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Ethics of Meritocracy in Education and The American Dream: “Why I Hate School but Love Education”

By Vanessa Freije
30 Apr 2015
Illustration by Prindle Art Intern Kate Ryan

As a millennial and current college student, I understand the struggle of endless nights in the library, clinging to your coffee, dreaming about sleep, and wondering “what is all of this studying worth?”  While what you are studying is well worth something, what you are studying for (i.e. an exam) may not seem to be. The problem in today’s society is that our intellectual growth is largely measured by exams and grades that are supposed to reveal our academic worth.  Is it possible that we are no longer studying for the pursuit of knowledge, but rather to earn passing marks and receive a degree that ‘qualifies’ us to fulfill a certain career?  Has our education system become so institutionalized that it is now a meritocracy of grades with little regard to the humanity that comes with acquiring new knowledge? If so, what are the moral implications?

YouTuber and Spoken Word artist Suli Breaks spurred my interest in this idea with his videos “Why I Hate School but Love Education” and “American’t Dream.” In the first video, he details the flaws of the current education system by acknowledging the misled emphasis that society places on education – that society says we need an education to get a job, that education equals success, and to become successful you must pass exams.  Breaks argues that education is much richer and satisfying than what society has created it to be, and we should take a step back and examine what a true education is versus what we currently receive in school.

In his second video, Mr. Breaks questions his audience on why they are actually working. He recounts the industrial revolution and how the consequences of advancing technologically have redefined how we work for a living. He recalls, “the industrial revolution was beneficial technologically, but it coerced a lot of people into factories for ridiculous salaries to benefit their families, and that shaped people’s mentalities exponentially, and essentially it became the norm.” Mr. Breaks paints a Marxist criticism of capitalism in today’s society as he urges us to “not become a slave to a paycheck.”  He ultimately defines the “American’t Dream” to represent “the ideal of people striving for success by working an unsatisfactory job, rather than a fulfilling career that feeds into their own success or passion. It propagates that rather than chasing the ‘American Dream’ they are chasing the ‘American’t Dream’ by allowing their own dream to be stifled by another person.”

This notion of grades equating to merit lacks the capability to measure the true potential and talent of an individual. So why do we still use them as standard of merit? It is easy to say that there needs to be some set standard by which we measure merit in order to compare one another. This had led to the development of standardized testing that supposedly puts everyone on an equal playing field. But what happens when those who are playing on this “equal” field are not actually equal? What happens when a student’s GPA or test score does not represent the potential of that individual, simply because of their socioeconomic disadvantages? This is where our system is flawed.  This student becomes automatically denied of a range of opportunities simply because he or she fell short of the standard bar that we set for merit. So then, how does this affect our society and does our society provide a fair place for these people? Will it ever be possible for these people to move up the economic ladder and prevail despite the adversities that social mobility places?

Are we living in an age of the American’t Dream?  Could it be that our society is structured in a way that prevents some from succeeding while giving others the upper hand? If so, is it ethically sound for us to simply be bystanders to this problem? The systematic method we have for marginalizing our youth should not impress blame upon them for what our system has done. It is our prima facie duty to ensure that we, as millennials, put forth the effort to stand up against the cyclical injustice of education, poverty, and lack of social mobility that have resulted from the facade of the American Dream.

Vanessa graduated from DePauw University with an Economics major, and French and Political Science double minor. She worked as a Prindle Intern from 2014-2016. She is from Indianapolis, Indiana.
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