The Myth of Meritocracy: Fatal or Fatalistic?

Luck, Fate, or Happy Accident?

Volume 6, Issue 05
November 4, 2020

Viewing success as fated inevitability serves to reinforce our understanding of social hierarchies. Believing that those who have succeeded have done so because they were fated to by virtue of their exceptional abilities only serves to reinforce the myth of meritocracy — the idea that those at the top deserve their success because they worked hard for it or were the most gifted individuals.1 This interpretation of success falls into what Brazilian critical theorist Paulo Freire’s idea of “fatalism,” wherein we accept the world as is and believe that our positions are fated through a “mythicization” of the world.2

The typical understanding of success is exemplified best by the myth of meritocracy. Through this interpretation, success becomes a fated ordeal; you can only achieve it if you are destined. You must be born with the proper talents, and these talents must be utilized in industrious ways. This myth constitutes our collective understanding of the way billionaires have obtained wealth; they earned it because they were smart and worked hard; they were born with exceptional gifts and an exceptional work ethic. For example, the belief that higher IQs translate into greater economic success has been historically used as a quantitative metric to justify the myth of meritocracy, but as evidenced by data, higher IQs do not consistently translate into economic success.3 In this way, IQ served to buttress the argument that only the most intelligent people could rise to the top and achieve economic success. And since they achieved their success because they used their natural intelligence productively, any wealth or power that came from it was inherently deserved.

But what does the myth of meritocracy show us when it is inverted, flipped on its head — how can it help us understand failure? The myth of meritocracy might not present a terribly problematic concept of success in itself, but its application towards an understanding of failure reveals its darker side. The logic is as follows: if those at the top deserve their success and wealth, those at the bottom also deserve their failure and poverty. Poor Black and Brown students have lower educational outcomes than their affluent white peers. But this is not the result of their own inability. Rather, it is the result of inequitable educational systems — which stem from a history of “injustice and oppression”4 — where affluent white students have the access to well maintained, high quality classroom and instruction in high school, while impoverished Black and Brown students attend remedial classes with a teacher-to-student ratio of 1:39 5 . If the myth of meritocracy is applied as a conceptual lens here, then one would have to argue that they merit their failure.

This idea that oppressors need to “mythicize the world” was examined by Paulo Freire. 6 When the world is mythicized, its dynamic nature is obscured; instead of seeing the world as a problem — something to be collectively worked on and addressed — the world, and the structures that constitute it, is presented as a “fixed entity,” something that must be passively accepted by its inhabitants. Freire understood that our notion of not only success, but the world at large, was shaped by a consciousness that is “mythicized.” The oppressors deposit myths into the oppressed in order to preserve the status quo. These myths create a lens through which we view the world, leading to a sense of “fatalism”, or a belief that events and conditions are destined and inevitable. This fatalism is exactly what Freire argued would distort our understanding of the world. The social hierarchies which structure our relationships are not shaped through fatalistic success; rather they only appear that way when we understand them through the myth of meritocracy.

Paulo Freire’s contributions to our understanding of mythicization aid in clarifying what success is not. Success is not a fated ordeal reserved only for the most gifted and for the hardest working. It should not be understood through the myth of meritocracy that seeks to justify a fatalistic conception of itself, and, when inverted, also seeks to justify an understanding of failure. This definition of success obfuscates the interwoven causes of success and failure. It limits our scope and field of view. As we move away from it, we begin to truly understand success not as a static concept, but one which merits a complex and dynamic analysis.

  1. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of The Oppressed, (New York: Continuum, 1995), 43. ↩︎
  2. Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, Schooling in Capitalist America: Education Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011), 123-124. ↩︎
  3. Love, Bettina We Want To Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and The Pursuit of Educational Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 2019), 92-93. ↩︎
  4. Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools (New York: Broadway Book, 1991), 80-81. ↩︎
  5. Melina D. Anderson, “Why the Myth of Meritocracy Hurts Kids of Color” The Atlantic, July 27, 2017, ↩︎
  6. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of The Oppressed, (New York: Continuum, 1995), 120. ↩︎

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Volume 6, Issue 05
November 4, 2020