In placing our hopes on exceptionalism to guide us forward, we’ve only served to reinforce our own class barriers and give people an excuse as to why the rich get to stay that way.
The United States is my home country. While I have had the pleasure of completing my degree in England, the US has always been my home. However, when I return to the US and talk to friends that are navigating the roulette wheel that is college admissions, I start to see serious problems. Admission to these universities has always been highly competitive. Still, the recent focus on “meritocracy” means that the journey begins in high-powered private elementary schools, continues through middle schools and then onto the inevitable prep school or private high school. Meritocracy is meant to mean that those deserving of it, or those with “merit”, would be able to rise above their circumstances, that magnet schools and generous scholarships would allow for greater social mobility based on ability rather than anything else. This is all, of course, false. While some have been plucked by this system for greater success, it has become a high stakes and high anxiety game of chicken for elites that now plunge their children into excruciatingly competitive schools and programs in an attempt to justify their own dominance.
It is prudent to note at this time that the word “meritocracy” started as a joke. The book “The Rise of Meritocracy”, written in 1958 was one of the main originators of the term, and mocked it as a new way of stratifying a social class used to truncheon the “less worthy” (Young, 1994). In many ways, the author Michael Dunlop Young was correct, though he even failed to consider the insidious cottage industries and other deleterious effects that this system has inflicted upon young people today. While superficially, meritocracy has at least somewhat established its goal, we are starting to see more underrepresented minorities and kids from parts of the country not usually associated with wealth move to prestigious institutions and jobs; we also see the impact that it has on those same people. Meritocracy has turned college admissions into a nerve-wracking competition of who can be the most exceptional. It also places undue burdens on people far too young to start developing what is increasingly looking like an epidemic of mental health issues, such as anxiety disorders (Bitsko et al., 2018). It turns academic achievement into a complex of self-martyrdom that rewards those who are willing to sacrifice the most of their health to seem exceptional. I know someone personally who told me with an unhealthy level of pride that she had developed two instances of carpal tunnel syndrome in her right hand over a term due to writing out so many notes, mind maps and diagrams.
The worst thing is, it’s still the rich who can game this system and end up masking elite privilege gained from access to greater resources from birth in a veil of self-serving righteousness. They are so willing to tout that the most deserving kids should get into these elite institutions and jobs, to fill out the role of the new upper class, while also blithely paying for music lessons and sports training, academic tutoring and overseas leadership experiences that they fail to realize the key to their children’s success is their own ability to provide for them. The broader sham of meritocracy only serves to give them more excuses as to why their children succeed while others fail and insulate themselves from the more widespread social injustices that contribute towards success. In creating the idea that only the most deserving should attend elite institutions, they have crushed and moulded their children to fit the ideas of the elite superman. Meritocracy is a sham, but one that still pushes hundreds of children towards anxiety and burnout and encourages a culture of personal and professional nihilism in order to achieve. In buying into these myths of exceptionalism being the sole factor for success, the elite class has now reproduced itself into neurotic anxiety-ridden messes desperately trying to adhere to an ideal that can never be accomplished.
Bitsko, R., Holbrook, J., Ghandour, R., Blumberg, S., Visser, S., Perou, R. and Walkup, J. (2018). Epidemiology and Impact of Health Care Provider–Diagnosed Anxiety and Depression Among US Children. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, 39(5), pp.395-403.
Young, M. (1994). The Rise of the Meritocracy. 2nd ed. Transaction Publishers.