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Friday, September 24, 2021

Testing the exam

Can a purely meritocratic society be anything but stressful?

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta |
October 24, 2009 2:47:07 am

Debates over examinations embody not just technical pedagogical questions,but a vast array of social anxieties and aspirations. The reaction to possible changes in admissions criteria for the IIT was a small example of this phenomenon. A few months ago the Singapore education minister provoked great discussion by suggesting that Singapore was a “meritocracy of exams”,but America was a “meritocracy of talent”. Exams don’t pick out a vast array of unquantifiable forms of talent necessary for a vibrant and creative society. And the minister was suggesting that Singapore would do well to incorporate other elements as well. The relationship between talent and exams is a deeply vexed one. In an exam system there is the worry: what exactly are we trying to pick out through an exam system?

But there is another disquieting question about the relationship between exams and meritocracy. America fits in oddly in the category of “meritocracy”. At an intuitive level we understand that America is extraordinarily open to talent,from wherever it comes. But it is not a meritocracy in the classic sense. Its powerful institutions of access to education and other forms of power never have and still do not rely exclusively on what we would classically define as criteria of merit. Its institutions have vast discretion to use a range of considerations,including a candidate’s wealth,in determining admissions. What is striking about the American system is how much discretion is built into it at all levels. In fact,the more radical question the American experiment poses is this: why do we assume that for a society to be able to nurture a vast array of relevant talent it has to be a meritocracy all the way down? There is one sense in which it has to be meritocratic,namely that people are not excluded from participating because of who they are based on characteristics like race,ethnicity or gender. But beyond that it is an open question what principles nurture talent.

It is no accident that societies that are closer to being meritocracies,like Singapore and possibly China,are based on exams. Pure meritocracies require objective measures of selection. Although this is not a necessary consequence,meritocracies usually are suspicious of what we might call judgment and discretion. In India,we signal meritocracy by largely removing all those criteria of judging talent that might be open to judgment and discretion. Pure meritocratic societies will likely be exam-based.

But meritocracies have other paradoxical effects. Kapil Sibal’s

efforts to reduce the stress levels on our students are salutary. But here is the bad news. It is very likely that stress levels related to seeking your place in a meritocratic society will increase,not decrease. The sheer pressure of numbers suggests this outcome. We often forget that so far our education system has had limited reach. Once millions more students start competing to find their place in the objective distribution curve of talent the pressures will only intensify. If you think pressures in India are great,just read accounts of what China’s national exam system that determines places to universities entails. In theory,you could argue,that stress will not rise with numbers if you have a vast array of institutions,where supply keeps up with demand. But this will not be sufficient. For the stress associated with exams depends upon the consequences attached to not coming out on top. This in turn will depend upon the structure of economic opportunities on offer. The more egalitarian an occupation structure,the less severe are the perceived penalties for not coming out on top. Europe has in part escaped the neuroses meritocratic competition can induce because there is greater background equality. In short,stress is not primarily about education. It is about the economy. And the real debate we need is on the kind of occupational structure we see emerging. And: what is the relationship between education and that occupational structure?

But the relationship between meritocracy and equality also turns out to be more complicated. As many in the IIT debate sensed,the character of admissions criteria determines who will do well. Some think a single exam favours the privileged,because they can invest in coaching; others think a Board plus exam criteria will favour the privileged doubly over. But all agree that a meritocracy must act as a counterweight to privileges of wealth. But here the comparative evidence turns out to be more complicated. For the instruments we use to pick out talent,exams and so forth,seem to vastly give advantage to those with access to a wide range of goods and privileges. How to design principles of meritocracy,which genuinely aid social mobility,is not as easy a question to answer as we suppose.

Meritocracy also has two peculiar psychic consequences. One of its unintended consequences is that it inculcates the idea that those who are left behind are somehow less worthy; and it creates a new form of inequality in turn. There is also an argument to be made that over the last twenty years or so it is precisely meritocracy that has ideologically underpinned an ideology of great inequality. As some social observers have noted,people who rise through the system based on an idea of merit also have a greater sense of entitlement to all the fruits of their effort. What is interesting about income inequality in places ranging from the US to China is not the fact that it exists. It is that people at the top in particular and society more generally also came to the view that those at the top deserved what they have. They deserved it in part because they rose on the dint of their own talent. There is an odd sense in which privilege has to justify itself,but merit does not. But the consequences can be more paradoxical than we think. Perhaps Aristotle was right in thinking that societies need “mixed constitutions” to function well. They require an array of competing and diverse principles,rather than a single architectonic principle like merit.

There is a frustrating simple-mindedness to our debates over

education. The excessive focus we have put on IITs and IIMs is a manifestation of this. While we tinker we them,several actions underway in our system,including the way new universities are being built,continue to weaken our prospects as a society. But debates over education are so narrow and short-sighted because we are not placing them in the right frame. These debates are fundamentally about the character of modernity we are about to create.

The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi

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