Academic meritocracy and collective disengagement

“To believe in academic meritocracy is to think that the only determinant of success at school is the merit of the students, that is to say their level of commitment to school work. This belief is relatively widespread, transmitted and valued within the education system,” explains Céline Darnon, professor of social psychology at Clermont Auvergne University. During the International Week of Education and Training in Lausanne, she presented a body of research which shows that if, at an individual level, the belief in meritocracy is rather reassuring and allows students to maintain a level of High involvement in school tasks can represent a major obstacle to change, in particular to the promotion of equality at school.

What are the consequences of believing in meritocracy? In the belief of “when we want, we can”. To believe in meritocracy is to believe that what would determine success would be the amount of effort, perseverance. It is to believe that the results of each are the culmination of individual merit in terms of effort and work capacity. This is a relatively widespread belief, in France and elsewhere. “This belief is particularly strong at school. The more one studies, the further one goes in studies, the more one believes in meritocracy. For example, teachers more easily accept explanations of failures when pupils or students mobilize the register of effort: I haven’t worked enough, I haven’t made too much effort…” explains Céline Darnon who therefore questions the impact of meritocratic discourse on students, teachers but also the education system. According to her, this belief is a double-edged sword.

On the positive side, the researcher explains that believing in academic meritocracy brings a certain psychological comfort. This belief makes it possible to develop a feeling of control in the student, a feeling which allows perseverance in the school task, the maintenance of the efforts. Believing in meritocracy also means believing in social mobility, in the possibility for first-generation students – those whose parents did not obtain an additional diploma – to succeed academically.

Meritocracy, a barrier to change

However, believing in meritocracy is a brake on change according to Céline Darnon. “The scientific literature is rich on the preponderant role of the education system in the reproduction of inequalities. Theoretically, anyone can access any position. This is called equal opportunity. However, it is at school that a very important selection takes place,” she explains. “To believe in meritocracy is to consider that this selection is exclusively based on merit”.

Céline Darnon bases her statement on the results of several studies – French and American. This research validates the positive effects of the belief in academic meritocracy among students: more commitment, better self-esteem, belief in social mobility… But, despite a generally rather positive effect, belief in meritocracy increases the impact of performance on disengagement. That is to say that if the student succeeds, he engages, on the other hand, if he is in a situation of failure, he disengages from learning more quickly.

Make students take responsibility for better disengagement

At the collective level, the belief in meritocracy generates a collective disengagement, makes the student bear a lot of responsibility. “Each individual would be responsible for his successes and his failures” develops the researcher, “this produces an overestimation of individual determinism and an underestimation of social determinism and the structural barriers of educational systems. It is a legitimating myth that helps to justify and maintain inequalities between groups”.

Another result of his research, the belief in meritocracy hinders the use of effective pedagogical practices – such as cooperation, differentiation… For teachers, the explanation for failure or success would lie in the efforts made, in the capacities “ innate” of the students, in the “quality of education” and in the family environment. “This belief impacts the climate in the classroom and the frequency of the use of competitive and/or cooperative practices” adds Céline Darnon. “The belief in academic meritocracy is associated with the use of competitive pedagogical practices and the low use of cooperative practices. The more we believe in meritocracy, the more we accentuate the performance gaps between students according to social background.

The researcher concludes her lecture by explaining that a meritocratic system is an ideal, even utopian system, because it can never be achieved. “Merit is far from being the only factor of academic success or failure”. However, “we must continue to promote academic meritocracy because it is essential for maintaining a feeling of control, perseverance, to allow students of basic social condition not to resign themselves… It must however be recognized that the he existence of meritocracy does not mean that meritocracy alone determines success. It is a question of recognizing the weight of other factors in order to limit the risk of over-attribution to internal arrangements and the deleterious effects associated with it – underestimation of the impact of the social environment, teachers, disengagement, weak support for pedagogical innovation, cooperation and the reduction of inequalities…”

A speech very different from that held by the former occupant of the rue de Grenelle…

Lilia Ben Hamouda

Academic meritocracy and collective disengagement