Iniziamo con questo post la pubblicazione dei materiali del convegno per i dieci anni di ROARS: Falsi miti di progresso, tenutosi  a Trento il 24 e il 25 febbraio 2023.

La prima sessione MERITOCRACY, MARKET AND EDUCATION è stata aperta da Michael Sandel, dell’Università di Harvard, che ha risposto alle domande di Umberto Izzo. Di seguito il video e la trascrizione dell’intervento.

UMBERTO IZZO. I’d like to greet and welcome in this panel Professor Michael Sandel, who is now present in video. Thank you, Michael, for joining us. I just have a few words to introduce you. We have with us Professor Sandel, who’s a graduate of  Brandeis University. He received his doctorate from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes scholar, and holds honorary degrees from Utrecht University in the Netherlands, Brandeis University in the U.S., served on the President Bush Junior Council on Bioethics, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Science. Global lectures have taken Professor Sandel across five continents, and he has been giving talks in the Sydney Opera House in Australia, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, the Public Theater in New York Central Park, and even in an outdoor stadium in Seoul where 14,000 people came to hear him speak. Professor Sandel is one of the most influential current political philosophers. He is a leading advocate of communitarian theory, a current that emerged in the late 20th century in contrast to individualistic stances and neoliberalism. His books have been translated into 27 languages, and I don’t want to mention all of them, but I will stress that two of them have been translated into Italian. One is ‘What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Market,’ published in 2012, and the other is ‘The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good,’ published in 2020, and translated into Italian. I keep saying this in Italian because it was sold with the Corriere della Sera a few days ago, so it’s been widely distributed among the Italian public. Professor Sandel’s latest book will be the topic of our conversation with him today. Professor Sandel, Michael, thank you again for accepting the lecture to lecture today and having this conversation. And we, as you know, want to discuss with you the social and philosophical meaning of meritocracy.

I’d like to start our conversation on your book ‘The Tyranny’. Italy, considering here what you said in the wonderful lecture that you gave a few months ago at the Catholic Church Centenario, which was a really interesting talk, when you also had the chance to debate with Romano Prodi, the Italian politician and former president of the European Union Commission. So my first question revolves around the three fundamental moral issues that can be raised against meritocracy. You portrayed these three moral issues in these terms. First, owing the talent which enabled me to get ahead is not my doing. It is a matter of good luck. Secondly, living in a society that rewards the talents that I happen to have could also be considered a matter of good luck. The third and probably strongest issue in meritocracy is the meritocratic “hubris”, that you consider the most deeply corrosive factor of the common good. As you may explain better of course, you trace back the theological origins of meritocracy to the biblical theology and the Protestant Reformation. If my success attests to my virtue, then the widening inequality affecting contemporary societies possesses an invincible ethical justification. You consider meritocracy a dangerous pillar of the ideology guiding neoliberal globalization. Your historical theological account on the development of meritocracy reminds me, as a legal scholar, of another theological account that revolves around a second fundamental pillar of our contemporary society, which is private property. As the concept of meritocracy seems to be the moral justification for the current wealth inequality, the legal notion of private property is the legal justification for the same condition. So this is the question: to what extent meritocracy as an ideological tool, and private property as a legal tool, can be considered as two sides of the same coin? And to what extent, in your opinion, both concepts may be considered non-negotiable in today’s society, preventing any attempt of change, despite the much shared concern for the growing inequalities in wealth and social dignity that we are experiencing in our contemporary society? This is also, let me add, to answer those who asked, after that you explained the perils of the meritocratic idea, “which is the alternative?”, as Professor Prodi said in a very salient moment of the debate at the Catholic university. Thanks Michael.

MICHAEL SANDEL. Yes, well, thank you, Professor Izzo, Umberto, thank you so much for having me. I’m honored to be with you for this conference. You’ve asked a very rich and challenging question, really a set of questions. So let me just begin in trying to answer your questions by saying how it’s possible for merit to become a kind of tyranny because we commonly think of merit as a good If I need surgery, I want a well-qualified doctor to perform it. That’s Merit – Merit in the sense of competence to perform a job or social role. So how can Merit become a kind of tyranny? Merit seems an alternative, a desirable alternative, to corruption, to nepotism. So, what could be wrong with Merit?

To see this connection to your question, Umberto, about neoliberalism, especially as it has unfolded in the last four decades, in recent decades the divide between winners and losers has been deepening, poisoning our politics, setting us apart. This has partly to do with the widening inequalities of income and wealth in recent decades, but it also has to do, I think, with the changing attitudes towards success that have accompanied rising inequality. Those who have landed on top have come to believe that their success is their own doing, the measure of their merit, and by implication, that those who struggle must deserve their fate as well.

This way of thinking about success arises from a seemingly attractive principle: the meritocratic principle, the principle that says, insofar as chances are equal, the winners deserve their winnings. Now we know that it’s a matter of fact that chances are not truly equal in our societies, and so we are tempted to think that the solution to inequality and the divide between winners and losers is simply to make our societies more meritocratic, to do a better job of living up to the meritocratic principles we profess. And it is certainly important to try to remedy the inequalities of opportunity that persist in our societies, but that’s not enough. It’s not enough simply to create a more perfect meritocracy, and the reason is that the meritocratic ideal itself is flawed.

Now you mentioned, Umberto, three reasons why I claim that meritocracy is flawed at the level of principle. Take a very successful person, someone who makes a lot of money, the great football player Lionel Messi, for example. Now, we admire Messi, but he succeeds in large part due to gifts and talents, and gifts, great athletic gifts that, despite all his hard practice and effort, are not his doing. They’re his blessing. He’s lucky to have them. Second, that Messi lives in a society and at a time that prizes and rewards the talents he happens to have, as a great football player, that too is not his doing, that too is his good luck. If he had lived back in the days of the Renaissance, people didn’t care so much about football back then. They cared more about fresco painters. So there’s a second aspect of luck, as you point out. And finally, there’s the feature of hubris. A meritocracy, even a perfectly realized meritocracy, invites and encourages the successful to inhale too deeply of their own success, to forget the luck and good fortune that helped them on their way. So a meritocracy, even a fully realized meritocracy, leads to hubris among the winners and to humiliation among those who were left behind.

So these are the three objections in principle to meritocracy. Now you ask a very important question: what is the relation between meritocracy and, you put it, private property? I would say a kind of market triumphalist faith that has predominated during recent decades of neoliberal globalization. I think there is a connection between meritocracy and private property, a connection between meritocracy and the market ideology that has come to dominate in recent decades.

The hubris that it produces, the divide that it creates between winners and losers, I think there’s a connection between that and the version of Finance-driven, Market fundamentalist, neoliberal globalization that we’ve seen in recent decades. And the connection is this: Max Weber, the greatest German sociologist, actually put it well a century ago when he said that those who succeed want more than success, they want to believe that they deserve their success and that they deserve it in relation to those who were less successful. This insight of Max Weber 100 years ago, I think, helps us grasp the connection between the inequality brought about by neoliberal globalization over the past four decades and the hubristic attitudes towards success that have deepened their hold at the same time. Back, you mentioned the origins of meritocratic thinking in the debate about salvation in the history of Christian thought, the debate about whether salvation was earned (that was the meritocratic position) or whether salvation was a gift, an act of God’s grace.

That’s so, so the tension between Merit and gift, between what’s earned and what we receive through a kind of Grace, or in secular terms, locks this dialectic, this tension has been going back a very long time. And what we see today, today we don’t debate so much in secular societies whether salvation is a matter of Merit, but we do have very powerful assumptions in political rhetoric about whether material success is earned matter of Merit or whether it’s a matter of luck and chance, a kind of gift. And so, with neoliberal globalization has come widening inequalities of income and wealth, but also, and here’s where meritocracy is the moral companion to neoliberal globalization, meritocracy adds the comfort those who succeed, not only that they’re on top, but that they deserve to be. And this attitude, combined with the inequalities, I think, has fueled much of the anger and frustration and resentment and sense of grievance that we see in politics today in societies around the world, and that’s fueled a kind of backlash that we saw especially in my country in 2016. And until we come to grips with this deepening divide, which is not only about income and wealth but also about dignity and social recognition and esteem, until we address this, I think democracy and the moral ties that hold us together as Democratic citizens will continue to be in trouble and in question.

UMBERTO IZZO. Thanks, Michael. A second question is about the rhetoric of rising, which is a familiar refrain of meritocracy, and you describe it as the promise that everyone should be able to rise as far as their force and talent will take them. Wonderful. This promise was boldly translated, at least in the U.S., into the idea that individual upward mobility could be promoted through higher education. We live in a world of wealth inequality, but any individual, nonetheless, thanks to higher education, can take part in this race to the top, a race that will inevitably create winners and losers. As you probably know, in Italy the percentage of the population with a university degree is much smaller than in the U.S. In our Country we have lived through the years of the rise of globalization with a political rhetoric keen at stressing the high unemployment rate of highly educated people. The Italian government in the past years adopted policies inspired by the idea that education should mostly forge specialized workers for the needs of Italian small and medium enterprises, and the current government seems to be willing to stay on this track. So, rather paradoxically, arguments based on merit are used to justify this form of adaptation of educational institutions to labor markets. So, to what extent can the argument of the rhetoric of rising be reconciled with the Italian scenario? More in general, what do you think should be the socially desirable relation between schools, and not just élite schools, and the market? Thank you.

MICHAEL SANDEL. Well, thank you for that question, also, packed with very interesting themes, and let me begin with the rhetoric of rising. The rhetoric of rising says that everyone should be free to rise as far as their efforts and talents will take them, whatever their background. Now, on the face of it, who could disagree? Who could disagree? Because removing barriers to achievement, that’s a good thing. It’s an important part of achieving a trust society. The problem with the rhetoric of rising is that it deflects attention and responsibility for widening inequality from the society, the political community as a whole, to the individual. We heard this rhetoric time and again over the past four decades. We were told that in a, if you want to compete and win in the global economy, go to university. What you earn will depend on what you learn. You can make it if you try. What elites and politicians and political parties, the center left and center right, fail to notice about this bracing advice: This promise of upward mobility through higher education, what they fail to notice was the insult implicit in it. The insult was this: if you’re not flourishing in the new economy and if you didn’t go to university, your failure must be your fault. So it’s no wonder that a great many working people and a majority of citizens in the United States, as well as in Italy, do not have a four-year degree, university degree. So it’s folly to create an economy that sets it as a necessary condition for dignified work in a decent life, a university diploma that most people in our societies don’t have. Now, you mentioned the Italian context where education is increasingly being rationalized and justified toward preparing people for the labor market. That’s one purpose of education: to equip people to become productive citizens in the economy and in the society that they’re about to enter. But it’s not the only purpose. The higher purpose of education is to provide the kind of moral and civic education that cultivates good citizens and that enables students to see their years, I would say especially in higher education, if they attend university, as a time for exploration, figuring out what purposes and paths are worthy of them, what’s worth caring about and why. This is what a liberal arts education is about. It’s not wholly instrumental. It’s not only for the sake of training workers and managers for the labor market. It’s for cultivating critical reasoning and moral reflectiveness. And what’s happened in our societies is that we have cast education, and especially higher education, as a kind of sorting machine for a market-driven, meritocratic society. Universities are the institutions that dispense the credentials and define the merit that a market-driven, meritocratic society rewards. This might seem to confer on these institutions a great prestige and centrality in social life, and in many ways that’s true. But I also think it’s a kind of corruption of higher education because the danger is that our credentializing function begins to crowd out our educational mission. I’ve been speaking here about higher education and how it can become corrupted if it’s seen and defended and justified single-mindedly as a way of dispensing credentials and preparing people for the labor market. But you asked also, compared to, about schools, primary and secondary schools. These two have a civic mission, not only an economic one. And I think it’s important if higher education has as part of its purpose the cultivation of citizens and morally reflective people, what about those who don’t attend higher education? What about their civic education? And here it seems to me – and this goes back to a question you asked earlier, echoing Romano Prodi – what is the alternative? Part of the alternative is to conceive moral and civic education as something that can take place and can flourish not only within universities – it’s important to strengthen it there – but there should be, I think, a broad diffusion of moral and civic education through institutions within Civil Society. In school – primary and secondary schools, to be sure – but I would say also in other institutions within civil societies: in labor unions, community centers, in religious communities. So the alternative, broadly speaking, to go to one of the big questions you posed to me, Humberto, the alternative to meritocracy, what is it exactly? Well, the defenders of meritocracy will say the only alternative is a hereditary aristocracy, where a person’s place in life is fixed by the accident of birth. And by contrast with a feudal aristocracy, meritocracy seems an instrument of freedom and equality. People are free to rise, no one is consigned to the fate given by the accident of their birth – it’s liberating. But today, meritocracy actually freezes in large part the accidents of birth, especially when the mechanism for the transmission of privilege and advantage is through the ability to compete for access to higher education. Today, the alternative to meritocracy is not aristocracy – it’s democracy, a kind of democracy that I would describe as a broad equality of democratic condition. The alternative I have in mind is not a sterile oppressive quality of results, as imagined in the dystopian writings, for example, of Harrison of Kurt Vonnegut. He has a story about a character called Harrison Bergeron, where it’s an oppressive future society where The Talented have to be weighed down to enforce a kind of sterile equality. The alternative to meritocracy is not to weigh people down, not to deprive them of the possibility of exercising their talents and gifts – it’s to create a broad democratic equality of condition in which everyone is recognized and honored for the contributions they make to the economy and to the common good. And that requires, Umberto, a broadly diffused kind of moral and civic education, so that everyone can share in learning, but also everyone can cultivate the ability to exercise the voice in democracy that citizens should be able to express.

UMBERTO IZZO. Thank you, thank you Michael, for this very clear answer. I have a third question – I think, then we can, if we can use the time we have – which is about our condition, our condition as professors and people working in university and school. In the analytical index of the Tyranny, there is no explicit reference to the voice metrics. A central tenant of the application of the idea of meritocracy to individuals and to educational institutions is that a meritocratic society must be provided with tools to measure merit. On the other hand, you also made many references in the book to standardized tests for admission to University in the U.S. When, as it happened in Italy, an entire public system of education, from school to University and PhD programs lately is politically reconfigured, embracing the rhetoric of Merit, the idea of meritocracy is not only considered as the blueprint for student admission and for the advancement in the studies in elite educational institutions, but it also inevitably affects the individuals who work and strive in any educational institution. In the last 20 years in Europe and in Italy at least since 2010 schools and universities have widely adopted pervasive metrics to measure the merit of pupils, students, professors and even of universities as institution who deliver higher education. So, what is your opinion about this “institutional meritocracy”, in which merit is implemented recurring to metrics, with all the dangers that any metric system can imply and all the hidden, distorsive effects that are recurrent in such metric systems? Thank you.

MICHAEL SANDEL. I’m very skeptical of these metrics, and I think that the tyranny of Merit is closely connected to uh, on very narrow conception of the metrics that measure Merit. And in our society today, there are essentially two kinds of metrics that together exert and reinforce this tyranny. One of them is money, and the other, are the test scores that are measured by standardized tests. One of the deep assumptions, very difficult to displace, of our society is that the money people make is the measure of their contribution to the common good. But this is a mistake. Even most everyone, except for the most extreme laissez-faire libertarian Market thinkers, would be hard-pressed to claim that, for example, a hedge fund manager or a successful Casino mogul who makes a thousand times more than a school teacher or a doctor, that the hedge fund manager or casino magnate deserves to make a thousand times more because the hedge fund manager in Casino magnate contribute more than a thousand times the value to the economy of a school teacher or a doctor. Reflecting on the value of social contribution, it’s very hard to make that case. And if that’s true, then it can’t be the case that the money people make, the metric, is the true measure of their contribution to the common good and therefore the basis of their deservingness to bring it back to meritocracy.

So, one implication of this argument is that if we are to begin to challenge the hold that a market meritocracy has on the allocation of income and wealth, but also honor and recognition and social esteem, we have to reclaim from markets the moral judgment about what counts as a valuable contribution to the economy and to the social good. It’s as if we have, especially in recent decades, outsourced our moral judgment about social value to markets. Now, there’s a powerful reason for doing so, and that is we know that if we as Democratic citizens have to debate what counts as a valuable contribution to society, there will be disagreement. We live in pluralist societies; people have different conceptions about social purposes and ends, and therefore what counts as contributing to the common good.

But this is a mistake. Even most everyone, except for the most extreme laissez-faire libertarian market thinkers, would be hard-pressed to claim that, for example, a hedge fund manager or a successful casino mogul who makes a thousand times more than a school teacher or a doctor, deserves to make a thousand times more because they contribute more than a thousand times the value to the economy of a school teacher or a doctor. Reflecting on the value of social contribution, it’s very hard to make that case, and if that’s true, then it can’t be the case that the money people make is the metric of the true measure of their contribution to the common good and, therefore, the basis of their deservingness. To bring it back to meritocracy, one implication of this argument is that if we are to begin to challenge the hold that a market meritocracy has on the allocation of income and wealth, but also honor and recognition and social esteem, we have to reclaim from markets the moral judgment about what counts as a valuable contribution to the economy and to the social good. It’s as if we have, especially in recent decades, outsourced our moral judgment about social value to markets. Now, there’s a powerful reason for doing so, and that is we know that if we as democratic citizens have to debate what counts as a valuable contribution to the society, there will be disagreement. We live in pluralist societies; people have different conceptions about social purposes and ends and, therefore, what counts as contributing to the common good. And so, it’s tempting to reach for a seemingly value-neutral mechanism to decide the question of what counts as a valuable contribution. I think that’s the deepest appeal of markets, even beyond the promise of delivering prosperity and abundance, is the offer, the promise to spare us the need for messy, contentious debates about how to value goods and contributions and services and work. But I think we should resist that temptation. It’s a spurious promise because markets are not, in the end, a truly value-neutral way of deciding these questions.

And so, I think part of what we need to do – this goes back to your question about what is the alternative – we need a morally more robust kind of public discourse than the kind to which we have become accustomed. One that addresses directly this question and debates among Democratic citizens what counts as a valuable contribution. Otherwise, we will continue to be subject to the tyranny of the metric of money as the measure of merit and contribution.

Now, as for standardized tests, I think these, too, have come to exert a pernicious influence. And because there is the assumption – and I don’t think it’s borne out in practice – there’s the assumption that one’s claim to admission to higher education and to competitive elite universities is properly measured by a score on a standardized test.

But these tests are highly results-oriented, and test scores are highly correlated with family income and wealth, and whether one’s own family has attended University. And another way in which metrics come in, beyond the standardized tests, I understand especially in many European universities, is a growing emphasis on research metrics where there are quantitative measurements of the citation indices of the professors and the researchers as a way of ranking the universities, especially for purposes of public support.

But I think that these metrics, the idea that contributions to knowledge can be quantitatively measured and ranked by these citation indices, are as questionable as the assumption that standardized test scores are the true measure of the intellectual gifts and potential of young people. And so, just as we need to question the metric of money, as the labor market delivers its verdict on what’s valuable, so I think we should question the current enthusiasm for quantifiable metrics to measure either the potential of young people applying for admission or the quality of researchers and professors based on citation indices. These can tell you something, but what they tell us is so limited that I think it’s a mistake to make support for higher education for this or that university depend on them.

UMBERTO IZZO. Thank you, thanks Michael again, and I wonder if I can still ask you a very short question. I have a final question, which is about what happened a few days ago in the University of Padua. I sent you the translation of the very powerful speech of this representative of the students given in front of our minister of university. And since this venue is full of students and they will have a voice in the roundtable closing the conference, I assume this is interesting. We don’t have time, of course, to listen to the speech here, but I think that it speaks for itself on the condition of many average Italian University students – stress, suicide attempts, and so on. So, how would you comment on the part where the student representative makes reference to the American meritocratic ideal and to the consequence that it provides for the human condition and life expectations of students?

MICHAEL SANDEL. I was very struck and moved reading the translation that you sent me of the Padua student’s comments. Students, especially those who are competing for admission to top universities, are under tremendous pressure. One of the prices that we pay for converting higher education into a sorting machine for a market-driven meritocratic society is that it’s to convert the young years, the adolescent years of our children, into an anxiety, into an anxious, stress-strewn, pressure-packed period of expectation, expectation of studying, of preparing for the exams that induces among young people two things. First, a sense that their effort, because we demand strenuous efforts of these young people, will decide their fate. And so, it’s no wonder that even those who win admission can’t help but believe that they are there thanks to their own doing, their own effort. But they emerge, they arrive wounded, in a way wounded winners. We’ve been talking about the unfairness to those who lose out in a market-driven meritocracy, but the winners too are wounded because of the intense pressure to which they are subject. And the student at Padua was reflecting this. The incidence of suicide and of mental health issues and of anxiety and depression among young people in their teens and early 20s is one of the great tragedies that should prompt us to reconsider the way in which we’ve converted education into a stressful, anxiety-producing sorting machine. One of the statements of the student that struck me was, ‘Let’s remember that our grade point average does not define who we are.’ This reminds me of a personal story from when I was in school.

It’s a story I tell in The Tyranny of Merit: When I was, I don’t know, 13 or 14 in a math class, it was a public school but very, very competitive, and after each test and each quiz, the teacher in the class would reassign the seats where we would sit in the class because the first three rows of seating were designated as so-called “honor rows,” where the students were seated in order of their grade point average as of that moment in the class. So that every time we had a quiz, every week, I suppose, the seating chart was rearranged depending on how the grade point average of the students had varied, even by one-tenth of one percentage point based on the results of that quiz. Well, needless to say, the result of this was that we became intensely concerned about our grade point average in that class. The grade point average did come, as the Padua student said, to define who we were. We were also very interested in our classmates’ grade point averages because that too would decide what seat we sat in in the math class. This did not create an atmosphere that was conducive to learning for its own sake, as you can imagine.

A couple of years later, in my first year of high school, I was in a biology class. It was a wonderful classroom. It was filled, the teacher had the classroom filled, with all sorts of fascinating wildlife: snakes and mice and salamanders and lizards and tropical fish of all kinds. And yet, everyone was concerned about their grade point average. And he didn’t think this was very healthy or conducive to learning. So one day, the teacher, the biology teacher, told everyone to take out a piece of paper and to number one to fifteen. There would be a quiz, a surprise quiz, and we should answer true or false for each one through fifteen. And the students complained. They said, ‘But you haven’t given us, you haven’t given us the statements that we’re supposed to evaluate true or false. Where are the questions?’ And the teacher said, ‘Well, just think of a statement for each one and then write down whether it’s true or false.’ And the students became very anxious. They said, ‘Well, will this be graded and will it count?’ And he said, ‘Yes, of course.’

I, at the time, I thought this was an amusing if eccentric classroom joke on the part of the teacher. But in retrospect, I realize that my biology teacher was, in his own way, pushing back against the tyranny of merit, trying to get us to step back from seeing ourselves, as the Padua student said, as defined by our grade point average. He was trying to get us to step back from those pressures and those metrics, at least long enough to marvel at the salamanders.

UMBERTO IZZO. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Michael.


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