Tennessee’s legislature is confused about meritocracy

April 19, 2023 6:00 am
Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, center, with Sen. Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield, at right. Ragan sponsored a bill this legislative session to ban "divisive concepts" like the teaching of meritocracy.(Photo: John Partipilo)

Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, center, with Sen. Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield, at right. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The Tennessee Legislature is obsessed with extending its infamous “divisive concepts” bill, first targeting primary and secondary education, now going after college education. Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, and House Speaker Cameron Sexton of Crossville (at least sometimes) in particular have been pushing prohibitions against certain ideas being mentioned in our college classrooms. One such delineated no-no is that, “A meritocracy is inherently racist or sexist, or designed by a particular race or sex to oppress another race or sex.” 

Hmmm.  This bit of legislating is cut-and-paste from the radical right playbook, but it begs so many questions. Those questions I now put as an open letter to Ragan and Sexton, and to any others who thought this legislation was a necessary and good idea.

Question 1: How do our legislators define meritocracy?  Most dictionaries offer some version of this: a society in which people move into positions of success, power, and influence on the basis of their talent, effort, and achievement, rather than wealth or social class.  Please note that we’re talking about the functional operation of a merit-based system, not merely the absence in law of prohibitions on people based on race, sex, class, religion, or sexual orientation/identity.

As members of the Tennessee Legislature debate the teaching of ‘meritocracy,’ research shows the U.S. has slipped in terms of upward social mobility. A ranking from the World Economic Forum lists the U.S. as 27th, behind many Scandinavian, European and Asian countries.

Question 2: Do Tennessee legislators believe we currently live in a meritocracy?  In a world of everything from inherited wealth to legacy college admissions, that seems like a very tenuous position to argue.  Sure, anyone can point to rags-to-riches success stories, but those stories are not representative of overall social and economic operation — or decades-long documented patterns regarding the direction of our country. The World Economic Forum has a Global Social Mobility Index that ranks 82 countries. The U.S. has slipped to 27th on that list, behind the Scandinavian countries and many other European countries, plus Japan, Canada, South Korea, Singapore, New Zealand, and Australia.

Question 3: Does your legislation put instructors at risk for asking questions about the functional operation of systems that purport to be meritocracies?  Remember we’re speaking about a community of scholars who should be free to ask questions, and a collegiate environment that is not one of inculcating ideas but of engaging adult students in thoughtful inquiry and discussion.  In fact, several of us from varied scholarly disciplines have discovered a revealing pattern that may help explain the gap between us.  Conservatives who proclaim meritocracy also tend to say the wealthy achieve such status by moral living, hard work, and smart choices. Conversely, the poor are seen as lazy, drunk, and stupid. Liberals see gaping holes in meritocracy claims, view wealth as often coming from luck or inheritance, and see poverty as a consequence of low wages, educational disparities, and very limited opportunities.

Scholarly studies show conservatives perceive status to be achieved by moral living and hard work, while liberals view wealth as coming from luck or inheritance.

Question 4 comes to you from a famous Anatole France quote. He wrote in The Red Lily (1894), The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal loaves of bread.”  As lawmakers you may object to this characterization of your work, but should we forbid even discussion of the merits of the claim because it is potentially divisive, makes some persons feel bad, or could be seen as a precursor to critical race theory? 

Question 5 concerns whether meritocracy should be viewed as simply existing or not, or whether the proper model might be as a goal — one that we either are moving toward or away from?  Do Tennessee legislators view any of their actions or inactions as moving us closer to or farther away from meritocracy?

The sixth and final question has to do with the broader matter of trying to cut off divisive concepts. Hasn’t history demonstrated that many insights that now are accepted knowledge, including natural selection and the evolution of biologic form, plate tectonics in geology, a sun-centered solar system, Einstein’s formulations connecting matter and energy,  started as divisive concepts that shook things up and left many uncomfortable?

In short, this meritocracy kerfuffle shows just how ill-prepared our legislature is to muddle, needlessly and foolishly, in these matters.  You have enough real public policy matters to resolve.  Stop trying to barge into my syllabus.

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Mark Harmon
Mark Harmon

Mark Harmon is a professor of journalism and media at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.