When watching Bill Clinton’s DNC speech last month, I was reminded of a recent discussion that took place in my Ethics class: a debate between meritocracy and equity, and their role in the context of education.
First, let’s start with the definitions.
Equity is defined as “the quality of being fair and impartial”. In an educational context, equity is not just equal representation (diversity) - it’s the equal rate of success among students of different comminities.
Meritocracy is “a system in which advancement is based on individual ability or achievement.” It’s the common belief that we’re all given a life, and how far we advance in our respective lives is solely dependent on our work ethic. Those on the top worked the hardest, and deserve to be there.
The problem is, meritocracy comes hand in hand with two assumptions: first, that we all start at the same level, and second, that every factor other than our success itself is identical.If social mobility is solely dependent on our work ethic, that means that every other factor must be exactly the same - identical environments, identical resources, and identical opportunities.
Many of us were blessed enough to grow up with cushions lining our path: a safe community, stable family, money, access to healthcare, access to healthy food choices, a school that could provide AP classes, tutoring, and academic support. Did we work hard to achieve what we did? Of course! But it would be a lie to say that these cushions didn’t help us out at all.
So why don’t we level the playing field, and give others access to the cushions that we had? People seem to think that this “takes away what’s yours” - that opening up doors for others somehow diminishes the significance of their own hard work.
This is a flawed perception, fueled by ego; an excuse that gives those with privilege the permission to point fingers, and label entire communities of people as lazy or incompetent. What about the outliers? The person who is lazy and never take advantage of opportunities, or the incredibly resilient individual who started at rock bottom and made it out on their own? Yes, they exist - but we must remember that these are exceptions. When creating solutions, our focus needs to be on the majority: highly capable children who are simply expected to work their way out of the gaping hole they were born into.
Poverty is a hole that spans generations. Carved by the prejudices present in our country’s foundation, and maintained by a history of oppression - poverty is now deeply embedded in the framework of our society. Children born into poverty have to face social stigmas, unfavorable odds, and an unstable support system (if there is one). And if they don’t succeed? Society labels them as incompetent and lazy, so that the rest of us understand that they “deserve” to be there, just as we deserve to be where we are.
I believe that hard work can get you through just about anything - but I know it’s not everything. If KNOW that if I didn’t have my family, my community, and the academic resources I had growing up, I probably wouldn’t have made it to college, let alone grad school. I can honestly admit that many of my peers probably had to work SIGNIFICANTLY harder than I did to get to the same place - but I don’t feel like this takes away from my own accomplishments. On the contrary, being aware of the discrepancy makes me want to bridge the gap for future generations, rather than ignore it.
Decisions rooted in misconceptions and ignorance will always be bad decisions. Many of our leaders need to OPEN their eyes, and take a good look at how ugly America can be just 5 blocks away.