same exam conditions, does bring about uniformity. This argument is especially pertinent now.
Lately, a lot of debate has been generated about the nepotism in the film industry. Star kids have argued that while they may get an initial chance it is up to them to prove themselves from then on. Naturally this argument lacks nuance in not recognising that sometimes the initial opportunity, the foot in the door, is the most crucial stage of one’s career. Moreover, if we look closely at the career trajectories of most star kids it becomes apparent that they have been given not one but several opportunities. The second argument that is given is that even children of doctors and lawyers enter the same profession. Here the proponents of competitive exams come in. As mentioned earlier, they argue that becoming a lawyer or doctor is not the same thing because one has to pass an exam. This is not just to get in but several exams during the long course of studies thereafter.
There is some merit to this argument. Such exams are extremely competitive, require extensive hard work and having parents in the same profession is not a guarantee for entry. It is reasoned that it is only after they complete this education that they may benefit in terms of their parents networks and social capital of their circle. Till then, it is argued, the children have to compete and this levels the field.
However, overt reliance on competitive exams is itself problematic. It means looking at the exam room as a decontextualized microcosm and exam takers as lacking any history. Even if we are to rewind even a few hours we can see differences cropping up. There are some who may have travelled in cars to get to the venue, in comfort, squeezing in the last minute revisions. Then there are those who might have changed multiple modes of transportation and faced significant stress. Go back a day earlier and there are those who studied in their air-conditioned rooms with tutors and fruits. Then there are those who may have studied in noisy, cramped and dilapidated rented accommodation with uncertain electricity. They may have been struggling for rent and their pursuit for professional education may have been coming at the cost of significant financial burden on their parents.
It would be facetious to claim that such factors do not affect the performance at all. Obviously there will be those who still make it despite the odds but their journey is much tougher and resistance from the system much greater. Home environment and resultant support systems will continue to deck the cards in favour of the better offs. Track this phenomenon from childhood and school onwards as it multiplies and we can see why the elite higher education institutes continue to be dominated by the relatively better off middle classes and urban Indians. Merit and academic/professional achievements can never exist in a classless isolation. In the real world, there are no level playing fields, competitive exams included, even though the society with its focus on merit and just rewards likes to pretend otherwise. Recognising this is important if we are to have any discussion on policy or society. This is about recognising privilege.
Yet, our generation seems blissfully unaware of the insidious nature of the term. Even if they do demonstrate alacrity in calling out privilege when they may spot it, they are seldom unaware of recognising their own, and the nefarious edifice of class, caste, and gender that supports it. This is especially true for mobile, urban middle classes, who, while quick to call out nepotism, favouritism, or discrimination, like to believe that their own achievements are due to ‘merit’ and ‘talent’.
The ‘merit/talent’ argument puts the onus of achievements on the decontextualized individual. It doesn’t take into account support from class structures, financial and social networks that have gone into making the individual and the ‘merit’. It similarly looks away from lack of support from family or the state/government, discrimination based on caste, class, religion, region, and gender and consequent obstacles. With onus on ‘merit’ the affirmative action policies are critiqued.
Even if it does recognise these material and social deprivations it is only to celebrate the ‘against all odds’ cases, the exceptions. Every year the feel good stories of disadvantaged young students cracking incidentally these entrance exams of civil services or medicine are celebrated. These isolated incidents are used to celebrate the ‘merit’ argument, effectively circumventing any deeper discussions about class-based discrimination in our society and lack of support for the poor majority.
If privilege allows certain career choices and gives one a chance to succeed in these, it also allows the choice of not taking up a career at least merely for financial reasons. Privilege bestows the luxury of free time of allowing one to pursue one’s interests and passions. In this respect not just idea of merit but also the idea of talent comes from a position of entitlement. Of course some of it is inborn but money allows the artist the luxury to pursue the art, get best education for the same, get access to exhibitions and forums to showcase the art, and allow it the long gestation period that it requires. Thus the cliché of the struggling artists persists because here the in born talent is financially constrained.
Recognising one’s own privilege is also important if we are to have a non-judgemental, empathetic society or any sort of conversation on feminism or capitalism. When a star wife calls out to working mothers as believing in sort ‘aggressive and destructive’ feminism, while elevating herself as being a committed stay at home mother, she speaks from a privileged position which allows her the luxury to be so. While a lot of working mothers love raising a family while succeeding in a career, and indeed deserve a lot of appreciation, there are a number of women who would like to do just one, but don’t have the material backing to allow them that choice. And this is not just for office goers but more true for the vast majority of the domestic helps and nannies, the ‘invisible’ working class supporting the edifice of the capitalist order.
There is no injunction on young people to not pursue the careers of their parents and take their support. Nor is there any ban on them pursuing their life choices and artistic endeavours given time and support. What perhaps can help in making the conversation more nuanced and graceful is mere recognition and acknowledgement of the privilege. Lack of reflexivity of ones own position, denial of extraneous support that goes into one’s success and un-ironically believing that one’s merit/talent/hard work has earned one some just rewards while endorsing the myth of being self made men, can make these ‘success stories’ sound entitled and plain stupid.
Society, being hopefully better than the sum of individuals that constitute it, and the government being their representative, has a bigger task at hand. They need to, as far as possible, level the playing field. This is a significant commitment and will require a rethinking of the state as not mere service provider or regulator but a development oriented, equity seeking state. This will entail free, high quality and accessible health and education, investments in public infrastructure, support in the form of scholarships and grants, enabling technologies, and transparency and accountability in recruitments and admissions. This will also require a change in a belief system which derides affirmative action, rights based polity, or group based positive discrimination. Most importantly this will require assessment of individuals against a rich and dense texture of their social and economic history and their position as members of a certain gender, caste, and class.