The Internet Is Not A Meritocracy, That’s Why You Hate It


Recently, I had a discussion with a student about social media, and the fact that I usually start off a comment on a blog with “great post!”  She noted two things:  First, that it rang false to her initially, making her wonder if I even read the posts people write; and second, that despite this initial impression she found herself commenting anyway.  So let me define what a great post is.

A great post is one that captures your interest and keeps the thoughtful discourse going.

Now many of my academic readers are going to vehemently disagree.  They may disagree with this blog post entirely, and you know what?  If they comment on it, I’ll publish the comment.  Because the comment keeps the discourse going.

Also recently, I was explaining my pedagogy to colleagues who were questioning my choice to assign a whole-class group assignment for 25% of the student grade.  The concern was that by giving the class a grade as a whole I would run the risk of grade inflation.  This is a real concern for many of my peers in academia and I respect that, and as someone who believes in collaboration I intend to balance advocating for my pedagogical view with integrating the group’s discerning comments and suggestions.  In my blog however, let me share my unbridled opinion on this.

I don’t care about grade inflation.

Really, I don’t.  I went to a graduate school which didn’t have grades, but had plenty of intellectual rigor.  I am more concerned with everyone having a chance to think and discuss than ranking everyone in order.  That is my bias, and that is one reason I like the internet so much.

The old model of education is a meritocracy, which according to OED is:

Government or the holding of power by people chosen on the basis of merit (as opposed to wealth, social class, etc.); a society governed by such people or in which such people hold power; a ruling, powerful, or influential class of educated or able people.


I think that Education 2.0 has many of us rethinking this.  Many of our students were indoctrinated into that view of education that is decidedly meritocratic.  I suspect this was part of what was behind my student’s skepticism about “great post!”  My role as an educator in a meritocracy is to evaluate the merit of these comments and ideas, rank them and award high praise only to those which truly deserve it.  By great posting everything I demean student endeavors.

One of my colleagues Katie McKinnis-Dietrich frequently talks about “finding the A in the student.”  This interests me more than the finite game of grading.  Don’t get me wrong, I do offer students choices about how to earn highest marks in our work together, I do require things of them; but I try hard to focus more on the content and discourse rather than grades.

I frequently hear from internet curmudgeons that the internet is dumbing down the conversation.  The internet isn’t dumbing down the conversation:  The internet is widening it.  Just as post-Gutenberg society allowed literacy to become part of the general population, Web 2.0 has allowed more and more human beings to have access to the marketplace of ideas.  We are at an historic point in the marketplace of ideas, where more intellectual wares are being bought and sold.  More discernment is certainly required, but the democratization of the internet has also revealed the internalized academic privilege we often take for granted.  Every ivory tower now has WiFi, and so we can experience more incidents of our sneering at someone’s grammar and picking apart their spelling.  What is revealed is not just the poor grammar and spelling of the other, but our own meritocratic tendencies.

Detractors will pointedly ask me if I would undergo surgery performed by someone who had never been to medical school, and I will readily admit that I will not.  But how can we reconcile that with the story of Jack Andraka, a 15 year-old who with no formal training in medicine created a test for pancreatic cancer that is 100 Times More Sensitive & 26,000 Times Cheaper than Current Tests.  In fact, if you listen to his TED talk, Jack implicitly tells the story of how only one of the many universities he contacted took him seriously enough to help him take this discovery to the next level.  Meritocracy in this case slowed down the process of early intervention with pancreatic cancer.  One side of this story is that this test will save countless lives; the darker side is how many lives were lost because the meritocracy refused to believe that someone who hadn’t been educated in the Scholastic tradition could have a real good idea.

I am urgently concerned with moving education further in the direction of democracy and innovation.  Any post that gets me thinking and interacting thoughtfully with others is a great post.  On a good day I remember this.

But like many academics and therapists and educators and human beings brought up in a meritocracy, I have my bad days.  Like many of you, I fear becoming irrelevant.  I resist change, whether it be the latest iOS or social mores.  Last night I caught myself reprimanding (internally) the guy wearing a baseball cap to dinner in the restaurant I was in.

We still live in a world where only students with “special needs” have individualized education plans– quite frankly, I think that everyone should have an individualized education plan.  I think our days of A’s being important are numbered.  There are too many “A students” unemployed or underemployed, too many untenured professors per slot to give the same level of privilege in our educational meritocracy.  Digital literacy is the new frontier, and I hope our goal is going to be maximizing the human potential of everyone for everyone’s sake.  Yes this is a populist vision, I think the educational “shining city on the hill” needs to be a TARDIS, with room for the inclusion of all.  I also think that those of us who have benefited from scholastic privilege will not give this privilege up easily.  We desperately want to remain relevant.

I know it is risky business putting this out in the world where my colleagues could see it.  I know this will diminish my academic standing in the eyes of many.  I know my students may read it and co-opt my argument to try to persuade me to give the highest grade.  But if I believe in discourse and collaboration I’ll have to endure that and walk the walk.

I’m not saying that every idea is a good one.  What I am saying, what I believe that has changed my life for the better is something I find more humbling and amazing about the human being:  Not every idea is a good one, but anyone, anyone at all, can have a good idea.

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  1. Great post Mike, I always look forward to seen your posts in my email, because you do challenge me, which keeps my retired brain a bit nimble, and has an impact on my 14 and 9 year old kids.

  2. I see this in my practice daily, where ideas are downplayed because the kids that are our clients are not suitable to have such ideas….I mean, they’re only kids, and broken at that. Such an emphasis is placed on what society typically thinks of as a successful life, and many of my clients are totally opposed to this idea. They want to be happy and have purpose. Yes, they want to work, yes they want to have families, yes most want to finish school and go on to college and bigger and better things. But this push to conform to traditional societal norms of yesteryear is forcing them into a box which they never chose to be in. Many of the kids I work with have been beaten, bullied, and abandoned by most people they have connections to in their life, and they don’t want a part of that. I have been asked more times than I can count, “what does my age (or education) matter? It doesn’t mean I can’t be right or have my own idea of where I want to go in life!” (this obviously paraphrased).

    As a therapist working with the next generation from mine, I find myself easily finding the differences in norms and values that I grew up with. I find myself both pulled to and resisting their drive to be something different than what others want them to be. This meritocracy goes far beyond the grade, but in life, falling in to what is expected and commonly seen as “success”. To have a more educated and older person making decisions on what “should be” in your life seems like something I’d even rail against. It’s not hard to see why they do too.

  3. Great post! Of course, there is no meritocracy. It’s an illusion to begin with – another social construct we use to organize ourselves. And not a very useful one at that because it pretends that the inherently subjective merit is actually objective and therefore true. Once something is objectively true it’s hard to change. So here’s to change and the effort to always bring it about.

  4. Paul W Anderson, PhD says

    A great post means what? Probably something different to each reader. I will log this post in as “Great” because it stimulates my thinking.

    Having said that, I think Mike, you tried to cover too many ideas in one post. I’m still back there on thinking about what a meritocracy is and you have gone on and touched on four more ideas. So, to be over-stimulated does not in my mind rate as great.

    I would put “Grading” and “Education” or “Elucidation or drawing out of a person’s individuation” in two separate classes. Once we put those two together in a venue of learning, we lost sight of what growth and development is all about. It got worse when we attached so called education to jobs, careers and money.

    I “hate” the internet because it is first and foremost about money. I do like your title which shows you too have learned something along the way that helps you use the internet to your own gain. Nothing wrong with that.

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