Stanford students, and Americans generally, are inculcated with a strong attachment to the notion of meritocracy: that success in some area is distributed based upon merit. Nowhere does this seem more prevalent than in education. We are submitted to examination from our earliest years, and our performance may ultimately decide our class standing, both in school and in society. If our education system is meritocratic, then how do we define merit, and in what context is it expressed? Importantly, how do inequalities define this context?
My parents were immigrants. Sitting at about double the poverty line, they used most of their income and burned through their savings to enroll me in private school for the first three years of my education. This was unsustainable. And so I moved to a public school during third grade, where something remarkable happened — I became a phenomenal student. The reality is, much of the material I was then being taught at public school I had already learned, and in more detail, in my previous semesters at the private school. My teachers were impressed by my “intelligence.”
In this case, a small inequality — created by my prior education — increased my merit in the eyes of my instructors, and I was recommended for an advanced middle school. To be sure, the effect was real. I certainly had an easier time comprehending material that I had previously learned. The types of inequalities that enrich the performance of an individual are widespread in education and stratified by socioeconomic status. Just consider how many undergraduates at top universities spend their free time tutoring middle and high school students at no less than $60 per hour. Indeed, it is no coincidence that children of educated parents fare better in school. Society cannot expect to eliminate these inequalities. They will always exist to some degree or another, but they ensure that meritocracy is never grounded in a fully level playing field.
I attended a very average middle school and was enrolled in very average courses. My parents were not educated, and did not understand the class stratification of the public school system. We were an unruly and unmotivated group of students often at odds with a young and inexperienced teacher. My most salient lesson from seventh-grade math was learning how to fire paper projectiles with rubber bands. Receiving my schedule the second semester of that year, I realized that by mistake or intervention I had been moved to an “honors” math class. This class was much smaller, with half the students, all of whom were quiet and attentive. But on day one, I was already too far behind to catch up. I returned to my previous class.
This second type of inequality is one that need not exist. It involves the stratification — or segregation — of students into classes based on false or incomplete measures of merit. It creates institutional inequalities whereby those students already benefitting from inequalities rooted outside the classroom (in families and socioeconomic circumstances) are given the increased benefit of inequalities within the classroom, such as personalized attention, smaller classes and more experienced instructors. Education is cumulative, and the gap between the advantaged and disadvantaged group widens yearly. I know this because I spent two years catching up on high school math before even beginning calculus at community college. These types of inequalities create long-lasting disparities, even if individuals manage to “catch-up.” Every day, in simple conversation with classmates, I’m reminded of how large the gap is and where my own deficiencies remain. More importantly, institutional inequalities cut against the claim that educational opportunity is based on a meritocratic system.
We can no longer accept a social mobility grounded in rare or heroic examples. Students of all socioeconomic backgrounds should occupy the future of our institutes of higher learning. Inequalities exist, and they will always exist. But if we wish to progress toward a more just society, we must stop building them into our institutions.
M.D./Ph.D. Candidate, Stanford University School of Medicine
These student op-eds, which appear originally in The Stanford Daily, represent part of a 20-part “Occupy the Future” series, comprised of voices of Stanford faculty and students. The entire series will be published on the BR online at http://www.bostonreview.net/BR36.6/occupy_movement_forum.php .