At one snoburban middle school, the principal was bragging about the high test scores in a PTA bulletin to parents. The scores were impressive, not only way above the national and Maryland averages, but above the high Montgomery County averages as well.
These scores, of course, are a result of our collective merit, our hard work and benevolence, certainly not because there are very few poor children from under-educated families at this school.
In his 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy, Michael Young prophesied what would happen if society placed formal educational credentials over all other qualities as it moved from agrarian to urban. He argued that a meritocracy – he coined the term – would lead to society permanently rejecting anyone who doesn’t have the means to gain the proper education, including otherwise able working class people.
In later years, Young argued that his message (originating as satire) has been skewed by current-day politicians and others who claim that British and American societies actually are based on true merit; whereas Young saw the rise of a new exclusive social class which was as discriminatory as the aristocratic one it replaced.
Young argued: “The business meritocracy is in vogue. If meritocrats believe, as more and more of them are encouraged to, that their advancement comes from their own merits, they can feel they deserve whatever they can get.” Young, a labor activist and academic, wrote that the general inequities in western capitalism – top bonuses to CEOs, for example – are a direct result of this social revolution.
Noblesse oblige becomes less important if you feel you earned your social position than if you know you received special rewards because of the overclass nepotism and privilege that comes along with your million-dollar home in the snoburbs.
Go into a Washington, D.C. public school sometime. With fewer advanced math classes, magnet programs and active debate clubs – or more importantly, parents who know how to advocate for them – how can lower and working class families compete? Parents in the snoburbs have time to volunteer in the schools and to advocate for ever better programs and more AP classes. These families can hire tutors, re-take the SAT five times, and join expensive sports teams and music camps that will get them confidence, recognition and scholarships.
And how must the permanent underclass feel? “It is hard indeed in a society that makes so much of merit to be judged as having none. No underclass has ever been left as morally naked as that,” wrote Young.