Meritocracy and Elitism – Reflections After Listening to the Homonymous Panel at the Segovia Hay Festival (2)


Should the world be run by the most intelligent, the most capable? I understand the attraction of this idea, and I agree it could be ideal, yet there are lots of problems with this question:

Firstly, the most intelligent are not necessarily the most capable.

Secondly (and more personally), as someone who believes in democracy, being ruled by “the most capable” seems problematic because: who decides who is the most capable or the most intelligent? What criteria do we use? If your answer is “Using IQ tests”, I would argue the same as Ms Jalloul: scoring highly on an IQ test does not make somebody fit for leadership, as it is often the case that emotional intelligence and empathy are more important qualities in leaders. And there are many other types of intelligence as well, and what is intelligence anyway? (as asked by Santiago Íñiguez in his article on meritocracy). You might argue, like Mr Wooldridge, that having a higher IQ means you will make more logical, rational decisions. But people do not always want logic, as Mr Íñiguez also mentions in his article. People are not logical beings, and they take other things into account when choosing a leader. Because of this, I still think democracy can work, as the “most capable person” should be decided by everyone, based on their own criteria, even though the choice is sometimes far from ideal (look no further than Boris Johnson).

In terms of how education has an influence on who is in power, I agree with all the panellists that it plays a major role, and that those with the most and best educational opportunities often (obviously) take the ‘best’ roles in society, whether or not their ability matches the role, and whether or not they have worked hard for it. As a general rule, those coming from more privileged backgrounds have more and better educational opportunities than those who do not, and many hard-working and talented people from poorer backgrounds do not get the chance to make progress and develop themselves, which I think is unquestionably unfair (people from more privileged families probably agree too).

So how do we achieve equal opportunities for everybody? I would say that there are different ways (not mutually exclusive) to allow poorer students in this system to have opportunities as good as wealthier ones, but I love Adrian Wooldridge’s idea of creating elite, highly academic schools for poorer students. A big difficulty to do this would be its financing: poorer students cannot pay for a school to have elite teachers and resources. It would surely have to come from a kind of philanthropy, but I think it is not enough.

I do defend more that schools that aim to educate the future ‘elite’, and that currently cater mainly or only to the wealthy, should admit and provide many scholarships to students from less privileged backgrounds who stand out because of their merit (achievements, combination of talent and effort), and balance more and less privileged backgrounds in the classroom, as poorer students can often feel left out or alienated if they feel that they come from a different reality from the rest of their classmates. The system would evolve to ideally becoming one in which educational institutions solely consider students based on merit, and not surname or previous schools, and underprivileged students can afford the same education as wealthier peers.

Would this not eventually become a new elitist system? It could, unfortunately, and I see no perfect way to correct it. Personally, I believe that it is unavoidable that those at the top (academically, socially, politically, …) will start forming their own elite, perhaps stopping others from doing the same, and thus complete meritocracy is not achievable. However, I do not think we should discard it. I believe complete meritocracy is a utopia, an ideal which we must always try to get closer and closer to, constantly, as it is striving to make the world fairer and better for all.

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