Do You Live In A Meritocracy?

by | Apr 8, 2007

photo courtesy of Flickr user, Suw Charman

Danah Boyd is a smart lady with fabulous hats. She is a PhD candidate at the School of Information (SIMS) at the University of California – Berkeley and a Fellow at the University of Southern California Annenberg Center for Communications. Her dissertation looks at how youth engage with networked publics like MySpace, LiveJournal, Xanga and YouTube. She is interested in how the architectural differences between unmediated and mediated publics affect sociality, identity and culture. Ergo, the following riff on the myth of meritocracy and the unreality of reality TV is her intellectual sweet spot.

American individualism (and self-esteem education) have allowed us to uphold a myth of meritocracy. We sell young people the idea that anyone can succeed, anyone can be president. We ignore the fact that working class kids get working class jobs. This, of course, has been exacerbated in recent years. There used to be meaningful working class labor that young people were excited to be a part of. It was primarily masculine labor and it was rewarded through set hierarchies and unions helped maintain that structure. The unions crumpled in the 1980s and by the time the 1987 recession hit, there was a teenage wasteland No longer were young people being socialized into meaningful working class labor; the only path out was the “lottery” (aka becoming a famous rock star, athlete, etc.).

Since the late 80s, the lottery system has become more magnificent and corporatized. While there’s nothing meritocratic about reality TV or the Spice Girls, the myth of meritocracy remains. Over and over, working class kids tell me that they’re a better singer than anyone on American Idol and that this is why they’re going to get to be on the show. This makes me sigh. Do i burst their bubble by explaining that American Idol is another version of Jerry Springer where hegemonic society can mock wannabes? Or does their dream have value?

As for her rhetorical question at the end, I’m inclined to say all dreams are valuable. However, I don’t think Boyd is talking about dreams, nor even aspirations. She’s talking about delusions that are created by, and daily reinforced by, our media-centric culture.

There is a meritocracy in America. But it’s not sexy. “Success” takes hard work, plus discipline in school and later in the workforce. It requires decades of untold sacrifices, with no hope of wealth nor fame in one’s future. Instead, the struggle toward something like being the best history teacher, city planner, or bus driver one can be, leads to a greater civic good. And with any luck the inner satisfaction of a job well done.

But who is holding up these true American values today? Who is motivating youth to act on them? My hope is lots of great parents, aunts, uncles, coaches, teachers and other mentors who laregely go unheralded.