Our Republican education system is based solely on the virtue of merit. After the abolition of privileges as a result of the French Revolution, inequalities could no longer be legitimized by birth. They were therefore justified by talent and individual effort. A social fiction has gradually imposed itself: Those who succeed have worked better than those who fail. Here the ideological horizon is repeated for all generations of school children. How the philosopher Hannah Arendt defines “meritocracy”: the constitution of an oligarchy based “no longer on wealth or birth, but on abilities” (Education crisis). To illustrate this ideal, Arendt takes the example of the British education model of the 1950s, in which students at the age of 11 go to an exam which “only about ten percent of the students are able to continue their studies”.
Self-separation, inequalities, ghettoization: study of the great breach of the French school
Without going back to such a strict model, we now discover the temptation to thwart the massification of the system by returning a selection at all school levels. Some on the right suggest returning the school certificate. Others want earlier guidance for the less academically gifted students.
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But what is the real merit when the selection takes place? Do we really distinguish between “gifted” and “ungifted” children, as Arendt claims? The whole point of meritocracy is there: In order for selection to be legitimate, it must be based solely on individual merits, by eliminating extracurricular factors that are particularly linked to the environment of origin. But we know that in France, these factors are crucial to student success.
Thus, the 2018 Pisa survey of 15-year-olds taught us that in France, 20% of favored students are among the best in reading comprehension compared to 2% of disadvantaged students. The difference is 4 points higher on average compared to other OECD countries.
The weight of social reproduction does not wait for adolescence. It is massive from an early age, so the school system seems to be content to reward the fact of being born into a privileged environment. Now, what space is there for profit when fate is at stake “in the cradle” (Camille Peugny)? Would it not be wiser to forget this illusory myth? Maybe it’s impossible to give it up completely. In any case, it is necessary to limit the effects. Instead of returning to old hierarchies, we should be inspired by authentic humanistic and emancipatory thoughts to open up new educational paths.
Should meritocracy be saved? (1/3) “Social separatism is built first in our schools”
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Thus we find in Hegel (Speech of September 2, 1811) a reflection on the pedagogical assessment of an astonishing modernity. The one who lags behind in school, says the philosopher, always has in front of him “the possibility of improvement”, “the possibility that he has not yet found his own interest”nor “the time when this interest flourishes with him”. The education system must never lose sight of the fact that young people are being created and that nothing in them is final. Thereby, “The judgment which the school pronounces, therefore, can be no more finished than man is finished in it.” That is why, he adds, the government of his time ordered it “Students’ grades are not published”and “that it is not up to these judgments to exercise the slightest immediate influence on the subsequent destination of life and future position in the political organization”. Far from the meritocratic illusion, Hegel promotes an education that forms without limiting, that notes without devaluing, that leads without manpower.
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At a time when our Ministry of National Education is launching in the race for permanent evaluation and general competition, here is a compass for those striving for a resolute emancipatory education.
Every week in turn, philosophy professor Saïd Benmouffok and lawyer and political scientist Beligh Nabli tell the cultural struggle.