Same As It Ever Was: Achievement Data and the Language of Opportunity

Consider Paul Verhaeghe’s discussion of neoliberalism, social Darwinism and the fallacy of meritocracy.  (From  Verhaeghe’s excellent What About Me? The Struggle for Identity in a Market Based Society):

“The analogy is plain to see: just like social Darwinism, neo-liberal meritocracy is aimed at ‘survival of the fittest’. whereby the best get precedence and the rest are selectively removed…Crucially, social Darwinism also discounted such factors as upbringing, social class, and, more broadly, environmental influences. Only factors determined by heredity were deemed important.  If you replace genes with talent, the similarity is clear: it’s all down to the individual; effort and innate characteristics will allow him or her to succeed.” (Emphasis added.)

The current zeitgeist of market fundamentalism erases all factors outside of the individual, which now makes it safe for the right to focus so much on the language of opportunity. (E.g., Michigan Governor Snyder’s recent State of the State’s  theme of “A River of Opportunity.”) I don’t think anyone is going to argue against opportunity, but it’s important to understand how it is used and what it can hide. Opportunity is a word that faces forward into the future. Opportunity says that we all need the same options as we progress.  The problem with this is it erases the past, as if the starting point for this opportunity is equal.  And if we are focusing on the individual- if we take away the context that each individual exists within as if this context is irrelevant- then opportunity sounds great.  If two people of equal social capital start at the same point, then they both have the same opportunity for success.  Right?  (If you haven’t yet, please read Ira Socol’s relevant thoughts on how this plays out in education via the language of “grit.”)

Of course,  context can’t be erased.  If we don’t consider how context and social conditions affect the starting line for opportunity, then we simply propagate the privilege of those who already have a head start.  If we only consider opportunity from the standpoint of the individual, then we can continue to blame individuals for their poverty, for their lack of success.

Ponder the case of Wisconsin Senator Paul Ryan, who has taken on the mantle of being a champion for the poor and a brand new promoter of opportunity.  What does that look like in terms of actual policy recommendations?

“On the Republican side, Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) has taken the lead in arguing that conservatives should focus on opportunity. But his approach largely consists of cuts to the safety net…Helping the poor by cutting the programs they rely on is, to say the least, a risky theory of uplift. It’s easier to see what Ryan’s plan does to impede sufficiency of opportunity than to spread it…This is why it’s wise to keep debates about principle grounded in actual policies. Changing principles requires little more than changing rhetoric. It’s the policy where you can see if anything is actually different.” (From No One Really Believes in Equality of Opportunity.)

In other words, in spite of the rhetoric, and in the words of the great educational philosopher David Byrne, it’s the same as it ever was.

Verhaeghe provides exactly the lens needed in order to understand how this is analogous to the way “achievement data” functions.  Achievement data is put forward as an objective means of measuring learning.  In fact, it simply is a marker of privilege that is used to reinforce privilege.

Verhaeghe continues:

“This analogy exposes the weak spot in the reasoning.  Social Darwinism and neo-liberal meritocracy create the impression that they favour the individual who is naturally the best. He or she would have made it anyway; we are just giving nature a helping hand to speed the ‘fittest’ up the ladder.  But the reality is somewhat different. Both social Darwinists and meritocratists themselves determine who is the ‘fittest’ and, crucially, how that is to be measured.  In practice, they create an increasingly narrow version of reality, while claiming that they promote ‘natural’ winners.  They then preserve that ‘reality’ by systematically favouring those winners, thus keeping them on top.  The fact that they remain there is advanced to prove the validity of this approach.

…on the basis of figures, decisions are made over people’s heads. And ultimately, those figures create the reality on which they are supposedly based.” (Emphasis added)

Achievement data measures a reality as a means of recreating it. Whose opportunity is that?

 

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