Does that Sound Like Meritocracy to You?
Does that Sound Like Meritocracy to You?
Nicholas D. Hartlep
Illinois State University

Nicholas D. Hartlep  (Audio Only)               Print Friendly and PDF


I understand that poverty adversely impacts achievement and students’ lives, so I appreciate AERA President Tierney selecting it as the theme for AERA’s 77th Annual Meeting to be held in San Francisco, a city that had 6,455 homeless individuals in 2011 (2011 San Francisco Homeless). In this essay I attempt to describe why when we consider why “poor” people in society continue to be stuck in a rut of poverty, some of us turn to pat, easy answers which ignore the complex realities of classism, allowing the more privileged people among us to dismiss the problem while maintaining another popular myth: that the United States is a country built on meritocracy.    

When we consider why “poor” people in our society continue to be stuck in a rut of poverty, some of us turn to pat, easy answers: Economic recession. Character deficits. A lack of morals. A poor work ethic by lazy freeloaders. Cultural background. Just plain bad luck. These clichés, which ignore the complex realities of classism, allow the more privileged people among us to dismiss the problem while maintaining another popular myth: that the United States is a country of unbiased opportunity, a level playing field where everybody has equal access to the American Dream, where fortunes can be made by people who are willing to work hard.

This notion, that hard work and a good education inevitably will pay off, is occasionally challenged by people’s experiences, as in stories about individuals who have to use welfare despite holding Ph.D.’s (e.g., see Patton, 2012) or by videos[1][KR1]  of Yale and Brown University alums who are homeless. Far more often, though, the stories we see in the mainstream media reinforce popular conceptions of equal access and reward. We are regaled with heartwarming accounts of people overcoming brutal personal and economic situations to gain admission to Harvard or to earn degrees from Ivy League institutions (Bermudez, 2009; Hibbard, 2012; Keneally, 2012; Kuo, 2012; Murray, 2011).

However, the narrative of meritocracy has a dark side. It implies that a person who does not succeed must lack ambition; conversely, that anyone who is successful must have gotten there solely on her or his own. When we assume we have a healthy meritocracy we overlook the ways in which mainstream institutions marginalize poor people and make them much more likely than their wealthier counterparts to fail. This is unfortunate because the poor are ultimately blamed for their own failures, both for their perceived unwillingness to play by the rules and for their inability to cash in on the American Dream.

Adherents to meritocracy—people who are convinced that great achievement in our society is solely a result of individual effort—have to overlook certain types of individuals in order to justify their view. What about people who did not work hard or do particularly well in school, but who nevertheless were admitted to Harvard or Stanford as “legacies,” inheriting institutional advantages because of who their ancestors were? This particular quandary of legacies is addressed by Golden (2007) in his book, The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys its Way into Elite Colleges, and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates, where he explains how wealthy elites pay exorbitantly high prices and rely on informal personal networks in order to send their children to Ivy League institutions.

In fact, even middle class families have an advantage in this area note Lui, Robles, Leondar-Wright, Brewer, and Adamson (2006), since even they have economic avenues unavailable to poor people. So, although class inequity is commonly understood to exist at the individual rather than systemic level, it is built right into the structures we point to as being “the great equalizers” such as school. Does that sound like meritocracy to you?

Furthermore, although individuals might feel some sympathy when they observe someone in poverty, they often simultaneously cast judgment. For instance, they might quip, “If they are so poor, then why do they buy $100 sneakers for their children?” Perhaps this tendency to blame the victim serves to assuage feelings of guilt that might otherwise attend one’s sense of privilege. Instead of reflecting, “There but for the grace of God (or luck) go I,” the privileged person can proudly assert, “I would never allow myself to be so low.” I call this unfair judgment of poor people by more economically privileged people the “blame game.” 

David Berliner (2006) alerts readers to the impact that poverty has on teachers’ work and students’ learning. He asserts that teachers and schools are unequipped to ameliorate poverty. Says Berliner (2006): “In my estimation we will get better public schools by requiring of each other participation in building a more economically equitable society” (p. 988, italics added). Jean Anyon (1997) echoes Berliner’s point: “Attempting to fix inner city schools without fixing the city in which they are embedded is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door” (p. 168). The grip that poverty has on education (teaching and learning) is profound (Jensen, 2009). Therefore, understanding the impact socioeconomic inequality has on individuals in society, including schools is vital to reducing it.

I believe that as teachers and teacher educators, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that we do not contribute to the “blame game.” We accomplish this by teaching in ways that make the familiar unfamiliar and the unknown known for students and staff. In other words, problematizing the bon sens (gloss: “common” sense) upon which many practicing teachers rely is an important place to begin. Holding high expectations for all students, poor or not, is critical, too. Recognition that low-income people are in fact, victims of economic injustice is a meaningful part of this process. Furthermore, let’s carve out more space for counter-stories that reject the credibility of the “culture of poverty myth” (Gorski, 2008) and the stereotypes, misunderstandings, and victim blaming upon which the myth is constructed. I trust that topics like those addressed in this essay will be discussed and addressed at the Annual Meeting in San Francisco.



Anyon, J. (1997). Ghetto schooling: A political economy of urban school reform. New York: Teachers College Press.

Berliner, D. C. (2006). Our impoverished view of educational research. Teachers College Record, 108(6), 949-995.

Bermudez, E. (2009, June 20). She finally has a home: Harvard. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved on August 29, 2012 from 20/local/me-harvard20

Golden, D. (2007). The price of admission: How America’s ruling class buys its way into elite college, and who gets left outside the gates. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Gorski, P. (2008). The myth of the “Culture of Poverty.” Educational Leadership, 65(7), 32-36.

Hibbard, L. (2012, June 4). Dawn Loggins, student, heading to Harvard after being homeless, abandoned by parents. Retrieved on August 29, 2012 from

Jensen, E. (2009). Teaching with poverty in mind: What being poor does to kids’ brains and what schools can do about it. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Keneally, M. (2012, May 9). Janitor at Columbia to graduate with an honors degree from the university after 19 years of taking classes. Retrieved on August 29, 2012 from

Kuo, V. (2012, June 8). From scrubbing floors to ivy league: Homeless student to go to dream college. Retrieved on August 29, 2012 from /2012/06/07/us/from-janitor-to-harvard/index.html

Lui, M., Robles, B., Leondar-Wright, B., Brewer, R., & Adamson, R. (2006). The color of wealth: The story behind the U.S. racial wealth divide. New York, NY: The New Press.

Murray, L. (2011, January 15). From homeless to Harvard: How the daughter of drug addicts turned her life around. Retrieved on August 29, 2012 from

Patton, S. (2012, May 6). The Ph.D. now comes with food stamps. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved on August 29, 2012 from article/From-Graduate-School-to/131795/

2011 San Francisco Homeless Point-In-Time Count & Survey. Retrieved from


Nicholas Hartlep is Assistant Professor of Educational Foundations at Illinois State University.

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