Arnon Grunberg and the limits of meritocracy

What’s wrong with a seemingly honest system like meritocracy, which judges people not by their social background, for example, but by their abilities? That is the question Arnon Grunberg, artist in residence at TU/e, tried to answer in the Blauwe Zaal on Thursday evening. The lecture is the kick-off of the lustrum project Expedition Grunberg – The Ethical Casino, during which the author will discuss the concept of meritocracy with a group of students.

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photo Bart van Overbeeke

In the past, when the world was run by the aristocracy, your social success was mostly determined by the family you were born into. Today, we live in a so-called meritocracy: anyone can strive for success, and your IQ, qualities and skills determine how far up the social ladder you climb. This solves the problem of inequality, one would say. But is that truly the case?

Not according to Arnon Grunberg, who was named artist in residence (AiR@TU/e) this academic year, in honor of TU/e’s lustrum year. Together with a group of students, the author plans to undertake a philosophical expedition in the coming months to the limits and possibilities of meritocracy. Grunberg started the expedition in the Blauwe Zaal last Thursday evening – in front of a 75 strong live audience and lots of others watching from home – with an exploration of the issue. The evening was organized by Studium Generale and was presented and moderated by Rozemarijn Schalkx.

Lucky Sperm

Grunberg succinctly described the problem of meritocracy using the ironic words spoken by sociologist Michael Young (1915-2002): those who become successful just happen to belong to the ‘Lucky Sperm Club.’

Grunberg immediately modernizes the term into ‘Lucky Sperm and Egg Club,’ but the idea is the same: that high IQ of yours and that ability to work really hard or to charm the people around you aren’t your own achievements. You just happened to be born with them, and that doesn’t make you better than others. Consequently, there are still winners and losers in this world.

And is it true that your success is determined solely by your suitability? Grunberg: “How do you explain the fact that parents’ educational level is an important predictor of children’s academic achievement?”

Class society

Grunberg doesn’t believe that meritocracy leads to equal opportunity and that it erases the difference between social classes. He chooses his word carefully: “It is taboo in the Netherlands to talk about the existence of a class society.”

Politicians, for example, are more likely than average university-trained. This increases the chance that the national government pays less attention to the needs of social groups with lower levels of education. One could say that this alone makes a politician with a university diploma less suited for his or her position. “In politics in particular, everyone should have an equal chance to ‘run for office,’ as they say in the US.”

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And no matter how utopian it may seem – equal opportunity for all – the idea that everyone is a potential rival in social competition is also quite scary, in all honesty. That is an important reason, Grunberg believes, for the migration debate. “We don’t want those others to reduce our education, job and housing prospects. Can’t they just stay there and leave us alone?”

Women’s quota

Should the government make an effort to promote equal opportunity? Grunberg is in favor of little or no government intervention, aimed predominantly at those who get crushed by the system through sheer bad luck. “That’s also because we humans are complicated, irrational beings – you never know whether policy measures have the desired outcome.”

The author believes that there’s no reason why the division between positions should have to be a perfect reflection of society. “If a city has an above average number of dentists from Asian origin, for example, that wouldn’t be a problem to me. I believe that positive discrimination is a means with many unwanted side effects.”

The link with TU/e’s much discussed – up to the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights – policy to recruit more women is not difficult to see. Executive Board president Robert-Jan Smits asks to speak and refers to an article published by Grunberg in 2019 about TU/e’s Irène Curie Fellowship program. In this article, Grunberg states that he is not in favor of such an intervention, but that it could be of help in upsetting the old boys’ network, which has gotten just a bit too comfortable in its seat of power.

Grunberg still holds that view, but he would like to add a comment: “The general reasoning error that always occurs with any revolution, large or small, is the idea that the new elite will be better than the old one.” After all, a revolution doesn’t just dislodge the existing elite, it also helps a new one into the saddle. That, for example, is how the wealthy bourgeoisie replaced the aristocracy.

And that makes, for example, an initiative like ‘Vote for a woman’ more dangerous than it might seem, Grunberg says: “France will hold presidential elections next year, in which Marine Le Pen will likely take part…”

Audience

Time for audience reactions. A physicist in the Blauwe Zaal says that the presence of a minimum number of women at her department makes a big difference to her personally: “Because of these role models, I feel like a member of a community instead of an outcast.”

The questions soon become more substantive. If the meritocratic ideal is that suitability determines your eligibility for a position, how do you measure that suitability objectively? After all, tests like the CITO exam have their limitations. And: isn’t it worth striving for an ideal meritocracy, in which society in general benefits from the fact that the right people occupy the right positions? Because that’s how we achieve optimal progress.

Enough ingredients for the philosophical expedition Grunberg and his travelling party set off on last Thursday evening.

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