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The unfulfillable promise of meritocracy: Three lessons and their implications for justice in education

Mijs, Jonathan J.B (2016) The unfulfillable promise of meritocracy: Three lessons and their implications for justice in education. Social Justice Research, 29 (1). pp. 14-34. ISSN 0885-7466

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Identification Number: 10.1007/s11211-014-0228-0


This paper draws on a literature in sociology, psychology and economics that has extensively documented the unfulfilled promise of meritocracy in education. I argue that the lesson learned from this literature is threefold: (1) educational institutions in practice significantly distort the ideal meritocratic process; (2) opportunities for merit are themselves determined by non-meritocratic factors; (3) any definition of merit must favor some groups in society while putting others at a disadvantage. Taken together, these conclusions give reason to understand meritocracy not just as an unfulfilled promise, but as an unfulfillable promise. Having problematized meritocracy as an ideal worth striving for, I argue that the pervasiveness of meritocratic policies in education threatens to crowd out as principles of justice, need and equality. As such, it may pose a barrier rather than a route to equality of opportunity. Furthermore, meritocratic discourse legitimates societal inequalities as justly deserved such as when misfortune is understood as personal failure. The paper concludes by setting a research agenda that asks how citizens come to hold meritocratic beliefs; addresses the persistence of (unintended) meritocratic imperfections in schools; analyzes the construction of a legitimizing discourse in educational policy; and investigates how education selects and labels winners and losers.

Item Type: Article
Official URL:
Additional Information: © 2015 Springer Science+Business Media New York
Divisions: International Inequalities Institute
Subjects: L Education > L Education (General)
Date Deposited: 02 Oct 2017 09:38
Last Modified: 18 Jul 2024 03:54

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