What is a Meritocracy?

By Michael Pearson, Executive Director of the Mathematical Association of America

I am confident in asserting that all of you reading this post have taken a variety of standardized tests over the course of your lives. I would venture to add that, like me, your performance on those tests has influenced the options available to you.

What I am less confident of is whether or not the standardized instruments in widespread use contribute to more accurate assessments of our ability to perform, academically or otherwise.

This Fritz Lang film presented a future dystopia where the elite wield power over the workers.

This Fritz Lang film presented a future dystopia where the elite wield power over the workers.

These questions, and the debates that surround them, were framed nicely in an essay by Thomas Edsall, published on Wednesday, June 12, in The New York Times.  The essay, entitled “The Meritocracy is Under Siege,” makes clear that there are valid reasons to question the impact of the widespread use of standardized tests perhaps especially when used to assess individuals, but also that there are important reasons to use them as tools for gaining insight into large-scale features of education and other systems that are meant to serve the needs of our society.

Did you know that the word "meritocracy" itself was introduced in a 1958 satirical essay, "The Rise of the Meritocracy," by Michael Young? Young wrote that "merit is equated with intelligence-plus-effort, its possessors are identified at an early age and selected for appropriate intensive education, and there is an obsession with quantification, test-scoring, and qualifications." In the spirit of Orwell's "1984" and Huxley's "Brave New World," Young imagined this trend leading to a dystopian society ruled by those who thrived under such a regime.

Not surprisingly, there has been much written about both the merits and shortcomings of Young’s perspective over the last 60 years, and, as Edsall’s essay demonstrates, those arguments regarding meritocracy are far from concluded.

I am happy that we at the MAA are pursuing a diverse collection of programs that attempt to broaden participation in mathematics, and broaden the conception of what it means to do, and succeed at, mathematics.

At the same time, the MAA is closely aligned with an education system that relies on assessment and grading structures that are far from perfect and, in my view, serve to perpetuate both the positive and negative aspects of our sense of what meritocracy means. We must continue to consider and assess our programs, and evolve and adapt so that our work can better reflect the mission, core values, and vision of the Mathematical Association of America.

A particular way in which we are taking steps to align our work and our values is through our charter membership in the Societies Consortium on Sexual Harassment in STEMM, You may also recall our participation in a national survey on inclusion in STEM, described in this article in the April/May 2018 issue of MAA FOCUS magazine. The MAA Board of Directors is in the process of establishing a task force to review MAA’s policies and procedures, such as our Welcoming Environment policy, to strengthen our efforts to remove barriers for full participation in our discipline.

Thanks for joining the MAA in this important work!