Monday, May 14, 2012

Dealing with the Problem of Meritocracy

The problem of meritocracy is merit. This problem is twofold: firstly, the definition of merit is mutable and contentious; secondly, the reach of merit is variable in duration and uneven in scope. There is no doubt that we can define various merits and what they imply; there is also no doubt that merit has scope and duration with respect to its influence over what we are likely to be able to achieve, having attained it. However, the nature of that relationship is too vague for a modern person's reasonable comfort.
What I propose therefore is that the burden of meritocracy be removed from the poor sad arbiters of the civil service and the admissions committees. We should make those who apply for entry justify the inclusion of all the elements of their CVs — if a prospective medical student lists a hundred achievements, make him demonstrate by reason or example why they are relevant to his intended profession and the life it entails. And give them all the same limits — a thousand words, two thousand — it matters not except that we acknowledge that a life is a life, and no matter how much merit you cram into it, there will be limits to how much use a hundred pieces of merit can be.
But who determines what is sufficiently reasonable or exemplary? That comes back to the first half of our problem — how do we know what it is?
And who knows what will be useful that we should look for its seeds in the past? That comes back to the second half of our problem — how do we know what it does?
That's what we should do during the interview. Find the uncommon and the rare, and make the candidates justify those first. By definition, these things are outliers, and not many. Next, find the very common, and put them in a Likert scale instrument. Make all the candidates rank these common merits, say 20 of them. Take the top merits from this phase and mark them as 'to be ignored'. Clearly, since everyone has them and wants them, they are of no value in differentiation.
At this point, we can select say 1500 candidates for 300 places in a medical school. Put them in groups of 6. Play survival games of various kinds. Add the scores. Pick the second or third best (but not both of them) from each group of 6. That gives a selection of 250 successful candidates who are adept at doing well but not too well, and 1250 unsuccessful. Make the remaining 1250 compete for the last 50 places in some other profession. If they won't, eliminate them; clearly, they are the kind who shun opportunities.
You should now have a thousand or so. Ask them to wait a year, then put them back into the mix.
"So arbitrary!" everyone will cry. "What gives you the right to do this crazy thing?"
Nobody. If I am made an arbiter, I will be arbitrary. That is what arbiters do.

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