2020 Winner: Haleema Welji

The Myth of Meritocracy




For most of my Duke students, hard work and effort are integral parts of how they talk about their achievements. In fact, the ideology of meritocracy is so ingrained, I saw it motivating not only what my students expected from the class, but in how they thought about students who were not like them--those that lacked the educational privilege of a Duke-caliber student. For example, in discussions about the experiences of immigrants of color in the United States, my students were largely empathetic to the challenges faced in terms of linguistic obstacles, barriers to education, and discrimination. However, students struggled to redefine “success” and merit as anything other than what aligned with their own experiences. Thus I would hear reflections on “those students who are not invested in their education and thus don’t succeed” or comments about how “people need to put in more hard work.” Rather than question how we can engage people in ways in which they feel equally valued, my students defaulted to pushing marginalized populations into the same definitions of success and educational merit that worked for my students; they easily overlooked the privileges that helped them be successful.

According to the New York Times, 69% of Duke students come from the top 20% income earners, meaning that questioning the relationship between privilege and “hard work” is an important topic for discussion. After hearing students who were quite empathetic in many ways, use the ideology of meritocracy to justify their place at Duke and legitimate the exclusion of others, I began to ponder how linguistic anthropology can help students deepen their analytical thinking about equity. I developed “The Myth of Meritocracy” to challenge how my students think about educational equity in order to train the next generation of leaders and educational reformers.

The goal of “The Myth of Meritocracy” is to examine how the ideology of meritocracy is used to perpetuate inequities in the field of education and beyond and how we respond to these inequities. The course uses the lens of linguistic anthropology to teach analysis skills to help students investigate the overt and subtle ways in which the concept of meritocracy justifies, excuses, and creates inequity. We begin the class by modeling the relationship between privilege and meritocracy through activities and case studies. This includes linguistic analysis of interviews and memoirs of “success stories” such as Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, and Venus and Serena Williams. It also includes a modeling activity where students experience first-hand, the relationship between hardwork and access to resources. Students are asked to build a contraption to protect a raw egg dropped onto the sidewalk. However the activity is designed to give each group a different amount of resources, ranging from more than necessary to almost nothing. For those groups with very limited resources, this task is simply impossible. Through these activities students quickly question the relationship between privilege and the “hard work” put into achievements.

After exploring and complicating their understandings of meritocracy, we draw on linguistic anthropological theory and ethnography to examine the experience of students in an inequitable education system. This includes how students from diverse cultural backgrounds struggle to adapt to the “culture” of education, while students who grow up in homes that align with the structure and patterns of schools are rewarded by being prepared for school. Additionally, we discuss how immigrants often face additional exclusion in schools as well and how the ideologies of meritocracy lead them to be blamed for systemic failures. The first unit is paired with a writing assignment in which my students collect and then analyze student voices. After designing a research question and interview methodology, students conduct their own interviews and build arguments about how meritocracy is shaping student experiences. Some topics for the first paper include how discourses around affirmative action use meritocracy to excuse marginalization of some races and classes, or how the procedures of mandatory reporting in academic settings reinforce racial privilege.

In the second half of the course, we look at interventions designed to “correct” inequity, in order to learn critical thinking and linguistic analysis skills that will benefit students in future writing assignments. We practice on a few case studies such as an analysis of early childhood language interventions. We analyze the discourse of meritocracy in programs such as “Thirty Million Words” and “Providence Talks,” both interventions into the “language gap” faced by children in lower-income households and often largely households of color. While the intervention seeks to correct for an unfair system, these programs reinforce deficit discourses and undervalue the benefits of other cultural approaches to education, parent-child interaction, and language socialization and acquisition. Further, the interventions reinforce the dominance of upper middle-class educational models as the only “right” way of learning. My students practice analysis skills by analyzing videos, articles, and policy briefs produced by these programs. They then apply those skills on a paper of their own. For their second major project, students investigate a topic of their choice in order to argue how the ideologies of meritocracy play a role. This entails searching for programs, interventions, or topics of study, conducting original analysis, and contextualizing their paper in a scholarly discussion. Their papers end by reflecting on ideas for change based on what they have learned. Some projects include an analysis of university promotional materials presenting their “welcoming” environment to low income students in contrast to the realities of being a low-income college student; another project examined how initiatives that boost women in leadership empower women but do nothing to change the men or the workplace climate.

The course concludes by looking at how the ideology of meritocracy impacts our own lives. We discuss areas the ideology goes beyond education, such as the legal system (generally thought of as just and fair) and in hiring decisions (especially the recruiting of students to “elite” jobs in investment banking). Throughout the semester, students are eager to discuss solutions. In the final week of the class, we explore some of the ways we can begin to push back at the system and what that means for and at Duke. By reflecting on the role that they too play in perpetuating the myths of meritocracy, the students in the class learn to question and potentially change the inequity that they see at Duke and beyond.

For more information about Trinity College of Arts and Sciences Award for Excellence in Teaching Writing