Meritocracy and the Age of Reason

I am watching Alain De Botton's Status Anxiety. It's fascinating, saddening and gives me hope for my own personal wanderings through life all at the same time. One of the central threads is the change of our western world from aristocracy to meritocracy. It would seem to be something we would want without question, and after living in India, where a caste system still bubbles under the surface so darkly, I don't doubt that we do want it, but at last after watching his documentary, I am finally beginning to understand many of the reasons we are so uneasy with our modern freedoms.


1. an elite group of people whose progress is based on ability and talent rather than on class privilege or wealth.
2. a system in which such persons are rewarded and advanced.

As Alain points out, this has to logically mean if those with ability are rewarded, those with a lack of ability must therefore be punished. If we all feel we can achieve whatever we want - that ideal of reaching the top of the ladder or the great American Dream (wherever we are) based on hard work and skill and ability, what does it mean when we fail? That is why the richest people in the richest nations are so unwilling to give - because they feel those who are at the bottom have not worked hard enough and have somehow deserved their lot in life. Just look at the fight over health care in the US.

I am not going to paraphrase everything De Botton said as he puts it much more concisely than I could, but there are definitely problems with a society based on limitless ideals of success based only on (for most of us) unattainable goals. Maybe we should be rewarding people for their striving rather than their outcomes, telling the garbage man that he is really important and we couldn't do without him, paying him well so he doesn't feel worthless or endlessly wish for something 'better', and can concentrate on more meaningful things in life. After all, *someone* will always have to be the garbage man.

Totally unrelated to all this, I have been noticing that a great amount of the major scientific discoveries (geology, chemistry and physics etc) during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries came about mostly because of young and independently wealthy men (no women of course - not until Marie Curie perhaps!). Obviously the average person back then was just trying to feed their family, and keep both the ruling class and the church happy so there wasn't much time or money to get an education or think about anything else. It's no surprise that the rich were the ones with the time, money and ability to indulge in science and philosophy. Regardless of these socio-political undercurrents, we have reaped the rewards from their amazing insights and moments of sheer brilliance. It is quite incredible to read the tales of their discoveries - many concepts which were, at the time, considered almost heretical. Deciphering the age of the Earth, the edge of the Universe, the structure of an atom, or the theory of the natural selection.

Changing from an aristocratic to a meritocratic society has brought change to the scientific world too. Corporations decide what field is worthy of research - big business dictates much of scientific discovery. At universities, scientists have to fight for grant money, hoping that their field of study is deemed worthy. Perhaps even bring fame and glory (and money).

Even with these challenges, most of what we do know about our universe both macro and micro has been discovered in recent years. We know so much more than we did, and just enough to realise we know hardly anything yet. If only the money spent on defense was put into research imagine what a world of discovery this could be.

Our modern world is certainly not short of fabulously wealthy individuals (just like the brilliant minds of the past) what of them? It seems to me they are mostly the Donald Trump's and (gasp) Paris Hilton's of the world. Not exactly the most educated, or likely to come up with ideas that could change knowledge of life on this planet, are they? But, you could say they are living examples of success as defined by meritocracy, are they not? I admit that thought depresses me. I think I'll hang my hat of hope on people like Alain De Botton, also born into wealth but who chooses instead to ask questions about life and how we lead it, and lives only off the proceeds of his own writings. Otherwise, it's really up to us anyway.



11/18/09, 1:57 AM

All those discoveries you mention were made in an age where science was ascending. Science was the key to enlightenment, and many wealthy, educated and bored young men pursued it as an intellectual game. At the time, however, there were also wealthy, educated and bored men and women who embraced pseudoscience too- especially in the late 1800's.

I think the pendulum of intellect swings both ways- Look at the dark ages.


11/19/09, 12:07 PM

For sure Steve, definitely true. That's what amazes me about the people who actually did come up with so many great scientific discoveries (and philosophies). In those times, the establishment was much less likely to accept their ideas than now... so I doff my cap humbly to them.

Sometimes it feels like we're playing with another dark age doesn't it ;) Just watch Dawkin's Root of All Evil... gulp...


1/5/10, 8:53 PM

We remember the rich toffs who had the time as you point out to indulge in doing science and coming up with fantastic discoveries, but it ignores all the (likely more numerous) rich toffs who were spending their time and effort trying to get gold from lead, or figure out which faeries were responsible for the invisible ether around us, or what airborne diseases was causing cholera as he drank that filthy glass of water... then I guess Darwin's law comes into play and they remove themselves from society one way or the other :)


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