Mario Ricciardi (Università di Milano) discusses the role of meritocracy in the Italian debate on education.

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FRANCESCO SYLOS LABINI  Thank you very much. Professor Mario Ricciardi teaches Philosophy of Law at the State University of Milano and legal methodology at the Luiss University in Rome. He has been the director of Italian magazine Il Mulino since 2018 Mario was one of the founders of the association ROARS in 2012, and he has contributed to our activities with many discussions and also many articles. So, Mario will be giving a seminar entitled “Meritocracy as ideology: an Italian perspective”.


Thank you very much, thank you Francesco, thank you Umberto. I hope do you hear me. I’m very sorry not to be there with you. I have a very packed agenda with several meetings in different parts of Italy, forcing me to choose between different places, so I would be with you only online.

What I will try to do is just to present some remarks on meritocracy, understood as an ideology; because according to my reading of the meritocratic theme, I don’t see, I mean, I don’t have any quarrel with the idea of recognizing and rewarding merit where merit is to be found. I think that it’s possibly impossible for conceptual reasons, not an empirical problem, it’s a conceptual problem, to devise a unified metric of merit. So, you can accept the idea that you should reward merit, but this doesn’t mean that you can impose a unified metric on the different dimensions of merit in different kinds of activities. You know that, of course, in the field of Education, which is the one that is most close to our interests this afternoon. So my problem is not with the idea of merit. I’m not against merit or against the rewarding of merit. I am critical, I mean, I have very deep normative reasons to be critical of meritocracy as an ideology. My arguments against meritocracy are the arguments that have been already said; I mean, I agree fully with the arguments that Michael Sandel has put forward in his paper and also with the arguments that before, I mean, in 1971, were put forward by John Rawls in his theory of Justice where there’s a short passage in which he criticizes the idea of meritocracy. And I am very much in sympathy  also with the remarks that Daniel Markowitz has presented now. So I shall not repeat or rehearse these arguments again. I mean, I’ll take for granted that these are arguments that are familiar to the audience and that, as far as I’m concerned, at least, I agree with, and I will try to do something different. I will try to say something on meritocracy as an ideology. The first part of my short talk will move from an article, a column that was published in 2001 in a British newspaper, and I’ll read now a short passage from the very first lines of this column. I’m quoting: “I was sadly disappointed with my 1958 book The Rise of meritocracy. I have coined the award which has spread widely, especially in the United States and has recently found the prominent place in Mr. Blair’s speeches. The book was a satire intended as a warning which, needless to say, has not been acted upon to World of what might have happened in Britain between 1958 and the imaginary final Uprising against meritocracy in 2033.” So, the reader, the person who was writing this article in 2001, is Michael Young. Michael Young was a sociologist, an intellectual, a politician.

He was a member of the Labour Party and was indeed the person who coined the word meritocracy. He is the one who created the word meritocracy.. As Michael Young said in 2001, and this is still true today, meritocracy has spread widely in the new century. The article from which come the lines which I’ve just read was published in The Guardian, and The Guardian, as you know, is a newspaper which is regarded in the UK as being of left-leaning tendencies. Young was, as I said, a member of the Labour Party and indeed was a prominent policymaker at the time when Clement Atlee was the leader of Labour. When he was writing this article in 2001, he was very old and was not very much involved anymore in the life of the Labour Party. There was a new leader, Tony Blair, who was, in many ways, far from Clement Atlee, who was a kind of more traditional Social Democrat with respect to Blair. Michael Young was, in 2001, a member of the House of Lords. He was elevated to the House of Lords with the title of Lord Young of Darlington, which, interestingly enough, is the name of a progressive school with which Michael Young was linked throughout his life.

In this article, from which I’ve read a passage, the elderly politician was going back to his book written in 1958 and reflecting on the failure of the case for an inclusive educational system. Young understood an inclusive educational system as one which does not limit itself to photographing, to just having a snapshot of existing class differences and that reproduces them through selection mechanisms that are indifferent to the student’s starting conditions. So, he was an advocate of a progressive idea of education whose aim was to remove barriers for people coming from underprivileged backgrounds to have an education. In 2001, Young was disappointed by the way in which Tony Blair was using the word meritocracy and was pointing out that, in his idea, Meritocracy is not to be understood as an essay, I mean, as a work of social science. It is a work of narrative, and actually, it’s an open question how far many people who use the word meritocracy, and I will say something about this with respect to the Italian situation in a moment, are aware of this satirical character of the word meritocracy in its origin. In the article from which I’ve quoted already, there is a passage which I think is particularly timely, and it is still worth reading today.

Michael Young was addressing the issue of the way in which meritocracy was being used in England, in the United Kingdom at the time, as a justification, and to a certain extent, as a small screen for educational policies which were not in favor of the underprivileged in society. And, with respect to this topic, the elite has become so self-confident that there is almost no obstacle to the prizes it arrogates to itself. All constraints of the business world have been eliminated, and as the book predicts, they have been exploited in every way to beautify their nest, the nest of people who come from the elite. Salaries and wages have skyrocketed, generous share options schemes have proliferated, golden bonuses and informal deals for those at the top have multiplied. It is worth emphasizing that Lord Young was not a communist. As I said, he was a traditional Social Democrat. And when he died one year after having written this very sad reflection on the topic of meritocracy, what we might regard as his last word on the topic of meritocracy, he was universally celebrated as one of the leading members of a generation of reformers who helped to build a more just society for Britons. Among other things, he was responsible for, for example, the birth of the Open University and also for devising and putting in place a more advanced system of consumer protection. So we’re not talking about somebody who came from the radical, the far radical left. He was a traditional reformist social democracy, but he was a very sharp critic of the meritocratic ideology that had taken hold in the United Kingdom during the period of the Blair governments, also with the complicity of the left. And his remarks in his article, I think, are still very relevant today and are relevant indeed for other countries besides those that yet come to mind. When he wrote this article, in the conclusion of the article, he says, “t is hard indeed in a society that makes so much of merit to be judged as having none. No underclass has ever been left as morally naked as that”. From a moral point of view: this was in 2001. Seven years after the publication of this article, an Italian former business consultant, whose name is Roger Abravenel, published a book in Italian whose title was Meritocrazia, that is, Meritocracy, a book which is interesting in many ways. One of the reasons why this is very interesting is because in the book, there are some references to Michael Young’s book.

I, if I’m not wrong, I’m going… I’m relying on memory here, but I think there are four references to Young’s book, and neither of these references makes clear that the book is a satire. And then, when you read it, I mean there’s a passage in which he, for example, comments on the meritocracy equation, which is something that is of course in Michael Young’s book. But this, I mean it’s meant as a satirical version of a kind of technocratic mentality that you will start arising at the time in the late 50s. But this is mentioned in Roger Abravanel’s book as if it is a genuine piece of social thinking, and you might wonder, reading the book, if a Abravanel was aware of the fact that Michael Young’s book was a satire. Young’s book was very much all over the place in Italy around 2008. It was quoted by politicians of the right at the time. The education Minister, the education and University minister of Berlusconi government, said that she viewed this Abramanal book as a point of reference for the University reform that they were going to implement, and which was the reform which, among other things, introduced in Italy a very disputable and disputed indeed system of research evaluation that is administered by Anvur, that is this independent body about which I think you will discuss in other sessions. So, this book was very much an inspiration for politicians on the right. But what is interesting is that it was as much an aspiration for politicians in the left wing. I mean, at the time, the Italian left was very much trying to follow the path that Tony Blair had already gone through in the United Kingdom, and so they were very keen on using whatever soundbite that they could take over from New Labour and to use it in Italy. So, meritocracy became a kind of battle cry on the left as well. And why one might wonder why this happened, my interpretation in retrospect is that the idea of meritocracy was an essential rhetorical tool in a time in which the consensus, the policy consensus which had driven economic policy and indeed also institutional reforms after 1989, the basic neoliberal toolkit, this framework of political ideas was already entering a critical moment

Abravanel’s book was published in 2008. In 2008, we had the starting of, I mean, the crack of Lehman Brothers, and it was the first of different moments of crisis in the neoliberal paradigm that we are still dealing with today. I mean, that crisis started a whole set of consequences we are dealing with today. Yet, this was a moment in which it was crucial to have a rhetorical argument that could be used in order to give a moral justification to a system of distribution of rewards in society, which was highly unfair. And it was progressively more clearly unfair as long as the crisis was unfolding. I mean, in the following months, in the first step of the crisis, which is of course September 2008, and then with the following years, there were different voices who started criticizing what was happening in the capitalist West. I mean, I point out Michael Sanders’ book on Justice, for example, was one of the books articulating this kind of criticism after 2008.

And this was exactly a time when many people were pushing forward this idea of meritocracy as a justification for the system of distribution of rewards which was in place in many Western societies. And this urgency, the urgency to use meritocracy as a rhetorical tool, was even stronger in the left than the right. Because of course, the left, the new left, I mean, the left of New Labour, was very keen to having a rhetorical tool that could be used in order to defend what was indeed a step back with respect to the kind of social democratic consensus which was built by people like Michael Young.

Which was based on an idea of a widespread public education affordable for anyone, universities which were, think about the British system, a very generous and large system of public education which made public education and indeed university education, higher education, affordable for people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Again, this system was being progressively shrunk by new economic policies. And as far as the left was in charge while these economic policies were being put in place, it was essential to have a rhetorical device which might be used to argue that these policies were indeed just, that the system should not be criticized because it was a meritocratic system, was a system which was embodying an idea of just reward in a way.

So, meritocracy became an ideology. And it’s interesting to see how, I mean, it stopped being a satire and became an ideology. And it’s interesting to see how since 2008, the discourse of meritocracy has become even more aggressive. In Italy, in the last few years, we have assisted to many, many books and lots of articles in the main newspapers that defend meritocracy normally without addressing the critics. I mean, I’ve never read, apart from Marco Santori’s book, a serious critique of authors like John Rawls or Michael Sandel, or Daniel Markovitz, or others who have written critiques of meritocracy as an ideology.

And there has been a lot of propaganda, one might say, on this topic. That is, I think, the reaction of those who want to defend the actual system of distribution from criticism that is increasingly forcible, in the fact that it’s so evident that the system doesn’t work fairly. That is becoming more and more difficult to argue in defense of the actual system of education based on so-called meritocracy.

I might stop here, my introducing remarks, and maybe, I don’t know if Francesco or Umberto has something to say, or if there is a discussion. Thank you very much.

FRANCESCO SYLOS LABINI. I think that the best thing to do is to see whether somebody has a question for you.

DOMANDA DAL PUBBLICO Of course, hello Mario. Hi, nice to see you. Okay, great, come back. Okay, I would like to ask you to comment on the fact that now we even have a Ministry of Education and Merit in Italy. What do you think about this?

MARIO RICCIARDI. This step is pure 1984. I mean, it’s exactly what I’m saying. Meritocracy is an ideology, and so you should go over, put forward this merit mantra, and the best thing that you can do is read and write the word merit on your shields like the emperor Constantine did with the cross. No, I mean, but it’s pure propaganda, and it’s so clear that it’s pure propaganda because the arguments that are, I mean, there’s an international debate on this. I’ve never read a serious article in any Italian newspaper criticizing Michael Sanders’ ideas or Daniel Markovitz’s ideas on meritocracy. There have been reviews. Some people say America is different from Italy, but nobody ever takes issue with the substance of the argument, and the reason is that there is no counter-argument. There is no counter-output. It’s just propaganda.

DAL PUBBLICO Yes, Mario, I agree with you, but then it comes a question, why is this ideology has been a driving force of the reform of Italian universities, and why have our colleagues just accepted everything without reacting…

Okay, that’s an interesting point. First of all, the Italian University didn’t have a good merit rewarding system in place, and that was a big problem. I mean, of course, one of the reasons why there was a call for reform was because University was recognized as not working properly in many ways, so there was a need for change. One might argue, and this is my idea, that change was already happening in the years when the Gelmini reform was put in place, and what’s happening in many ways is a renewal of the academic profession, older people going out and younger people coming in, people who in many situations do have an international training, which wasn’t that common for people before our generation. I mean, this was a big change. I remember when I was called as a professor at the University of Milan in those years, many people from my generation entered as professors, and with some of these people, we had international conferences. So the academic profession was changing.

And the change maybe wasn’t yet very strong in some areas in the country. It was probably stronger in the north than in the center or in the South, so uh, there were good arguments in favor of reform. The thing was that the reform was implemented with a very ideological frame and uh, taking as a model a kind of – I mean, it was partly the British system, with of course the research assessment, but worse in many ways than the British system. And of course, this was at the time when in the UK, people were already criticizing the way in which their uh, research assessment was working. So Italy, I mean, if there was a good argument in favor of a system of research evaluation, there were also many things from which Italy might have learned in terms of experiences in other countries which had implemented before Italy systems of research evaluation. We didn’t do anything of the sort. Uh, the reform was pushed through because it had a very high level of popularity and all the newspapers were arguing for the reforming. We all remember – I mean, the newspaper columns that were published to defend that reform. And after that, it became a system that was very much part of the idea that the fundamentals of our system of distribution of the rewards in society is fundamentally fair and that doesn’t need tampering with at all. So, uh, that was the reason why once it was in place, it remained in place. And of course, a left which had moved towards more neoliberal positions was defending the system. As we know, the Democratic party in Italy was as much in favor of this new system as the right wing. Why some colleagues, one might say even many colleagues of our generation, were in favor of this new system, this was quite clear because they were the winners in the new system. We all know that this – I mean, those of us that had a better record, international record, the publication that had access to the international journals, they had big gains with this system. And of course, it was interesting – an historian of the academy in the future might track the fractures in the academic world after the reform with respect to who were the winners and who were the losers. I mean, people who worked on general topics and then had access to international debate, from people who worked on topics of merely local relevance, which of course was more difficult to publish internationally. I mean, it’s a thing, for example, history. If you are an Italian historian, you work on the history of Italy. It’s uh, I mean, it’s very difficult that you might find a large audience in English. I mean, you might publish a book that is written for an international audience, but inevitably, most of the history of Italy will be published in Italian, as most of the history of France is published in French. But there was a time after the reform in which – and you will remember that – there was the attempt to totally push on the sidelines people who were publishing their research in Italian, because this was understood to be backwards.  But I think that the system was really dumb with respect to what you expect from a public university that is among other things, of course, contributing to knowledge and indeed, the circulation of knowledge with respect to the national community. So, it’s really absurd to actually discourage people to publish in Italian. I mean, it’s like shooting in your own foot. It’s a very silly thing to do. But this was what happened in many fields in Italy.

FRANCESCO SYLOS LABINI “Oh yes, thank you. Just, uh, a comment from my point of view. I mean, the fact that there were good arguments to criticize the university system, that the university was not working well, I mean, it’s not so clear at that point. I think that there was a lot of cherry picking in the sense that you are taking some examples to show this is something that doesn’t work. Of course, there is a fraction of things that don’t work in any kind of system. I mean, if you think about my field, which is physics, I mean, we had, in the last 10 years, two or even three people that were very close to have a Nobel Prize that have spent their whole career in Italy, and one of them, of course, got it last year, and they have created a school, and this school is one of the strongest schools in the world. So, I mean, from my point of view, I wouldn’t say that. What was really surprising for me is that, instead of analyzing the system, uh, looking at what was working and understanding why it was working, even if there was a structural problem due to the finance and so on, they have decided to have this ideological view that the system was not working. And instead of identifying the real problems, some fake problems have been identified, and then things went in the wrong direction.

MARIO RICCIARDI Yes, Francesco, but we all know what the explanation of this is. I mean, they wrote about university, but what they thought was economics. So that was the point. I mean, since the beginning, it was so clear. I mean, the articles you were arguing for, they were all thinking about the discipline of economics, what was wrong according to some people in the discipline of economics in Italy, and what was necessary to remove those problems. I mean, they didn’t care about history or philosophy or archeology or literature or physics or mathematics. Economics was the point, and that was the reason why the reform was implemented as it was. I mean, we all remember who were arguing in favor of the change. The books which were written were discussing basically economics departments. So, um, I mean, the absurd thing was that nobody in the political system took issue with this idea. I mean, there was nobody who raised the question that you have raised here, but I mean, let’s do a map, let’s see what is going on, let’s see what the excellencies in Italy are. I mean, there were excellencies in Humanities, for example, very strong. I mean, people still come to Italy to study some disciplines, but of course, the people who were arguing for the reform didn’t care about that because the problem was not the university, the problem was the Italian economy. And I’m not taking issue with the fact that the economy is important. I’m taking issue with the very ideological way in which they thought that a certain model of a university might be used to give a boost to the Italian economic system, which was something highly disputable.

FRANCESCO SYLOS LABINI Okay, is there anyone who wants to still add some words? Please come and present yourself. A

DAL PUBBLICO My name is Yuri. I’m an associate professor. So, thank you for this, uh, occasion. I was very happy to see that this initiative was taking place close to my place of living and working. Um, I think that also based on what the international guests have told us, this meritocratic system has considerably led to some kind of homologation. I think in many articles that I read, this is quite well recognized. So, also as researchers, we tend to stay on the safe side, not to go through risky research and especially to go against the flow of the system. And I found especially in the in the speeches of the international guests that they would align, uh, to at least to some extent with, uh, my view. My question is: Was this actually decided by the Gelmini reformer and this emphasis on meritocracy, or this went well beyond their expectations because they served the system in a very good way? And unfortunately, while university and education should be the places where critical thinking is formed, I think they are one of the most homologated places, uh, in Italy. And doing this job, working in universities, it hurts me a lot.

MARIO RICCIARDI As I recall what happened at the time, I would say that the right-wing politicians, I mean, the Berlusconi’s party, uh, who were in charge of implementing the reform didn’t have, uh, a deep understanding of what they were doing. I mean, they were acting very much, uh, on the impulse of what they read on some newspapers, and of course, which were, I mean, the major newspapers in the country, so they were very influential and on what was kind of common sense at the time. I mean, in a sense, it’s a story about how an hegemony is constructed and how it might enter into a crisis when the economic and the social situation changes. It was very much in the air, you know, Italy was regarded as a country which was behind, uh, the Western Countries. We weren’t quite fully modern as the others, and the model that was always, uh, put as an example of what we should become, what we should aim, would, we should strive for was basically a kind of very creative mix of the British and the U.S system. I mean, many people will remember the fact that at the time there was all this talk about universities being private, uh,  more efficient, but when the British system is a public system. It’s basically a public system. So the reason why the British universities were efficient is presumably not because they were private, in the end. It was perhaps something that was more connected with their very peculiar institutional structure, their very peculiar legal form, and also with a strong tradition of independence which the political system had never very much tampered with. As a matter of fact, the first government which tried to have a strong influence on the universities using public financing as the tool for influencing universities was the Thatcher government, and it’s very interesting that for example this was a major topic in a book published by Conrad Russell, Lord Russell, who was at the time a spokesperson for the Liberal Democrat Party in the House of Lords. This is in the late ’90s. He published the book whose title was Academic Freedom, and the topic was exactly this. Under Thatcher, the system of public financing of universities in Britain was changing. It was not anymore just a matter of informal bargaining between the universities and the government, which was basically an old boy’s network because very, very often, the people who were representative of the universities were members of the same colleges as the  minister of the education. So, it was a matter which was dealt amicably between friends, and then with a high level of trust, of course, because the political system trusted the University, and vice versa because it was the same environment. But at a point it was decided that the University system must show that the money that is put into the system is well spent. And who decides if it’s well spent? Not the academics, the government. So, you should tell us what is the social and economic byproduct of what you do in universities. And this changed everything. Lord Russell already, in the late ’90s, was very much aware of this, and was in this book on academic freedom, pushing forward arguments in defense of a system that would preserve universities from too much tampering from the governments because he said, and rightly so, it’s very dangerous when ministers decide what is the proper course of science. I mean, there must be a very ample scope for this interested research in order to have a progressive knowledge system, which, by the way, is the model that we narrated from the Enlightenment. And it’s partly what explains also the rise of capitalism. So, it’s interesting the fact that the very same model that is part of the rising capitalist was dismantled in a different phase of capitalism, supposedly on the argument that this was good for the economy and good for production and so on and so forth, something that nobody, as far as I’m aware, has ever shown. I mean, there are a lot of assumptions about this and very little empirical proof. Okay.

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