The Myth of Meritocracy
By Irene Sanchez
The scandal Operation Varsity Blues has many talking about corruption in higher education recently, but it exposes something many of us already knew was there. The unchecked privilege reserved for the wealthy of this country is nothing new. There are front doors many of them walk through such as getting added points on their child’s applications due to being legacy admits or their parents and/or family members making donations that basically purchase a spot for their child. These are all deemed as “acceptable”. This is not acceptable though.
These practices to gain admission colleges/universities are nothing new, but what is shocking is the extent the rich will go to protect more often than not the privilege that tells them that as rich (mostly) white they are entitled to even lie and cheat to to get whatever it is they want. Many arent shocked by the extent to which the the rich have often got away with other more “legitimate” scandals in education such as legacy admissions, private schools, and segregation, but when it comes to photoshopping their child’s face to show off their supposed altheticism, well people aren’t standing for that. There’s more we shouldn’t be standing for though.
The higher education system in the U.S. caters to the rich white elite and this scandal is further proof of the lengths upon which the rich will go to protect their standing in society. Their children are treated as reflections of them. Their children can mess up and are taught nothing that money and privilege can’t fix, even grades, test scores, sometimes other criminal behavior. If that isn’t enough they can now be made into award winning athletes worthy of sports scholarships.
The general US population has been forced to believe in the Myth of Meritocracy by these same elite higher education institutions and those who uphold them, but we must remember their origins. We have to remember the origins of these institutions and how they are tiered for a reason. Education is seen as a great equalizer and foundational to this so-called democracy, but how can any of this be democratic when the system is inherently racist and unequal to begin with?
Over my lunch break yesterday, a student asked me why don’t these students just go to community college and transfer? She laughed and I did too knowing full well which colleges and universities were made for what purpose and for who they were meant to serve. It made me upset that for many of my students and when I think back to myself, we aren’t allowed to dream or even imagine more than going to a community college. Some of the students I teach doubt they can even get to a community college, yes they’re open access, yes they’re cheaper, yes there is financial aid for many students, but it takes more than that to navigate. I know because it took me five years to get out of one.
There was a point when the rich and elite saw more community college students transferring, and they increasingly made their admissions harder, some now hardly accepting transfer students at all. Many studies have now shown that community college students when they transfer will actually out perform students who entered as freshmen. I can’t offer you a specific explanation on why that is so, but I can tell you, as a student of color, to have the world doubting you, especially if you’re coming from a place where no one thought you’d make it, well it’s a long climb and constantly feeling like you have to prove yourself.
Proving yourself, many of us have stories, where we were assumed to be affirmative action admits, even if affirmative action wasn’t allowed like in California, 2005, I was visiting an family member and her white friend from high school was present. My aunt (who married one of my dads brothers) was proud I transferred to UC Santa Cruz and told her friend. Her friend looked at me in disgust and said oh you only got in because of your last name and went on and on about her son was a veteran and couldn’t get in hardly anywhere. Somehow it became my fault (given her son didn’t even apply to UCSC).
Now fast forward and there’s many stories I have on the road to a Ph.D. Sometimes that doubt deeming my presence illegitimate was cast on me by members of my own community for simply being in the same position as them. A Ph.D. Student? She’s not academic enough? Someone must have made a mistake…Even after getting a Ph.D. I walk through a world daily where my credentials are suspect as is my intelligence and my entire being as a high school teacher. Even though I have a Ph.D. this whole year another teacher has rambled how I’m unqualified.
Then something like this happens. Does it confirm what many of us knew? Perhaps, but it also points to the fact that we already know the system wasn’t made for us.
Meritocracy is a myth. I think deep down, the rich white elite in this country know this, but they fight to keep this myth of Meritocracy alive to legitimize their wealth and maintain power over the rest of us. They do it through shaming the poor/working class for not working “hard enough” to improve their conditions, when they’re the ones who created and maintain them.
We don’t win by upholding the same ideas they’ve used to oppress us.
It’s time we reject them completely.
Published by Irene Sanchez
Xicana. Mama. Public Scholar. Poet. Writer. Ph.D.
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