Michael Young – politician, economist and author of a 1958 novel Rise of the Meritocracy – wrote a letter to The Guardian in 2001, dismayed at then Prime Minister Tony Blair’s positive use of the word ‘meritocracy’.
The Economist describes Young as “a Labour Party grandee whose extraordinary CV included co-writing his party’s 1945 election manifesto and co-founding the Open University”. His novel was an dystopian look at the future which imagined a society in which a narrow type of intelligence was revered above all others, a meritocracy. The predictions in the book have come to pass, and the original meaning of the term he coined forgotten.
“It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others.
Ability of a conventional kind, which used to be distributed between the classes more or less at random, has become much more highly concentrated by the engine of education.
A social revolution has been accomplished by harnessing schools and universities to the task of sieving people according to education’s narrow band of values.
With an amazing battery of certificates and degrees at its disposal, education has put its seal of approval on a minority, and its seal of disapproval on the many who fail to shine from the time they are relegated to the bottom streams at the age of seven or before.
The new class has the means at hand, and largely under its control, by which it reproduces itself.
The more controversial prediction and the warning followed from the historical analysis. I expected that the poor and the disadvantaged would be done down, and in fact they have been. If branded at school they are more vulnerable for later unemployment.
They can easily become demoralised by being looked down on so woundingly by people who have done well for themselves.
It is hard indeed in a society that makes so much of merit to be judged as having none. No underclass has ever been left as morally naked as that.
They have been deprived by educational selection of many of those who would have been their natural leaders, the able spokesmen and spokeswomen from the working class who continued to identify with the class from which they came.”