Meritocracy Kills Creativity and Breeds Populism

Written by Lewis Walker.
Edited by Paisley Regester.

The contemporary image of populism is most often painted by those who consider themselves as outsiders of a political sphere. The word populist can refer to the stereotypical die-hard Trump supporter, as well as the most ardent of Jeremy Corbyn backers. Populism is the idea that society has separated itself into the ‘ordinary people’ and the ‘powerful elite.’  Global politics has seen a swift rise of populism in the last decade, with the backlash against established political norms originating from the idea that the elites look down upon the ordinary people.  This is far from an illegitimate complaint; inequality in the system drives political divisions.

An arbiter of this division is the meritocracy ingrained in us through the education systems we were raised in. Meritocracy itself is not inherently evil, but the focus of this merit is unbalanced, deepening the divide between the apparent winners and losers of the world.  Success is viewed as a measure of personal merit and not much else: “I deserve this because (a) I worked for it and (b) I am better at it than those who were not successful.”

The last part of that statement, (b), is the most significant to this article: “I am better than those who were not successful.” When we compare ourselves to others, we experience a sense of elation when we come out on top but a sense of pain when we do not match others’ standards.  Keith Payne highlighted this “better-than-average effect” in a recent TED talk.  If you care about something, for instance a sport, more likely than not you will perceive yourself as better than average. Yet, if perception equated to reality and everyone was “better than average,” would they not just be average?

To better understand this paradox, Payne conducted an experiment.  He found that when you tell one group of people that they have done better than average at a task, they are more likely to consider themselves in a positive light.  When you tell another group they are worse than average, they perceive themselves negatively or form a belief that the system was rigged. After a ten-minute task, the “better-than-average” group was more likely to form the conclusion that the “worse-than-average” group should have just worked harder. Each group had achieved the same results from the task.

Apply this to a school setting: every education system has a hierarchy of subjects, and this is true globally. Mathematics and literacy sit at the top of the podium, with humanities in second place, and the arts coming in last. If the system is geared towards dishing out more merit to those who excel in maths and literacy, you create an imbalance in childrens’ mindsets. Those children will see themselves in a more positive light, but what about the artists, musicians, actors and dancers? Although the system will praise them, they still excel in the “last-place subjects.”  Education systems are more likely to award merit based on academics, leaving an unfair shroud of negativity hanging over the creative subjects.

Education should have no winners or losers. Picasso famously commented: “every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” A child’s capacity for innovation exceeds the average adult’s by miles but the education system does not foster this.  Instead, it discourages children from using their bodies for anything other than transporting their heads. This is concerning, as movement, voice and many creative activities are facilitated by the body.  Therefore, rather than solve Picasso’s problem, education is compounding it by steering kids away from their passions. Michael Young, founder of the Open University, said it best: “Education has put its seal of approval on a minority… and its seal of disapproval on the many who fail to shine from the time they are relegated to the bottom streams at the age of seven or before.”

Modern education systems originate from the start of industrialisation when workers with some sort of education were needed to fuel the revolution. Therefore, subjects best suited for the working world were, and still are, given priority. Now the focus of education has shifted towards university acceptance, but the hierarchy remains the same, leaving the majority of people behind. In Scotland, a record high of 39% of state-educated pupils were in further education nine months after leaving school in 2018. Although labelled as a success, this is still a minority that the merit system is tailored for.

Photo by Ryutaro Tsukata from Pexels.

This meritocratic preference towards academia is further fuelled by the idea that university is the best place for those who are successful.  When universities are viewed as the place to go to find success and broaden opportunities, then those with underappreciated talents or those without a degree of some sort will be left feeling undervalued. I believe that an education system once predicated on raising an industrial workforce, and now used as a 15-year university prep course, has been detrimental to human creativity. We have lost out on many innovations because the education system based its merits on university acceptance. 

On average, someone with a university education will achieve a higher income in the long-term than someone without. This makes university an attractive prospect; however, it is based on the flawed belief that the success of a person is measured by the size of their bank balance. Martin Luther King explained the fallacy of this, commenting that the work of the person who collects our rubbish is just as important as that of our doctors, as without him disease would be rampant.  However, our hierarchy of subjects and imbalance of merit ignores this simple fact, ripping away the dignity of these jobs when their contribution to society should be given the merit it deserves.

What is the response, then, from the people education has left behind? People recognise the widening gap between the so-called “winners” and “losers” in society, or rather, the “ordinary people” and the “elite.” This drives people towards the poles of the political spectrum, into the arms of populist leaders who promise to drain a few swamps along their way to power.

Our attitudes towards success widen this gap, alongside the blatant inequalities in society.  The winners have been drilled, by an education system that they probably thrived in, to believe their success is a measure of their merit. However, not all merit is given equal recognition, and this has done two things: firstly, it has killed the creativity in many, and secondly, it propounds the belief that the system is rigged against those it leaves behind.

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