Our children deserve better than meritocracy

Our Republican education system is based entirely on the virtue of merit. After the abolition of privileges as a result of the French Revolution, inequalities could no longer be legitimized by birth. They were therefore justified by talent and individual effort. Gradually, a social fiction has taken hold: those who succeed have worked better than those who fail. Here the ideological horizon is repeated for all generations of schoolchildren. This is how the philosopher Hannah Arendt defines ‘meritocracy’: the constitution of an oligarchy-based “no longer on wealth or birth but on abilities” (The education crisis). To illustrate this ideal, Arendt takes the example of the British model of education in the 1950s, where pupils take an exam at the age of 11 that “only about ten percent of students can continue their studies”.

Self-segregation, inequalities, ghettoization: examining the great rift of the French school

Without going back to such a strict model, we now discover the temptation to thwart the massification of the system by the return of a selection at all school levels. Some on the right propose to return the school certificate. Others want more guidance for less academically gifted students.

The sequel after the ad

But what is the real place of merit when selection takes place? Do we really distinguish between ‘gifted’ and ‘ungifted’ children, as Arendt claims? The whole point of meritocracy is there: for selection to be legitimate, it must be based solely on individual merit, by eliminating extracurricular factors particularly related to the environment of origin. However, we know that in France these factors determine student success.

Hegel’s reflection

For example, the 2018 Pisa survey of 15-year-old children showed us that in France, 20% of privileged students rank among the best performing students in reading comprehension, compared to 2% of disadvantaged students. The difference is on average 4 points higher than in other OECD countries.

The weight of social reproduction does not wait for adolescence. It is huge from a young age so that the school system seems to be content with being born in a privileged environment. Now, what place is there for merit when fate is at stake? “in the crib” (Camille Peugny)? Wouldn’t it be wiser to forget this illusory myth? Perhaps it is impossible to give up completely. In any case, it is necessary to limit the effects. Instead of returning to old hierarchies, we should be inspired by authentic humanistic and emancipatory thoughts to open new educational avenues.

Should the meritocracy be saved? (1/3) “Social separatism is being built in our schools for the first time”

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Thus in Hegel (Speech of September 2, 1811) we find a reflection on the pedagogical evaluation of an astonishing modernity. Whoever stays behind at school, says the philosopher, always has in front of him “the possibility of improvement”, “the possibility that he has not yet found his own interest”nor even “the time that this interest blossoms in him”† The education system must never lose sight of the fact that young people are becoming, and that in them nothing is final. Thereby, “The judgment that the school pronounces can therefore be no more finished than man is finished in it”. This is why, he adds, the government of his day has ordered: “student grades are not made public”and “that it is not for these judgments to exert the slightest direct influence on the later destiny of life and the future position within the political organization”† Far from the meritocratic illusion, Hegel promotes an education that trains without limiting, that notes without devaluing, that leads without manipulation.

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At a time when our Ministry of National Education is in the race for permanent evaluation and generalized competition, here is a compass for those who aspire to a resolutely emancipatory education.

Every week, philosophy professor Saïd Benmouffok and lawyer and political scientist Beligh Nabli alternately describe the cultural struggle.

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