School does not live on merit alone

from Luciano Benadusi* And Orazio Giancola*

The decision of the Meloni government and the minister Valditara to change the name of the Ministry of Education with the unexpected addition of the words “and of Merit” has given way to a wide debate, centered above all on the meaning of this term, which has been studied for a long time. and discussed by pedagogues and sociologists. This is an important debate on a controversial expression, as immediately highlighted from Tuttoscuola, in which authoritative columnists and experts such as Ernesto Galli della Loggia, Pietro Ichino, Luca Ricolfi, Giorgio Chiosso and others have intervened in recent days. On the subject we publish below the precise contribution of conceptual analysis and critical analysis sent to us by Luciano Benadusi and Orazio Giancola, authors of the most recent and updated research on the subject, Fairness and merit in the school(2021), which we thank for their availability and the attention paid to our newspaper.

The first gesture made by the new government on the school was the change of the name of the Ministry of Education by adding “e del Merito”. A clearly identifying choice and much criticized for various reasons, some good others less so. Bringing the political discourse into education on values ​​and principles is a right choice because the value dimension, usually neglected, comes into play here more than for other issues. Were it not that in this case the choice was made in a monistic way, evoking a single reference value, precisely merit. Already a century ago Weber had noticed how in contemporary societies a passage of great historical importance had taken place: from “monotheism” to “polytheism” of values. Instead, it seems that in the sky of the Valditara school, merit is the only star to shine, or at least the brightest one, so much so that it can be indicated as part of the whole. Without taking into account that merit and meritocracy are themselves plural concepts, since they present a great variety of meanings and declinations. In our book entitled Fairness and merit (2022) we had used the term equity in a pluralistic perspective, to designate a range of principles-values ​​that have equality and merit at their poles. Principles which can also be combined and whose order of priority varies on a case-by-case basis.

Mentioning merit alone means relegating equality to the background and thus providing a broader justification for inequalities. The opposite of our constitution which includes equality between general principles (art.3) while talking about merit much later in a specific rule on education (art.34), and only in the sense of equality of opportunity (EO in short), ie the egalitarian declination of the principle of merit. As a demonstration of the greater importance and extension attributed to the egalitarian principle compared to the meritocratic one. In the arguments in favor of the renaming that the minister himself and other commentators have brought, the priority is overturned: merit becomes a general principle and equality is entirely exhausted in its meritocratic version because it is considered decisive: “Talent is a gift: rewarding it classism is defeated “(Ricolfi, The RepublicOctober 27, 2022).

In fact, the question is much more complex, let’s see why. Equality of opportunity means conceiving the school as the arena of a series of competitions for success, based on the talent and commitment of the participants – so Rawls, the greatest contemporary philosopher of justice, and so also the sociologist Young, the inventor of the term meritocracy – but without any influence on the socio-family origin of the students. Without having equalized the starting points, the result of the race would be distorted and unfair. We have thus distinguished a “pure meritocracy” from a “spurious meritocracy”. However, empirical research tells us that there is no country in the world where the influence of social origins has really been eliminated; the “real meritocracy” always remains (more or less) spurious. Because? Does it just depend on the laxity of school systems not soliciting student engagement enough through rewards and penalties? But would the meritocratic teaching of the carrot and the stick really give us equal opportunities? We doubt it because, as many researches show us, the socio-family origin of students (on average) affects not only the results but also the commitment, that is, the motivation to study and extend their studies up to the highest levels of education. And scholarships alone are not enough to change the structure of motivation.

Not even talent is immune from the influence of social origin. The fear of the descending social mobility of the upper classes counts more than the aspirations for an upward mobility in the medium-long range of the lower classes (also due to the calculation of the risk of failure). Furthermore, there is no lack of empirical evidence that the genetic distribution of talents is not at all random, unlike what Ricolfi claims. For example, a recent English research (Crapohi, PNAS, n.14, 2022) has found how much the academic achievement of students (on the GCSE exam) considerably reflects intelligence (measured by appropriate tests) and some personality traits of parents. On the other hand, to have a measure of the talent and dispositions of the individual net of the influence of the social environment (the genotypes) it would be necessary to obtain it at birth (if not even earlier), which is impossible. Finally, Rawls, while having included the EO among his fundamental rules of justice, had recognized two other substantial defects in it. 1) In light of the principle of responsibility, the genetic inheritance of talent is no less undeserved than social inheritance. 2) EO is a goal that is only partially achievable. To achieve it fully, it would be necessary to undermine the right of parents to ensure their children the maximum educational and social opportunities. So much so that Plato, the far from liberal inventor of the EO, proposed to remove them early from their control and entrust them to the care of the republic. Aware of these limits, to the EO, defined as “liberal equality of opportunity”, Rawls had added another, defined as “democratic”, based on the redistribution of income and wealth to the advantage of the disadvantaged. Which means rewarding merit, yes, but not as a source of an individual’s moral right but as an incentive to commit oneself to the growth and well-being of society so that everyone can enjoy its fruits, starting with the weakest. An impracticable approach in a hyper-competitive meritocratic society where the same school functions as an individualistic Olympiad of merit, rewards the winners and ignores the losers or, worse, excludes them. Conversely, it would be necessary to support the development of community, cooperative and solidarity habits.

In conclusion, we do not agree with the reduction of the principle of equality to the EO alone, its meritocratic version. But not even the a priori rejection of the principle of merit, which on the contrary should be nurtured to combat privileges, prejudices and inefficiencies also present in the school world. In our book, as well as reiterating the importance of EO in both Rawls’ declinations, we advocated two other notions of equality in school: that of “fundamental results as a function of inclusion” (the minimum threshold of the school career of students and of ‘learning basic skills) and that of “equal dignity” (principle of respect).

Equality and merit are not always irreconcilable, it depends on the contexts. To speak no longer of students but of teachers, inspired by the criterion of merit as an incentive, it makes sense to structure a selective career by rewarding those who have acquired greater skills and can effectively exercise more complex roles, for example teaching in “difficult” schools where the fight against educational poverty and social and territorial gaps is decided. Therefore, define a precise and unambiguous path of training, entry and advancement in this fundamental professional career. But at the same time, inspired by the criterion of equality, it is necessary to gradually raise the salaries of the entire category to bring them to the levels of the other major European countries.

*University of Rome La Sapienza


School does not live on merit alone – Tuttoscuola