The pretenses of meritocracy

History of a concept. “I am a pure product of the Republican meritocracy of which the school is the pillar. » Pronounced on May 20 during his transfer of power with Jean-Michel Blanquer, this sentence was one of the first of Pap Ndiaye as Minister of National Education. According to Le Robert, meritocracy designates the “social hierarchy based on merit”. His invocation seems self-evident: who can be against the effort required to acquire knowledge and against the merit that results from it?

But the measure of this merit slips away. How, in school results, can we distinguish what comes from the effort provided, from personal dispositions or from the family and relational context? With equal result, a child will be immensely deserving and another will have only had to carry out a formality. Other complexities arise when moving from a one-time situation (so-and-so has done a good job, bravo) to a lasting characterization (so-and-so always does well, he’s a ” good student “), and from the individual register to the political dimension signified by the notion of “meritocracy”.

As a result, it is associated with that of “equal opportunities” : fair competition would require that everyone be placed in the same cultural and socio-economic conditions. This is obviously not the case and this is why the school system assigns itself a duty of compensation: in his article 1the education code stipulates that the public service of education “contributes to equal opportunities”. He is pointing out that, “in respect of equal opportunities, aid is allocated to pupils and students according to their resources and their merits”. Guarantor of meritocracy and at the heart of discourse on schooling, equal opportunity therefore has the ambivalent status of a proclaimed operating principle and an ideal still to be achieved.

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Meritocracy, notes sociologist François Dubet about the lyrics “rituals” of Pap Ndiaye, is described as “Republican”, in reference to the school of Jules Ferry. However, this one “rather practiced republican elitism, consisting in selecting ‘the best children of the people’, likely to follow a long schooling, without worrying about organizing any ‘equal opportunities’ for the others”, recalls the sociologist who, from one book to another, has been calling for more attention for more than twenty years for those who have been defeated in school competition.

Today, since children from all backgrounds attend a unified school system and are expected to enjoy equal opportunities, the losers are blamed for their failures and the resulting lower social status. This is the message, which generates powerful resentment, that society sends to them – even as the health crisis has just underlined the crucial role of workers in the ” First line “ in the service of the common good.

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The pretenses of meritocracy