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Sociology of Merit I


The concept of merit is in very common use these days. It is central to the way we think of excellence in education and also to much of the debate on the issue of reservations. Most people, however, treat the concept of merit in too simple a manner: a students who tops a given exam is said to have merit and the others do not. Sociologists of education, however, think quite differently about it. Things are not as simple as they seem.

To begin with, it is now quite well accepted by social scientists that all humans are born equal. If you leave aside a very few extreme cases, most people are born with an equal capacity to achieve very high levels of excellence. If people are given lots of encouragement, set high goals to aspire to, and given enough resources, most people can do very well indeed.

The basic problem then is that of why all are born equal, but become unequal in later life. If all are born equal (more or less) then why is it that only some students get admission into an IIT every year? In every class there are some students who always do better than others. What is one to make of this? The popular answer is that only a few have merit, but like many popular answers, it hides more than it reveals.

Racists would say that differences in abilities are due to the differences between races. There are indeed some minor biological differences among different communities and also between men and women. However, biological advantages need supportive environments to get “turned on” and also in how well developed those advantages become. The environment seems to play a much larger role than biology. Further, biological advantages are usually only in the realm of one out of the many kinds of attributes needed to become say, a great cricketer. To become Sachin Tendulkar, for instance, apart from being born with a superb muscular coordination, one also needs dedication, regularity, strategic understanding of the game, a mastery of tactical options, the ability to ignore empty criticisms and sheer raw courage. All these other qualities are learnt by human beings as they grow up in society and go through a variety of experiences. Biology is best seen as the platform on which society and culture act. It is not decisive in itself.

A more accurate answer is that all are born with an approximately equal capacity to learn, but differences in social environments lead to that being converted into different kinds of abilities. Exams are set up to identify some (not all) of those abilities. Merit, then, is not what it seems – it is not a quality possessed by an individual alone. It is also the product of what kind of community one comes from and of the history of that community. The differences which have been created by history are of great importance. Of course, the individual will is quite important - the will to push oneself, to work hard, to work in a planned and selective manner. But that will, too, is being expressed through a historically created medium. Regularity in sitting at one place and applying oneself to books, for instance, is a quality more easily found in communities that have a culture of studying sacred books. It is not so easily found in communities that do not read anything and may celebrate their religion only through song and dance, or may have been historically banned from access to reading. Of course, given the right environment, regularity in studying books is quickly learnt. But it should not be forgotten that all individuals live their lives through a web of cultural and social influences. Some threads in that web hold us back and some threads can pull us forward.

A major contribution of the sociology of education has been in revealing in detail how our social environment influences merit. The most basic way is through economic and political inequality. About a third of our population still lives a precarious, hand to mouth existence. They have little access to economic resources and are routinely ignored by political formations. Living in desperate circumstances, they have to struggle to come to school and then to keep coming regularly. They fight against terrible odds to convert their talent and capacity into merit. How severe the odds are can be seen by the fact that the proportion of young people who are in the relevant age group and can actually make it up to the class XII examination is in the order of 15%. So when one looks at entrance exams to various vocational courses, it is important to realize that roughly 85% of India is not even getting the chance to apply, what to talk of living up to its fullest potential. It may not be wrong to argue that the biggest enemy of merit in India is inequality.

The obstacles created by poverty and inequality to the fuller expression of one's abilities and talents have been well studied. For one thing, even government schools are not really free. A recent study by a team of scholars lead by Santosh Mehrotra of the UNDP revealed how high were the out-of-pocket costs of schooling for the poorest income slab of rural India. Varying across different states, they were equivalent to at least several days' wages for the poorest of the poor. And this was only at the primary school level. To this must be added the opportunity costs of sending away to school hands that could have taken care of younger siblings when the adults went out to scratch a living and so on. As several studies have pointed out, when a family looks around at the probable future a child will have after finishing class V, then it often has to take difficult decisions. The first to lose out are girls and the children of those castes which have historically been discriminated against.

The ability to acquire merit is further denied by the problem of getting physical access to schools. The simple fact of how far one has to walk to get to a school acts as a severe filter against several crores of children. Again, after primary school one has to go to middle school. We have in our country roughly one-third as many middle schools as we have primary schools. Our country's bravest soldiers, our village primary school teachers, have a thumb rule - if the middle school is not in the same village as the primary school, then the number of their beloved pupils who will continue with their studies will simply get halved. And no prizes for guessing who drops out first – girl children and castes with lesser resources. This process is repeated again when these children have to move to high school and to senior secondary school.

We can better understand the implications of such processes deciding who is able to acquire “merit” and who is not, by taking up the example of say, Amartya Sen. He was born to scholarly parents and had the great fortune of being brought up at one of our finest educational institutions – Shanti Niketan. Of course he is a remarkable person, with extraordinary clarity of thought and determination of purpose. But it was simply a matter of chance that he was born where he was. Remember that today only about one out of eight Indians is even able to finish class XII. Do you think Professor Sen would have been able to repeat his successes if he were to be born again in today's India. I think Professor Sen would himself say that the odds are greatly against it.

There is much more to the denial of talent and the shaping of merit in our country. The social environment operates on merit in complex and subtle ways. One of the least understood and yet very important factors is that of culture: the culture of a community and the culture of the school. We shall discuss that in the next installment of this article.