College Admissions and last week’s episode of “Black-ish” made me sit down and question merit and who decides it. This isn’t the first time that I’ve dealt with or talked about the issue of meritocracy in higher education and academia. My master’s thesis was about how students of color sensationalize their pain and race to get access to institutions of higher education based on a tweet I saw by Anthony J. Williams, a sociology Ph.D. student. What has drawn me, and always will draw me, to this topic is that Americans focus a lot of their energy and time on trying to be successful instead of questioning who determined what success looks like.
Last week’s episode of “Black-ish” entitled “justakidfromcompton”, Dre (played by Anthony Anderson) wanted to make sure that his niece got into a prestigious school based on her merit and not on her race or on her backstory. He had received admission to this same prestigious school on what he thought was his own merit. He was later told that he got in because he was poor and Black. This bothered Dre because he felt he had earned his spot, also alluding to the fact that he felt like he was “better” because of it.
Dre said that his belief that he got into school and got a scholarship based on his merit and not his disadvantages made him feel that he could accomplish anything. When he found out that he indeed earned his scholarship because of his disadvantages, he felt like all he had accomplished up until that point was based on a lie. He wanted to climb the ladder of success on his own. Nadirah Foley, a doctoral student in Education at Harvard poses the question that I think we should all be asking about the ladder of success: can we dismantle it?
The ladder of success’ rungs are made up of meritocracy and bootstrap ideology. The problem with this mindset is that meritocracy and bootstrap ideology are both rooted in elitism and meant to exclude people of other backgrounds on the basis of fairness. But fair is not always equal and it is worth questioning who gets to decide what fair is and what it should look like. Structuring education around privilege is a very dangerous thing, especially when education in American society is directly used to separate people into groups or class and exclude people based on their groups and class.
This is the reason why so many people were outraged at the college admissions scandal—it showed people that sometimes hard work and trying your best doesn’t move you up the ladder. Sometimes what moves you up the ladder are two very rich parents and half a million dollars. The college admissions scandal shined a very real light on the admissions process and it wasn’t the bribery, it was that the process has always been flawed.
“Do you know where you’re going to? Do you like the things that life is showing you? Where are you going to? Do you know?” — Diana Ross