Thursday, March 23, 2006

The myths of "merit" in information labor?

A new book by Harvard University law professor Lani Guinier entitled "Meritocracy Inc.: How Wealth Became Merit, Class Became Race, and College Education Became a Gift from the Poor to the Rich," argues that "what we're calling individual talent is actually a function of that individual's social position or opportunities gained by virtue of family and ancestry." For Guinier, the notion of "merit" needs to be problematized because, paradoxically, we rely on it as the litmus test for entrance into the one institution which is designed to allow people of different cultural backgrounds, socio-economic power positions, and ideological beliefs to enhance and demonstrate their "merit" by acquiring professional skills, wrestling with complex ideas, and building a record of scholarly achievement: higher education in the form of prestigious public and private colleges and universities. Guinier explains:

I became interested in the 1990s as a result of looking at the performance of women in law school. A student and I became interested in the disparity between the grades that men and women at an Ivy League law school were receiving. Working with Michelle Fein and Jean Belan, we found that male and female students were coming in with basically the same credentials. The minor difference was that the women tended to have entered with slightly higher undergraduate grades and the men with higher LSATs.

The assumption at that time was that incoming credentials predicted how you would perform. Relying on things like the LSAT allowed law school officials to say they were determining admission based on merit. So several colleagues told me to look at the LSAT scores because they were confident that I might find something to explain the significant differences in performance. But we found that, surprisingly, the LSAT was actually a very poor predictor of performance for both men and women, that this "objective" marker which determined who could even gain access was actually not accomplishing its ostensible mandate.

I then became interested in studying meritocracy because of the attacks poor and working class whites were waging against affirmative action. People were arguing that they were rejected from positions because less qualified people of color were taking their spots. I began to question what determines who is qualified. Then, the more research I did, the more I discovered that these so-called markers of merit did not actually correlate with future performance in college but rather correlated more with an applicant's parents' and even grandparents' wealth. Schools were substituting markers of wealth for merit.

One of Guinier's goals in writing this book is to complicate arguments about affirmative action in higher education, showing that while much of the rhetoric is about race-based preference thwarting an idealized "meritocracy," in reality many admissions formulas premised on merit are actually discriminating on the basis of class even before questions of race and ethnicity enter the picture:

Sheryl Hopwood was a white working-class woman who applied to the University of Texas Law School and was denied admission. In 1996, she sued the university for racial discrimination, arguing that less-qualified blacks and Latinos had taken her spot. Thirty-nine years after Central, she sued in the district court and then in the Fifth Circuit and won, but the problem with the court's analysis was that they did not look behind the school's claim that all slots, except for those bestowed through affirmative action, were distributed based on merit.

It actually turns out that the school's own formula for determining merit disadvantaged Sheryl Hopwood. She went to a community college and the University of Texas Law weighted her LSAT scores with those of other applicants from her school and graduating year. Because her community college drew from a working-class population, Hopwood's own LSAT score was negatively weighted. So Hopwood's chance of attending the University of Texas was diminished because of class status not because of her race.

Such systems are reproduced in part because of another information indicator, according to Guinier, since "schools are so committed to the annual issue of U.S. News and World Report that ranks educational institutions according to the their students' standardized test scores." The "merit" of the institution (a problematic measure itself when reduced to a single-number ranking) is drawn not only from the "merit" of its faculty and staff, but from the "merit" of its incoming class. The result, Guinier argues, is that " Education is becoming about providing credentials to obtain high-paying jobs rather than training people for a thriving democracy."

More details of Guinier's book can be found in this interview with the author posted on AlterNet. This whole debate initially struck me as interesting because I'm wrestling with my own professional understanding of how "merit" calculations are devised, defended, and deconstructed at all levels of the university, from awarding student scholarships to recommending faculty raises. The democratic, egalitarian, and open nature of university decision-making paradoxically makes "merit" a more contentious issue than it might be in a more closed or hierarchical or autocratic corporate setting. Yet I, like many of my peers, I imagine, have benefitted from a system where "merit" has in recent history been defined with SAT, ACT, and GRE scores on standardized tests.

But more than this, I feel like this is an opening to ask what might seem to be an obvious question: how in an "information economy," the production and reproduction of "merit" may be -- should be? -- increasingly entwined with the consumption and production of knowledge. In trying to measure and quantify merit, we are processing and valuing information. In trying to define and demonstrate merit, we value the accumulating and manipulating of information. But if different ways of knowing are contradictory or incommensurable -- different epistemologies, worldviews, or definitions of "rationality" itself -- then aren't measures of merit similarly at odds? Can we analyze some of the debates over risk and reward in our society in these terms, alongside terms of (say) class, race, age, and gender?

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