Why We Shouldn’t Talk MOOCs as Meritocracies


At some point I want to summarize (and perhaps convince you all to read) Chris Hayes’s provocative book on meritocracy and its attendant myths, but for the moment I want to run ahead and just put this out there.

Meritocracy, the flawed idea that an equality of opportunity leads to an equality of results (and to the “best and brightest” operating the levers of power) can be seen as underlying many of the failures of the current era. As Hayes points out, early in their life cycle, a commitment to meritocracy can produce favorable change, promote a more equitable society, and lead to better governance.

Invariably, however, because the inequality of results is seen as evidence of the meritocracy’s success, meritocracies are never meritocratic for long. Eventually, there is plenty of opportunity for the people on top to pull up the ladder behind them. A classic example, mentioned by Hayes, is the SAT. Early on, the SAT was seen as the great equalizer, a way of recognizing raw talent and getting that talent the education it can benefit from. But as the stakes became higher, and more weight was put on the SAT scores, the SAT quickly became a barrier. Today, the richest in society pay for preparation in the SAT courses that the poorest cannot afford. The SAT, the poster child of meritocracy, becomes what I have called in the past a “privilege multiplier” – turning an economic advantage into a much broader life advantage.

Why then don’t we address the issue? Why don’t we ditch the SAT and reform the system? Here’s the second problem – those that benefit from a meritocracy, even a skewed one, believe that the have achieved their benefit through hard work and raw talent. As the saying goes, they are born on third base, but believe they hit a triple. When asked to justify their position, they point to the wide variety of outcomes of the meritocracy – if they are not so talented, how is it the meritocracy promoted them to hedge fund manager? How many *other* hedge fund managers do you know?

In other words, the inequality of outcomes is seen as proof the meritocracy is working. This, according to Hayes, is why even after the massive financial crash we see hedge fund managers awarding themselves huge bonuses – the actually do believe, in their heart, that no one could possibly do the job better, because the system has put them there. That’s proof enough.

Hayes’s book is a enjoyably unique take on our current malaise in a world of same-as-that takes on financial inequality. It wanders effortlessly between scenes from Jose Canseco’s autobiography to documents released in the Catholic Church child rape scandal to insightful interviews with Gil the Wall Street quant to discussing why the Katrina evacuation of New Orleans did not take into sufficient account those residents without cars. And it manages to show both the pervasiveness of meritocracy (how deep the myths roots penetrate our national psyche), and the ultimate harm that the myth has caused.

It’s that central point that I want to deal with though – that as a society we need only be interested in equality of opportunity, and that wide disparities of results on display are in fact OK, because they represent the system working its sorting magic. The people that have merit, who put in the work are succeeding. The people that don’t are not.

I hear this tossed around as an answer to MOOC failure rate, and it scares me a bit. It has taken decades for us to get to a point in higher education and K-12 where we are held accountable for social outcomes. And while there are flaws in the way those outcomes are measured, I know my own institution has actually undergone a sea change since I attended. We still struggle, occasionally, with faculty who think their job is to thin the class on its way up, but on the whole most faculty are committed to increasing the student success rate for those that come in the door, and most people in the institution see the increase in graduation rate as a sign of student support success, not meritocratic failure. Similarly, my child’s grade school has moved heaven and earth to successfully teach skills to children that would have been abandoned years ago.

All of this is not perfect, but most of it represents the progressive push to see equality of outcomes as the measure of success of our social interventions. They are imperfectly implemented, but they are baby steps in the right direction.

The danger of MOOCs (which, by the way, are at the intersection of Wall Street and Silicon Valley, two cultures inordinately obsessed with meritocracy) is that they will return us to seeing a world that sees large levels of failure validating small levels of success. And they will build a breed of student that is the Jamie Dimon or Bill Gross of tomorrow, someone who knows they are chosen, and becomes oblivious to their own privilege, luck, and detachment.

These are the cultures which have destroyed America over the last 30 years – the idea that our job as a society is to look only at the levelness of the playing field, and ignore how the rules consistently favor the team in power.

If we begin talking about MOOCs as meritocracies, we are doubling down on the flawed ideology that got us into this mess. I’m aware it’s difficult to track equality of outcomes in a MOOC. I’ve certainly signed up for a bunch that I’ve never engaged with due to time and other constraints, and this pattern is hardly something that should keep people up at night. But there are certainly ways to account for these things. Sub-cohorts would be one way – you could enroll 20 traditional students in the MOOC with a guide that tracks their participation and finds out the reason for their withdrawal. The MOOC itself might not be evaluated by traditional student success measures but the sub-cohort could be.

That’s just one idea. The point, I suppose, of this post is that we need dozens more ideas around this. As the child of Wall Street, the Ivy League, and Silicon Valley, there’s an awful lot of meritocratic DNA in the xMOOCs already – I would hate to see this move forward as yet another meritocratic “solution” that creates more problems than it solves.

12 thoughts on “Why We Shouldn’t Talk MOOCs as Meritocracies

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