The mantra of meritocracy
Do we really understand what ‘meritocracy’ mean? Do we know what ‘intelligence’ mean and how it is to be measured? Are we making the right connection between intelligence and merit and determination and cultural diversity and intelligently link these psychological constructs with the idea of “meritocracy” that is becoming increasingly political.
Intelligence Quotient (IQ) is a poor measuring tool of human intelligence. It’s a paper and pencil test that has cultural biases. It is a political tool in the field of schooling as social reproduction. The French, through Alfred Binet used it to recruit soldiers who could read manuals. The Americans, through Lewis Terman used it to test thousands of Californian kids. The Stanford-Binet test evolved into the present test of IQ, and became a model for test developers to construct present-day high stakes/state standardized tests. Testing has become a huge industry.
In America, standardised exams/test scores decide which school district will get the most funding from the state. The Scholastic Aptitude Test (the SAT) is another big one that determines if one gets into an Ivy League or elsewhere. Bill Gates, the Harvard dropout had a perfect score on his SAT.
Our education system, borrowed from the colonial era and transposed into IQ-based selection and filtration system such as in the early MRSM system, is based on an outdated assessment of the human intellect. Dr Siti Zaharah Sulaiman’s Cornell University dissertation on the selection process of Maktab Rendah Sains MARA (MRSM) Kuantan students of the 1973 intake addressed this dimension of IQ testing.
Our debate on testing and measurement
Our economy is a technocratic institution that is obsessed with numeracy and the possessed by the spirit of logocentrism. This means that we are fundamentally trapped in the argument of statistical-based economic restructuring system.
Elsewhere I have argued on the limitation of this ideology of measuring for example, in the calibration of ownership of the Malaysian economic pie. Many an educationalist have made statements debunking affirmative action and championing the setting up, in toto, of a merit-based system. This is a good call but is not necessarily the best perspective. It is based on a misunderstanding of what meritocracy means. In fact, this argument and a political platform will only do the following:
- Create an evolutionary system of reverse discrimination.
- Create a non-issue and a mask for the real issue of ‘justice for all races’ without resorting to the tedious argument ala economic pie again.
- Create a poor basis of public understanding of what “meritocracy” actually means.
- Create a smoke screen/haze on the issue of what we are really measuring in university entrance examinations.
Political parties outside of the hegemonising front are clamoring on the idea of meritocracy as if its definition is limited to IQ + hard work only, discounting the argument of nurture versus nature, culture versus biology, genetic versus habitus.
It seems that advocates of pseudo-meritocracy are having an upper hand of the argument by saying that it is hard work and results of high stakes testing themselves that are to be considered more supreme a basis of scholastic measure than affirmative action.
It is somewhat a truncated Confucianist argument that does not take into consideration what Kung Fu Tze and Lao Tzi would also champion for – social justice and egalitarianism in social promotion. Mao Zedong would mount a better argument on meritocracy, intelligence, and class formation based on how we create economic elites.
Because Umno’s ideologues and its intelligentsia do not yet have a good answer for all these, and particularly in the issue of meritocracy, and because the ‘other races’ are appearing to have a better argument on the issue of the meritocractic system as a “better system”, we need to understand this issue thoroughly.
Existing arguments on this great Malaysian school debate are not strong. We need to find better ways to look at meritocracy. Borrowing John Dewey, the American philosopher of education, we need to look at ‘growth’ from a constructivist point of view, taking into consideration the notion of “intelligence” as cultural bound and not as a fixed construct.
Let us excavate the foundation of this argument and look at the ideological structure it is fashioned by.
Let us explore if the notion of ‘meritocracy for the many’ is indeed another name for ‘aristocracy for the few’. To do this, we must look at what exactly this psychometrical construct called IQ is.
From aristocracy to IQ to meritocracy
I am now worried that the polarised argument will turn into a Malaysian-styled ‘Republican-Democrat’ great school debate, with Ralph Nader’s Green Party left out.
I am worried of the following trends in the development of evaluation, measurement, and filtration in all levels of our educational enterprise, from pre-school to graduate school:
- That we will be trapped into a more sophisticated version of the quota system and fail to look at the issue of how our children are learning to become labourers in this globalised system of production.
- That we are using the wrong assessment strategies to create another colonial-styled pluralistic education system that favors the children of the economically-privileged in this nation that is increasingly cybernated and ‘bio-technologised’.
- That we are going to marginalise the children of the newly arrived immigrants that need all the help in order to be good citizens that will contribute meaningfully in our national development.
- That we will continue to create the new Mandarins and aristocrats who will acquire power and knowledge through the new system of Malaysian aristocratic reproduction system.
- That we will continue to blindly uphold and defend an educational system that challenges children to become cut-throat competitors instead of teaching them to share resources (cultural, material, metaphysical) in a nation whose natural resources are depleting.
- That we are creating a dystopia in that the vision of a truly multicultural, just and equitable society is replaced by one that will have a small percentage of people controlling a large percentage of the wealth.
Meritocracy for all?
A vision of a good and intelligent society is possible if we deconstruct the definition of intelligence and broaden its dimensions, so that measurement does not become a ‘mismeasure of man’.
We have inherited the definition of merit uncritically and use it in the following ways:
- To create little brown brothers through the British education system.
- To advance the ideology of a plural society.
- To create a Americanised, Anglicised, and Nipponised elites through residential/boarding school systems, such as the MRSM school system.
- To create academic winners and losers through our national standardized exams.
- To create ethnically-based satisfied and dis-satisfied high school students through our translucent and opaque university entrance exam systems.
- To create classes of technology-rich and technology-poor human beings through our almost-abandoned concept of smart schooling.
I have proposed elsewhere that we need to begin to explore other perspectives in the way we acquire knowledge. We seemed to be trapped in a version of logical-positivism that mismeasures human beings.
I hope our understanding of meritocracy is going to be debated, discussed, deconstructed, and developed further by academics and educational policymakers before we as a nation gets further entangled in the web of confusion surrounding what it means to be intelligent and, which race gets to be called less intelligent, in our fight for economic control.
The argument between Bumiputeras and non-Bumiputeras on the issue of meritocracy is taking a wrong linguistic/semiotic turn. It reflects how much we are taking half-baked and outdated notions of ‘intelligence’ and using it to create gates and human filtration systems in the educational and social-mobility institutions we build.
Instead of talking about ‘multiple dimensions of intelligence’ that can be equated with creativity and problem-solving, the Bumiputera-non-Bumiputera debate centered around the idea of linguistic-mathematical intelligence used in high stakes examinations.
A national debate needed
I call upon educators, policymakers, and those interested in the education of our children to consider the following in order to enlighten ourselves of the issue of meritocracy:
- Understand the nature of human beings we wish to develop, through our education system/educational conveyor belt.
- Understand the dynamics of educational change as it involves the interplay between technology and culture and the development of workers and citizens.
- Understand the process of schooling as more than just the creation of homo economicus/the economic beings but that of beings, that will become active citizens that will be constantly aware of changes in their surroundings and be able to manage the change, complexity, and chaos.
- Understand how to craft a philosophy of education based on the mission of developing informed citizens that will acquire the skills of participatory democracy and anticipatory skills; a philosophy that will guide the next generation into deconstructing and dismantling hegemony we inherit from the previous long-serving regime and one that gave us our unique totalitarian character.
- Understand how authentic assessment works in the way we evaluate human beings that go thorough the education system by adopting multiple assessment strategies that are more valid and reliable that IQ-styled paper and pencil tests.
- Understand the impact of the ideology of testing on race relations and how to evolve out of the quagmire of the creation of a totally – bureaucractic- technocractic system that strangles humanity – one that batch-process human beings, stylized after (Frederick) Taylorism/Deming –TQM philosophy, into aristocrats and outcastes of the global system of production.