Publish at March 29 2022 Updated April 07 2022

The meritocratic fable of the French school

A legend that has some advantages and many disadvantages

The ideology behind Western schooling rests on the precept of equality of opportunity. If the school course were to be a sport, it would be a marathon where everyone starts from the same starting line. The idea being that those who put in the most effort will cross the finish line before the others. Meritocracy is a central aspect of educational philosophy in France although it is the borrowing of a more American concept.

A necessary fiction?

In fact, this approach is seen by some as an essential fable. It pushes students to excel, especially with the grade system that gauges each student's effort. In this sense, it has led entire generations to seek success in their course. That is why this meritocracy is at the heart of the Fifth Republic's school. Except that this choice has not been natural. A long struggle of different currents has tried to impose a vision of learning. And while meritocracy has won, its veneer has flaked off quite a bit over the years.

Even the "defenders" of this system speak of fiction, myth, fable. A blatant admission that the idea that the sum of effort will necessarily lead to success is not entirely honest. More and more sociologists like Paul Pasquali do not hesitate to use the term "heritocracy". He points out that even today, two-thirds of students in higher education come from privileged backgrounds. Institutions such as ENA have come to reinforce, according to some experts, this idea of an elite far above the citizenry whose lineage will always be able to benefit from great studies while the rest will have to settle for the crumbs.

So, if everyone started from the same starting line, those with significant stability already will feel more confident of success. Conversely, those who feel like they are starting two strides behind will struggle more and become discouraged much more easily at the first obstacles. Especially since the system will remind them, subconsciously, that they are "responsible for their misfortune".  They just have to put in more effort. Yet, in many cases, other factors can come into play, diminishing the student's responsibility.

Bottom the tyranny of merit!

This tyranny is not only experienced in France. In the United States, where the concept is so ingrained that it shows up in works of fiction, the race for degrees and merit has led to inequality particularly in impoverished social spheres and among people of color. So much so that debates, often difficult ones, are increasingly being raised by individual states and districts on the subject of affirmative action. Because some individuals are highly uncomfortable with the idea of favoring people from less affluent backgrounds or selected, in part, for their skin color in faculties. Africa, too, sees this on its side in a system that lauds those who have made it up the social ladder, leaving others with a sense of failure.

So what to do with the meritocracy? Should it be shot down? Perhaps, but it is not so simple since meritocratic propaganda has worked well with the population and within the school itself. Why change something that, on the face of it, seems to work very well? Among other things, the whole issue of the presence of grades in assessment plays heavily into this issue of elitism.

What if other educational projects were thought through in order to truly give opportunities to all? The idea, of course, is not to hold back good students but rather to get them to collaborate with their peers. Indeed, they could share, work together, and even explain their understanding of the material in their own words. So rather than just being a teacher's "symbols of success," they could be his or her allies in helping more of their classmates succeed. Especially since the majority of teachers would be willing to reduce inequalities in their classrooms. To do so, however, we must stop focusing and settle for the few "success stories" of meritocracy.

Illustration : mohamed_hassan on Pixabay


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