The return on the public scene and in the political arena of the term meritocracy is based on an evident misunderstanding, if not on a real manipulation of the original use of the term. Michael Young introduced the term “meritocracy” in a 1958 book (The Rise of Meritocracy, New York, Transaction Publisher United) which told the hypothetical story of a community where, following a revolution, a rigorous system of egalitarian meritocracy which, after the initial enthusiasm, had provoked profound social tensions which finally culminated in its demolition. In addition to the exercise of sociological imagination, Young’s text is famous for the definition of meritocracy that is still the most widespread today: merit = natural talent + effort (or commitment). In reality, the meritocratic principle, unlike the aristocratic principle based on heredity, is intertwined with one of the possible declinations of the idea of equality: equal opportunities. A declination that implies the elimination of social inequalities in the passage from one generation to the next, a realignment of opportunities as an indispensable prerequisite for a competition that is played solely on merit and thanks to this ends up with a fair production, rather than a unequal reproduction of inequalities. Hence the centrality of education, the true basis of a meritocratic society, since only after the school has canceled the impact of the socio-family background on the skills (and educational careers) of the new generations can they enter the arena of meritocratic competitions – the job market in primis – relying only on personal resources, which are summarized by most in the binomial (natural) talent + commitment (or effort). There was widespread consensus on this interpretation in the Western world, even in culturally and politically distant contexts.
But alongside this declination of “meritocracy” there is however a very widespread one, more than one might imagine and full of implications for equity and social justice. It is the most naive version of meritocracy, of an exclusively procedural type which brings it closer to what Rawls, in his typology of conceptions of justice, defines as “natural competition”. We could even label it a form of social Darwinism. In this case meritocracy does not mean equality of opportunity and social mobility, but rather the selection of the best and the pursuit of excellence in the various social spheres, from education to work, from the economy to politics, thanks to competitive mechanisms, regardless of the initial correction invoked by proponents of equality of starting points. This vision is based on an epistemic defect: on the one hand the overestimation of the autonomy and responsibility of the individual and on the other the underestimation, or even the misunderstanding, of the conditionings deriving from the contexts within which the individual finds himself acting. Setting aside equality of opportunities and social mobility, in fact we limit ourselves to pursuing the selection of the best and the pursuit of excellence in the various social sectors.
But if defining merit and therefore meritocracy is a problem, it is equally difficult to identify a conception and univocal definition of fairness. Equity is in fact a polysemous term since in some usages it is clearly opposed to the term equality, in others it incorporates it, gives it a broader meaning and places it within a richer and more problematic conceptual framework. Two great theorists of justice have largely contributed to this conceptual framework: John Rawls and Amartya Sen.
The first conceives justice as fairness and re-proposes social equality of opportunity as one (not the only) of the principles on which to structure the “just” social order. The second is aware of the relativism implicit in the very concept of equality (‘equality of what?’), since the predicates of equality can conflict with each other: equalizing an object, for example income, can be in contradiction with equalizing another, for example the relationship between contributions and compensation. It follows from this that equality is not always and automatically identifiable with justice and equity, but that one must ask oneself whether a certain equality or a certain inequality can be considered more or less just. To decide on the justice of a given social order, it is necessary to look not only at how a good, for example education, is distributed among different social categories (classes, genders, ethnic groups, etc.) in a given time, but also to consider the effects that in a subsequent time that distribution generates in terms of advantages/disadvantages for specific categories of subjects (Rawls) and also consider the aggregate dynamics of that good (Sen). Hence the invitation not to separate, in judging social choices, the distribution plan, considered statically and identified with equity, from the plan of effects and effectiveness. It is therefore essential to make clear and distinguish the relationships between merit, fairness (understood as a principle of justice) and equality.
For these reasons, in the educational field the crucial importance of equity is a cardinal principle for justice but also for social cohesion and the development of individuals and society. Equity can be declined in at least three fundamental dimensions (to which others can be added). As previously mentioned, these are synthetically substantiated in the containment of disparities between individuals, in the reduction of waste of inter-category inequalities and as the achievement of a minimum threshold of schooling and, even more relevant, of skills actually possessed. It is not possible to assume merit as a guiding criterion if equity in the aforementioned forms is not associated with it, above all if one assumes academic results or results in standardized text-based tests as a yardstick of merit evaluation. The results, whether they are grades or test scores, are the result of a complex network of factors, primarily of an ascriptive nature but also due to contexts (social, scholastic, cultural, geographical/urban) and also to elements of pure chance.
International surveys show That the dependence of the results, both in terms of learning (academic/educational achievement) how much title achieved (educational attainment), by factors related to the force of inertia of the family heredity (Giancola and Salmieri, 2022), differences between categories (biological sex, sexual orientation, migration background; Lucas and Beresford, 2010), the structure of education systems (Benadusi and Giancola, 2014). Certainly, motivations, attitudes, individual effort (in terms ofeffort mentioned by Michael Young, later taken up by many others), but it must be considered that even these characteristics are not independent of ascriptive and contextual factors. For this reason, if the concept of “merit” is crushed over that of “result” it can only be a completely spurious measure. Furthermore, admitted and not granted, that the result can be purged of spurious effects, we still have to ask ourselves if the task of the school is to reward the differences in the achievements of individuals but rather to raise the average levels of results, minimizing the share of students under -threshold (the so-called “low performers” or “underachievers”). The hypothesis of a trade-off between improvement in average results and competitive selectivity is widely disproved by international data. The data produced as part of PISA, for example, show that the education systems with a lower share of under-threshold students are also those that have the best average performance and even the highest share of excellent students (the “top performers”): the in this sense national cases that reconcile equity, effectiveness and inclusion such as Canada, Finland, Denmark (OECD, 2018; Giancola, 2019).
In essence, the question of the elimination, or at least the containment, of the inequalities that strongly condition school success, the possibilities of social mobility and individual life courses must necessarily precede the fuzzy notion of merit. In education, attention should be primarily on equity policies (Benadusi and Giancola, 2021) such as early childhood care interventions (since educational inequalities are generated in this phase and then grow throughout life), the extension and enrichment of school time and also redistributive policies in favor of schools and disadvantaged areas. Alongside these, actions for the orientation, support and motivation of students are necessary (both with respect to learning and with respect to future prospects), public investment policies in accessible and usable cultural services (to compensate for the enormous heterogeneity between areas and territories ). Finally, it is necessary to integrate policies and interventions in the educational field with welfare policies. It then remains to ask what is the main task of the school and the education system. From the point of view of the growth of a democratic society, it is primarily – especially in basic and medium education levels – that of training active and aware citizens rather than operating a competitive selection. A crucial game is being played on this field for the future of the new generations and of society in general.