The Unfulfillable Promise of Meritocracy: Three Lessons and Their Implications for Justice in Education

Social Justice Research 29(1): Forthcoming

40 Pages Posted: 14 Oct 2015 Last revised: 19 Jan 2016

Date Written: December 1, 2014


This paper draws on a literature in sociology, psychology and economics that has extensively documented the unfulfilled promise of meritocracy in education. I argue that the lesson learned from this literature is threefold: 1) educational institutions in practice significantly distort the ideal meritocratic process; 2) opportunities for merit are themselves determined by non-meritocratic factors; 3) any definition of merit must favor some groups in society while putting others at a disadvantage. Taken together these conclusions give reason to understand meritocracy not just as an unfulfilled promise, but as an unfulfillable promise. Having problematized meritocracy as an ideal worth striving for, I argue that the pervasiveness of meritocratic policies in education threatens to crowd out need and equality as principles of justice. As such it may pose a barrier rather than a route to equality of opportunity. Furthermore, meritocratic discourse legitimates societal inequalities as justly deserved such as when misfortune is understood as personal failure. The paper concludes by setting a research agenda that asks how citizens come to hold meritocratic beliefs; addresses the persistence of (unintended) meritocratic imperfections in schools; analyzes the construction of a legitimizing discourse in educational policy; and investigates how education selects and labels winners and losers.

Keywords: Meritocracy, educational institutions, educational policy, social stratification, social mobility

Suggested Citation

Mijs, Jonathan, The Unfulfillable Promise of Meritocracy: Three Lessons and Their Implications for Justice in Education (December 1, 2014). Social Justice Research 29(1): Forthcoming, Available at SSRN:

Jonathan Mijs (Contact Author)

Harvard University ( email )

Cambridge, MA
United States


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