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Sociology of Merit II


The Sociology of Merit - II


Merit and Culture


It would be correct to say that the biggest factor in deciding who gets “merit” and who does not lies in the nature of the social structure. Individuals located in certain parts of the social structure must swim against severe odds. The most obvious way by which the social structure affects merit in India is through the lack of access to schools and the inability of the poor to send their children regularly to class. Then there is a further pruning done by the poor functioning of the schools which many millions attend. I have previously referred to the fact that only somewhere around 15% of our youth manage to make it up to class XII. But apart from the above, there also occurs a less visible, but equally insidious process of filtration within those who do come to school. This occurs through the domain of culture, for instance, the different values attached by teachers and schools to the ways of different communities and classes.


The concept of culture has for long been central to sociology and anthropology. It commonly refers to the various beliefs, values, practices and other symbolic behaviours that human beings learn as they grow up. Earlier it was thought that different communities have different cultures. Now it is clear that cultures are not like watertight compartments. Differences between communities are more in terms of degrees of emphasis in their cultural traits rather than in basic, fundamental divides. However, the importance of culture cannot be overstated. All the joys and sorrows, jokes and jibes of our lives are formulated and practiced through cultural, symbolic processes. They are all the more effective for often being just below the level of our consciousness. Teachers, after a few years, hardly notice how a student greets them as they pass but let someone say just one word with a slightly different tone and the entire meaning of the student-teacher relationship immediately changes.


With the coming of independence in India, equality became an officially accepted principle of our national culture and our education system. Schools in India were seen as a great example of the open society which we were striving to become. The formal rules of this institution are such that ability and achievement are stressed rather than the social group within which one is born. However sociologists have revealed how, in schools and classrooms, cultures became a very effective ground for invisibly influencing selection and discrimination. They still are quite effective in deciding who will eventually be declared meritorious and who will not. Many of the processes seen in this are such that even the teachers are barely conscious of them.


In our apparently open and achievement-based schools, the most common cultural process of discrimination rests on the basic cultural premise of the caste system: that people are basically different from each other and some are higher and others are lower. This is acted out in how most primary school-teachers, for instance, when dealing with an active and raucous group of children, quickly divide them into two mental groups – the good children and the bad children. Supportive and encouraging attention is given to the good, while it is thought that the bad only deserve to be controlled sharply and periodically told that they are of little worth and need to improve themselves. Thus is expressed the principle of hierarchy, which is typical of caste systems. The consequence of this is that differences which appear in early years get amplified and continue to leave their scar for the rest of one's school life. Our behaviour here is sharply different from the way school classrooms get organized in less unequal societies. A society where egalitarianism is taken more seriously, UK, for instance, emphasizes that all students have the capacity to do very well and teachers are encouraged to pay special attention to those who are not doing well, just the reverse of the Indian practice.


The basis of defining good and bad students itself reveals further cultural prejudices. Students who accept power quickly and sit submissively quickly get positive vibes from teachers. Learning the alphabet and textbook-oriented knowledges is valued much more than, say, being good at articulation or at games or making things with one's hands. Students who participate enthusiastically in the latter kinds of activities are soon labelled as noisy and boisterous. The support which young children get from their homes predisposes which kinds of activities they would be more comfortable with. Family background and caste thus has a clear presence in the apparently open and merit-based school.


Students who are dressed neatly and practice etiquettes closer to the cultural ways of the teachers are known to get greater approval and support. Proficiency in reading is closely associated with opportunity to read at home and those who lag behind at school get only discouragement and stigmas. This is accentuated further in the divide between the official language of the school and the different languages spoken at home. The sharpest influence of this is seen in tribal households. Similarly, those with little opportunity to practice arithmetic skills at home don't do as well in school, too. Culture and family, the basic building blocks of caste, play an important role in the selection processes seen in school.


The ability to sustain boredom for long periods of time is an essential resource for doing well in schools. It is necessary to be able to sit quietly through droning lectures, hour after hour and to still focus on what the teacher is saying. Children from assertive, active and confident backgrounds will be more reluctant to do so. This often means that children from farming, animal-rearing and artisan communities get declared as poor learners and non-studious. In situations of bad and painful teaching, a culture of fearing and revering teachers becomes an asset to survive schools. 


Families with a history of prioritizing book-based learning tend to do much better in schools than families with different histories. Researchers across the world have pointed out that children should not be forced to write before the age of 5 – 6. Before this age their hand muscles are not developed enough to be hold writing instruments properly and may ache and pain. In our country, we expect children as young as 3 to write the alphabet. Schools which do not give such homework to 3-4 year olds are considered inferior and incompetent. Certain kinds of families and castes tend to be more willing to push and bully their children into doing their homework and the rest of the children are told that they are bad.


Culture, then, not only decides who gets merit, but also decides what is merit. The practices which lead to selection may not be useful or correct in themselves, but still may become the basis of differentiation into the meritorious and the non-meritorious.


It is now well known that many students who become engineers have little love for engineering. The selection system, the way merit is defined, is tilted in favour of certain knowledges and not others. Those students who do well in bookish maths, physics and chemistry easily get selected for such courses. However, students from families which predispose them to working with their hands, to designing and making physical objects, to playing with shapes and forms, cannot be said to have no knowledge assets. Yet, their knowledges and cultures get no weightage in the way engineering colleges define merit. The definition of merit, then, also gets influenced by a variety of extraneous factors.


It is often assumed that merit is a personal quality. That a student has merit and enjoys it because of purely personal efforts and abilities. Of course, hard work and individual efforts are very important. But to see this as a purely personal quality and with no link to one's social background is not a correct picture. Merit has a very strong social dimension to it. It is humbling to realize how much one's family and the kind of position one's community has held within our society contributes to one's apparent merit.

But there is another humbling dimension to merit, too. Which has to do with the ways by which its defining features get chosen. Certain cultures take up greater importance than others in deciding what is merit, without necessarily being any better. This is an expression of the unequal structure of society itself. The greatest aid for an unjust society comes when those at the bottom believe that they deserve to be at the bottom. And when those at the top believe they deserve to be at the top. The sociology of culture and merit exposes the mistaken character of this belief. 

Amman Madan