Effort, Merit, Privilege
This course is a history of ideas and practices connected to the notion of advancement by merit rather than by inherited status or wealth. This comparatively modern idea is more complex than it may appear. We will focus on four epochs in which personal merit came increasingly to the fore. The first is the age of the French Revolution and Napoleon. With the cry, “The career open to talent,” and the abolition of feudal privilege, the revolutionaries helped to further the development of individualism, self-assertion, and personal ambition while, at the same time, implicating the citizen more and more deeply in the apparatus of the state. The second era will be 1859 to 1870 in Britain, from the publication of The Origin of Species with the anxieties it provoked about the struggle for existence, to the education act of 1870. That act, which followed a major liberalization of the suffrage, set popular education on its feet as a national project. We will study the right to vote and get an education as the means by which the culture created marks of merit. We will also look at the struggles of those excluded, such as women and the very poor. The next period is the aftermath of the American Civil War, from Reconstruction to Jim Crow. The slaves, now free—what was to become of them? Should they compete in society at large, or was it their lot to be kept permanently in a kind of quasi-slavery without the right to vote or go to school? The last period brings us up to the present with its many instances of meritocracy. The postwar foundation of the welfare state will be examined in the light of the many challenges to it, especially from the forces promoting inequality that coexist with unprecedented opportunities for talented individuals. We will look at the problems this poses for education, wealth, and social well-being. This course is best for students with some previous exposure to history or the social sciences.