Meritocracy and social mobility: a reflection about pedagogy

by Deborah Liebart (First appeared on DisputatioMagistrorum). DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.2619957

Described as the moment of the end of the society of orders, The French Revolution defends the idea of equality and introduces the notion of merit. On the night of August 4th, the Assembly abolished privileges. Revolutionary discourse defends the idea of equality among human being, free and equal in right, from birth to death, and whatever their origins. By adopting “la loi Le Chapelier”, in June 1791, the Assembly intends to prohibit corporatist privileges, and to ban lobbies to the Assembly, establishing the concept of equality, and a certain idea of society and socio-political values. If the text harms lobbies[1], it raises the question of mutual aid within trades in a hierarchical society, structured around trades solidarities[2], communal, municipal and territorial solidarities of the Middle Ages, as illustrated by the use and survival of “communal property” and the passage of the “common good”, with right of use, to the “national good”, inducing a change of scale of the commons and a distortion, by the distance, of the social bond.


At the same time, the great French schools (the School of Mines in 1783, Polytechnic and the Ecole Normale Supérieure in 1794 …) are created, designed to train the elite administrative and political, advocating a certain social ideal. Liberal philosophy supports this idea of ​​meritocracy, an idea of ​​society in which equality of opportunity is theorized and where only the result counts … A society denying any idea of ​​”social reproduction”, even when the educational disparities between territories are abysmal, even when the sociology of students integrating these schools leads de facto to a certain homogamy. Scandals in American universities highlight this crystallization and reveal a strong, exclusive, social reproduction[3], showned by the number of American presidents graduates from the same universities, Harvard, in pole position. A skewed system, in which selection by both money and social network excludes a majority of citizens from accessing, from having a possibility to access to responsibilities.


Freedom, equality, fraternity, social mobility? This quadrilogy can be reasonably doubted, recent events seeming to point to a fixed society, in which risk is reduced, for the richest, both by inheritances, and selection from the youngest age, in kindergarden.


Inherited or learned ? Not eradicating the inequalities inherent to social origins, this meritocratic system, at the core of contemporary neo-liberal discourse, makes possible to point out the poorsest[4], holding them accountable for their own failure, in a society, yet open and so “inclusive” in it rhetoric … Meritocracy, as a concept, is an important element of the current political discourse as support for social peace, as hope, as ambition, as a promise to the “excluded”, the “less fortunate”, but it seems to be a myth, regarding the recent studies on social determinism[5]. A look at the constitutive sociology of parliaments in Europe, a look at the social origins of the great entrepreneurs would be enough to clarify the point and to nuance this rhetoric about social mobility and this myth of equal opportunities, as proves quite clearly positive discrimination practiced in Europe …


What about school to remediate this failure[6] ? Even if it reduces disparities, the educational system does not achieve the objective of decrystallizing social mobility, perhaps because it reproduces the same meritocratic system, the same code, and the same discourses of work value, reward and guilt system in case of failure …

The individual, personal failure as justification for a world increasingly closed, more and more immobile, individual failure as a cause for developing inequalities …


How to change that ? What is education ? Each historical period has it pedagogy, it way of learning. Historiography, by studying the characteristics of the educational system, has highlighted the fact that education, the educational system, is a direct, normative emanation of the socio-political system in which it is formed. From the universalism of renaissance, to the compartmentalization of the sectors today, the middle way could be an effective way to recreate the social link and reinject a little social mobility and democracy in our societies … Quick overview a few centuries of pedagogy …


In the Middle Ages, first universities appear, relatively autonomous units, in Bologna, Salamanca, Paris, Oxford … theology and scholastic occupying a large place.


Humanism, a current of thought that developed in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries, considers human being of the Renaissance as a being who needs to be educated. Humanist pedagogy, claimed by Erasmus, Rabelais and Montaigne… offers a thoughtful acquisition of knowledge to lead to reflection and development of critical thinking, giving priority to the direct reading of ancient texts, hence the need to know the ancient languages (Greek, Latin, Hebrew). Humanism is also preoccupied with sport and hygiene: it is a healthy mind, in a healthy body that authors want to see emerge. Methodologically, private lesson by a preceptor is privileged, it is a benevolent education adapted to the rate of progression of the student. It is an elitist education, seeking an universal and total knowledge, whose organization takes root directly in it context, an education in which no discipline is neglected : so much the mind must be able to feed on different sciences, forming a harmonious unit..


Gargantua’s Letter to Pantagruel[7] emphasizes the importance of encyclopedic knowledge within wide epistemological fields ( the choice of “Epistemon” as a preceptor is meaningful), from ancient languages, literature, science, astronomy, to medicine and theology, because “science without conscience, is only ruin of the soul”. Humanistic education emphasizes the importance of discussion and exchange, as a means of measuring one’s progress, by participating in public discussions on various topics.


An humanist is a person thinking, communicating, exchanging with others and defending the idea of virtue and solidarity among human being. If Montaigne[8] insists on the personality of the child and defends the idea of a “fully developed mind rather than a head full of facts”, Rousseau[9] tries to “train” a citizen by protecting him from the dangers of civilization, in a program that mixes “éducation négative”, the discovery of the world, the deduction by confrontation to the world until the age of twelve, and “positive education”, by discovering a profession, with a primary purpose of socialization. If humanistic thought makes use of virtue and morality through theology, the Enlightenment, refuting the idea of God, bases their pedagogy on the concept of reason and a more political sense of morality.


By dividing more and more school curricula, by characterizing the courses with too much rationalization of aptitudes and disciplines, education runs the risk of becoming polarizing. Education is to learn a profession, a panel of technical skills, but it is also learning to become a member of the social structure, a citizen differentiating vices and virtues, endowed with reason and critical spirit.

At the paroxysm of this search of “continuing education”, of this need for permeability between the world of education and the world of work, the Gramscian figure of “the organic intellectual” proposes a vision of education, wider, but which proposes an active, open school, “aimed at overcoming the opposition between manual and intellectual work”. In the Gramscian system, every man is an intellectual and “education concerns a series of organisms whose primary function is not to educate: state apparatus, political parties, trade unions, churches, press, radio, etc. Through their educational activity, these organs contribute to the hegemony, either to that of the ruling class which it is a question of fighting (for Gramsci), or to that of the proletariat and the subordinate classes which it is about building[10] ».


Gramsci imagines a co-operative society in which the most educated advance others, and in this sense recalls the educational projects of the “Rochdale Society”, but also mutualist and mutuelist attempts by nineteenth-century settlements with libraries and the creation of course for adults[11]. Although recognizing the progress of Rousseau, in terms of pedagogy, Gramsci’s thought bases on a more Durkheimian educational definition[12], according to which the individual is the product of his era, through acculturation, by language and by permanent interactions with his environment : the Human being as a social being, shaped both by his peers and by the socio-political context in which he evolves.


Althougth the Gramscian conception highlights the difficulty of developing an inclusive pedagogy today, it still remains worthy of interest, both concerning the questions it raises about Education, and to culture and dissemination of ideas and knowledge.


A “pensée-monde” revisiting the Cartesian cogito, in which “Human being, in a dynamic of exchange with others, learns to become “?




[1]                      Liébart, D., « Un groupe de pression contre-révolutionnaire : le club Massiac sous la constituante », Annales historiques de la Révolution française 354 | octobre-décembre 2008, http://ahrf.revues.org/10873, DOI : 10.4000/ahrf.10873.

[2]                      Liebart, D., & Manca, M., La finance et le soin : gouvernance, systèmes mutualistes et répartition du risque, (2017, November 27),Version 3, Zenodo. http://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.1066858#

[3]    http://www.lefigaro.fr/flash-actu/yale-renvoie-une-etudiante-admise-grace-a-des-pots-de-vin-20190327


         Richard V. Reeves, Dream Hoarders : How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, 2017

[4]    https://www.fastcompany.com/40510522/meritocracy-doesnt-exist-and-believing-it-does-is-bad-for-you

[5]    https://www.strategie.gouv.fr/sites/strategie.gouv.fr/files/atoms/files/fs-na68-nessouslamemeetoile-05-07-2018.pdf

[6]    https://www.cairn.info/revue-francaise-de-sociologie-1-2009-2-page-229.htm

[7]                      Rabelais, F., Pantagruel, chap. VIII , 1532 .

[8]                      Montaigne, M. de, Essais, livre I, chap. 26 (1580-1595).

[9]                      Rousseau, J-J., Emile ou de l’éducation, 1762.

[10]                    Lamarre Jean-Marc, « Tout homme est un intellectuel », Le Télémaque, 2016/2 (N° 50), p. 111-116. DOI : 10.3917/tele.050.0111. URL : https://www.cairn.info/revue-le-telemaque-2016-2-page-111.htm

[11]                    Liebart, Deborah, & Manca, Marco, (2017, November 27), La finance et le soin : gouvernance, systèmes mutualistes et répartition du risque (Version 3). Zenodo. https://disputatiomagistrorum.wordpress.com/2019/02/08/la-finance-et-le-soin-gouvernance-systemes-mutualistes-et-repartition-du-risque/

[12]                    Filloux, J.C., Durkheim et l’éducation, PUF, Paris, 1994. Fauconnet, P. “L’œuvre Pédagogique De Durkheim.” Revue Philosophique De La France Et De L’Étranger, vol. 93, 1922, pp. 185–209. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41081924.