Meritocracy – bedeviled by definitions

Have you ever had a word where your definition works for you and based on that you seem to be in conflict with every other definition of the word? And you don’t want to give up yours because you like it but then you have to recalibrate your brain every time the subject comes up? You might not even have a perfect I-can-write-it-out-on-a-piece-of-paper thing but sort of like the carpenter test (I don’t need to be a carpenter to know if my table is level) you know it when you see it? Meritocracy is one of those for me. I see it in a fair number of articles and books; just this year I read Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. I was pretty unsatisfied with the read but more because in my head meritocracy is so different. If I had accepted the author’s starting point and followed through I think the read probably would have hung together better. That is on me, not the author. I don’t think I’ll probably reread it for the sake of checking.

Meritocracy is one of those notions that I think that sounds sensible and as long as we don’t get into the murk of defining and determining merit we can all nod our heads about. Moreover, I think at the squishy undefined level it may be an important national myth or at least part of the fabric of our national myths.

It seems a shame to step away from that level. When you do it all falls apart pretty quickly.
Wikipedia has a variety of cuts at the definition. There are enough to where you can kind of find something for anyone.
Merriam Webster is concise:
1: a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement
2: leadership selected on the basis of intellectual criteria

Part of my original intent I suppose was to pick through some of the definitional stuff and poke holes -> Education as test of merit – really? – how is my merit demonstrated by having smart parents that had the money and will to get me through X brand college and provided me with the network that will likely get me wherever I’m going? Poking holes seems easy enough to do on your own.

What I’m more interested in is grappling with the notion I associate with meritocracy and once some of that is on paper then trying to figure out better schemes for identifying it. As a first stroke, one piece of the notion I have is work ethic versus ambition. I’m pretty sure work ethic is in the notion but, while not completely excluding it, I don’t think ambition is. Humility seems to be in there somewhere. Willing to walk away if something isn’t right. Shirt off your back friends at every level. Ignorance or a seeking form of intelligence.

Something to noodle on.


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