The Internet Is Not A Meritocracy, That’s Why You Hate It


Recently, I had a discussion with a student about social media, and the fact that I usually start off a comment on a blog with “great post!”  She noted two things:  First, that it rang false to her initially, making her wonder if I even read the posts people write; and second, that despite this initial impression she found herself commenting anyway.  So let me define what a great post is.

A great post is one that captures your interest and keeps the thoughtful discourse going.

Now many of my academic readers are going to vehemently disagree.  They may disagree with this blog post entirely, and you know what?  If they comment on it, I’ll publish the comment.  Because the comment keeps the discourse going.

Also recently, I was explaining my pedagogy to colleagues who were questioning my choice to assign a whole-class group assignment for 25% of the student grade.  The concern was that by giving the class a grade as a whole I would run the risk of grade inflation.  This is a real concern for many of my peers in academia and I respect that, and as someone who believes in collaboration I intend to balance advocating for my pedagogical view with integrating the group’s discerning comments and suggestions.  In my blog however, let me share my unbridled opinion on this.

I don’t care about grade inflation.

Really, I don’t.  I went to a graduate school which didn’t have grades, but had plenty of intellectual rigor.  I am more concerned with everyone having a chance to think and discuss than ranking everyone in order.  That is my bias, and that is one reason I like the internet so much.

The old model of education is a meritocracy, which according to OED is:

Government or the holding of power by people chosen on the basis of merit (as opposed to wealth, social class, etc.); a society governed by such people or in which such people hold power; a ruling, powerful, or influential class of educated or able people.


I think that Education 2.0 has many of us rethinking this.  Many of our students were indoctrinated into that view of education that is decidedly meritocratic.  I suspect this was part of what was behind my student’s skepticism about “great post!”  My role as an educator in a meritocracy is to evaluate the merit of these comments and ideas, rank them and award high praise only to those which truly deserve it.  By great posting everything I demean student endeavors.

One of my colleagues Katie McKinnis-Dietrich frequently talks about “finding the A in the student.”  This interests me more than the finite game of grading.  Don’t get me wrong, I do offer students choices about how to earn highest marks in our work together, I do require things of them; but I try hard to focus more on the content and discourse rather than grades.

I frequently hear from internet curmudgeons that the internet is dumbing down the conversation.  The internet isn’t dumbing down the conversation:  The internet is widening it.  Just as post-Gutenberg society allowed literacy to become part of the general population, Web 2.0 has allowed more and more human beings to have access to the marketplace of ideas.  We are at an historic point in the marketplace of ideas, where more intellectual wares are being bought and sold.  More discernment is certainly required, but the democratization of the internet has also revealed the internalized academic privilege we often take for granted.  Every ivory tower now has WiFi, and so we can experience more incidents of our sneering at someone’s grammar and picking apart their spelling.  What is revealed is not just the poor grammar and spelling of the other, but our own meritocratic tendencies.

Detractors will pointedly ask me if I would undergo surgery performed by someone who had never been to medical school, and I will readily admit that I will not.  But how can we reconcile that with the story of Jack Andraka, a 15 year-old who with no formal training in medicine created a test for pancreatic cancer that is 100 Times More Sensitive & 26,000 Times Cheaper than Current Tests.  In fact, if you listen to his TED talk, Jack implicitly tells the story of how only one of the many universities he contacted took him seriously enough to help him take this discovery to the next level.  Meritocracy in this case slowed down the process of early intervention with pancreatic cancer.  One side of this story is that this test will save countless lives; the darker side is how many lives were lost because the meritocracy refused to believe that someone who hadn’t been educated in the Scholastic tradition could have a real good idea.

I am urgently concerned with moving education further in the direction of democracy and innovation.  Any post that gets me thinking and interacting thoughtfully with others is a great post.  On a good day I remember this.

But like many academics and therapists and educators and human beings brought up in a meritocracy, I have my bad days.  Like many of you, I fear becoming irrelevant.  I resist change, whether it be the latest iOS or social mores.  Last night I caught myself reprimanding (internally) the guy wearing a baseball cap to dinner in the restaurant I was in.

We still live in a world where only students with “special needs” have individualized education plans– quite frankly, I think that everyone should have an individualized education plan.  I think our days of A’s being important are numbered.  There are too many “A students” unemployed or underemployed, too many untenured professors per slot to give the same level of privilege in our educational meritocracy.  Digital literacy is the new frontier, and I hope our goal is going to be maximizing the human potential of everyone for everyone’s sake.  Yes this is a populist vision, I think the educational “shining city on the hill” needs to be a TARDIS, with room for the inclusion of all.  I also think that those of us who have benefited from scholastic privilege will not give this privilege up easily.  We desperately want to remain relevant.

I know it is risky business putting this out in the world where my colleagues could see it.  I know this will diminish my academic standing in the eyes of many.  I know my students may read it and co-opt my argument to try to persuade me to give the highest grade.  But if I believe in discourse and collaboration I’ll have to endure that and walk the walk.

I’m not saying that every idea is a good one.  What I am saying, what I believe that has changed my life for the better is something I find more humbling and amazing about the human being:  Not every idea is a good one, but anyone, anyone at all, can have a good idea.

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Saving Ideas

cave painting

Sometime, over 40,000 years ago, someone decided to put images of human hands on the cave pictured above.  It turned out to be a good idea.  This painting has given scientists information on life in the Upper Paleolithic, raised questions about the capacity of Neandrathal man to create art, and sparked debate about which species in the homo genus created it.  Other later cave paintings depict other ideas: Bulls, horses, rhinoceros, people.

I wasn’t there in the Paleotlithic but I doubt that the images we are seeing in caves were the first ones ever drawn.  I imagine that drawing images in sand and other less permanent media happened.  I suspect that the only reason we have cave paintings is because at some point somebody decided they wanted to be able to save their idea, to keep it longer or perhaps forever.

Every day, 7 billion of us have untold numbers of ideas.  So what makes a person decide that an idea is worth saving?  What makes us pause and make a note in our Evernote App or Moleskine journal?  What inspires us to make a video of our idea on YouTube or write a book?  We can’t always be sure that an idea is a “good” one or even what the criteria for a good idea is.  It usually comes down to belief.

In the past several centuries, the ability to save ideas was relegated to the few who were deemed skillful or divinely inspired.  Books were written in monasteries, then disseminated by printing presses, and as ideas became easier to save, more people saved them.  But, and this is very important, saving an idea doesn’t make it a good idea, just a saved one.  Somewhere along the line we began to get the notion that only a few select people were capable of having a good idea, because only a few select people were capable of saving them.  Even in the 21st century, many mental health professionals and educators cling to the notion that peer-reviewed work published in journals is the apex of quality.  If it is written, if it was saved by a select few it must be a good idea.  If you have any doubt of what I’m talking about just Google “DSM V.”

With each leap in human technology comes the power to save more ideas and then spread them.  People who talk about things going viral often forget that an idea has to be saved first, and that in essence something going viral is really a form of society saving an idea.  If anything, technology has improved the democratization of education and ideas.

This makes many of us who grew up in an earlier era nervous and frustrated.  We call the younger generation self-absorbed rather than democratizing.  We grumble, “what makes you think you should blog about your day, take photos of your food, post links to cute kitten videos?”  We may even take smug self-satisfaction that we aren’t contributing to the static.  I think that’s a bad idea, although it clearly has been saved from earlier times.

40,000 years from now, our ideas may take on meanings we never anticipated, like cave drawings.  Why were kittens so important to them?  In the long view I think we remember that people have to believe they have an good idea before they take the leap of faith to save it.  The citizens of the future may debate who saved kitten videos and why, but it will be taken as given that they must have been important to many of us.

What if everyone had the confidence to believe that they had an idea worth saving?  What if everyone had the willingness to believe that it just might be possible that their idea was brilliant?  Each semester I ask the students in my class to raise their hand if they think they can get an A- or higher in the class, and most do.  Then I ask them to raise their hand if they think they can come up with in an idea in this class that could change the world.  I’ve never had more than 3 hands go up.  That’s sad.

This is why I admire the millennials and older groups who take advantage of social media and put their ideas out there.  I doubt that they are all good ideas, but I celebrate the implicit faith it takes to save them.  Anyone, absolutely anyone at all, can have a good idea.  It may not get recognized or appreciated, but now more than ever it can get saved.  Saving an idea is an act of agency.  It is a political act.  Saving an idea is choosing to become just a bit more visible.  On the most basic level saving an idea is a celebration and affirmation of the self.  Think about that, and dare to jot down, draw, record or otherwise save one of your ideas today.  I just did and it feels great.  Then maybe you can even share it with someone else.

What makes a person decide an idea is worth saving?

You do.


Like this post? I can speak in person too, check out the Press Kit for Public Speaking info. And, for only $4.99 you can buy my book. You can also Subscribe to the Epic Newsletter!