Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Success and Meritocracy: Individual Effort vs. Socio-cultural World

For the public embarassment of Jamie Rochfort. You're awesome, mate.
Check out his website at rochieinchina.com

Life cannot happen in a vacuum. Success, whatever that is, requires a synthesis of a student’s individual responsibility and effort, consideration of their socio-cultural background and present, and most importantly a focus on who that person wants to become: what they consider success.

The education system offers individuals ‘equal opportunity for social mobility based on merit,’ by being a free, secular and compulsory vehicle to such success. Minds like Ken Robinson, Jeremy Rifkin, and the education department of every country world agree that it is failing.

The institution of education constrains or rewards students based on its inherent socially constructed economic and cultural/class-based assumptions and judgments. The greatest of these is the ‘popular discourse’ itself, which a) calls ‘academic ability’ success and elevates it, b) suggests that individual effort is the means to achieve it, and c) if the student is gifted in other ways, values different things – individually, socially or culturally – then that student is worth less than the academic prodigy with the O.P. 1.

The institution of education is obsolete. As Ken Robinson argues, it was created to meet the needs of the industrial revolution, shaped primarily by liberalism and capitalism, and so places emphasis, at the exclusion of everything else, on the kinds of academic ability and disciplines that were useful for work in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

In Australia, most of what Henry calls the middle/ruling class value more highly those traits of individualism and competitiveness that better enable them to achieve ‘academic success.’ The fact that these people have most of the wealth – financial capital – and that they are mostly white, and part of the dominant culture, suggest that they have formed generational belief structures which remain because they work. At the other end of the spectrum are the ‘working-class’ and ‘ethnic’ families, who generally value community, family, and practical work. The majority of people who will control the cultural and economic capital of the future, such as teachers, doctors, civic and business leaders, come from the former background, and so perpetuate the paradigm, and are inclined to impose their constructed beliefs in individualism and competitiveness onto everyone, potentially prejudicially and ignorantly, and often to their detriment. This trend is growing. Surveys conducted in the 1992 International Social Science Survey and the 2009 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes indicate that the current paradigm of academic intelligence is still dominating the distribution of rewards. The risk here is that we end up with a class system that is less mobile than the one before it. The new upper class, the educated, pass on privileges to their children, as before. But with dwindling jobs for the less skilled, and still more restricted through ‘unnecessary credentialism,’ it is harder for the under-privileged to haul themselves up.

Worse, those at the top believe that they deserve their privileges, making them more arrogant than the old upper class who realised that they were there partly or entirely through luck and/or their exploitation of other people.

That said, however, in the end it is all about the individual experience of life. Success should not be defined as a high I.Q., O.P., or graduating at the top of the class. I have an I.Q. of 134 but an O.P. of 12. I went to an elite private school from years 1 to 12, graduating at 16 and am now, at 25, in my first year of University. I struggle emotionally and mentally, due to a family background of trauma, abuse, suicide and poverty. My individual effort, aptitude and willingness were all outstanding, in the academic setting, but socio-cultural considerations have stunted what I used to think of as the only avenue to, and aspect of, success. I have come to see myself not as a failure, but as an individual who chose to accept the difficulties posed by my socio-cultural experience, and am taking the best path I know how – through my own effort – forward. I consider the totality of my experience of life thus far a success, because though I have high human and intellectual capital and not much else, I have actualised what I have in spite of my difficulties.

Failure should not be defined as the opposite, either. I’ve a friend who is academically useless; he failed Grade 10 and comes from a working-class, community-oriented and supportive family. He used to think himself a failure, but he now is heading up at least one English language school in China’s Tangshan province. He is married with a son (you can only have one in China, if you didn't already know) and content. Both him and I would consider ourselves a success through our individual choices and efforts and consideration of our socio-cultural realms. Circumstances don't matter, only state of being does.

Note: O.P. refers to Overall Position, the ranking system for secondary school (grade 12) graduates here in Queensland, Australia. 1 is the highest, 25 the lowest. For me, 12 was a huge achievement, considering the circumstances, but at the same time, I felt a failure for getting anything below a 4. Times change :)
Note: I.Q. refers to a formula filtered through an aptitude test that is supposed to measure academic/abstract/spatial intelligence. Scores measure on a bell curve, with 134 making me in the "smartest" 2% of people. It's really not all it's cracked up to be, and not just because academic prowess is not the be all and end all of life.

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