I overheard this argument long back that has stuck through with me.
“It has been about 60 years that you guys have had reservations. It is unfair. We are poor too. I think it should now rest on merit and economic status. The deserving and the poor should get the fruits of reservation. Not rich people.”
To which I heard the following response.
“An even fairer solution would be this. For 2000 years, let the upper castes be treated as we have been treated. At the end of the term, we’ll give a 60-year reservation policy. And then let it be a merit-based system.”
At first glance, this straightforward reversal of conditions sounds so ridiculous that the response is to laugh and not think about it deeper.
You might have already noticed that the storyline almost remains the same. We are forced to come back and analyze these time and again.
Merit is cumulative.
What does that mean?
It means, what we call merit, depends on opportunity, on exposure, and on the social environment.
Contrast an upwardly middle-class family to that of one who is below the poverty line.
A child in the former setting has real mentors. A child’s parent buys them a book. She sees children in her circle pursuing dancing, singing, traveling and reading. The parents understand and push for access to better schooling and other skills they deem important to succeed in life. Some parents do not even know what education is for, and yet they find themselves in the thick of things, just by virtue of being in the right circle, in the right time. What the parents and children are told as important is being lived and borne out in their real world. You actually see social mobility in real life.
Can we really be surprised that such a kid fares better when she competes with a child from the lower strata of the society, who does not have the same opportunities?
Someone whose morning and evening routine includes having to deal with household chores, whose parents do not have the wherewithal to expose their children to the kind of world that are being internalized by the other more privileged children? Wouldn’t their everyday struggle limit their ability to fully focus on, even in their limited ability, how to better groom their children for success? These are children do not have real life examples. Their uncles and aunts are not successful. Their leisure talks are not about art and literature. Their pens and study things are not carefully engineered to combine “work and play”.
They approach education with too much to lose, a last gasp effort to make it out of their worlds and with an awareness that they are are the “have-nots” competing with the “haves”. That they already have fallen behind in the race before the race has even begun.
In every way just by dint of having been born in a certain section of the society, a child is exposed to qualities, discussions, opportunities, and grooming that the world calls meritorious.
Also, merit is not just education. Merit is how well the person is able to accomplish and exhibit their chosen interest.
I recently asked someone who subscribed to the merit argument.
“Do you think merit is uniformly distributed? Don’t you think different people’s lives are what shapes to the largest extent their merit?”
to which I received a response
“So? I do not want substandard lawyers and doctors in my country”
I tried explaining to her that even recently, this was exactly the argument used to keep Indians out of the British civil service. When the Indian Civil Serice was started, the British overwhelmingly scored well. It was easy. The exam was in London. The Indians couldn’t compete even if the exam was meant for “all races”. A series of concessions were made to include “substandard” Indians into the ranks. The operative principle being that people cannot be scored on the same lines if they weren’t being exposed to the same testing principles.
These are just examples, set pieces, that I prop up to help explain the problem.
What I hope gets to be acknowledged is that merit is not inherent in people, it is inherited. The argument of meritocracy doesn’t hold if one does not understand how privilege affects merit.
If you look at this argument for merit, you could come to the conclusion that merit is classism. Not casteism. The richer someone is, the more meritorious they can become.
Not surprisingly, this leads to the fundamental questions,
- Is wealth accumulated within certain sections of the society?
- Is wealth distributed equally within the many sections of society?
- Even among the rich, and even within the poor, is everyone treated equally?, and
- Does it become easier to accumulate wealth if you have power?
The answers to these questions tell you that caste determines class. And even within those small pockets where class parity is achieved, social discrimination exists.
It is a slow build up to a large problem.
But hopefully it will strike us that the statement “Let them take the test” sounds exactly like the hyperbolic “Let them eat cake”, where we assume everyone has the same resources and priorities.
Merit, is cumulative.