19 Kuhn, Meritocracy, and Excellence
Two terms are frequently mentioned in relation to science and education: “meritocracy” and “excellence.” They are often confused, although they express conflicting concepts—meritocracy normally aims at conforming to a framework, whereas excellence breaks away from it. I argue that Kuhn realistically describes science as a structure that seeks merit, rather than excellence, which is what science and education mostly require. This has implications, inter alia, on the history of science, which is also generally oriented towards meritocracy rather than excellence.
The term “meritocracy” was coined by the British sociologist
Yet, what is merit? The back cover of the Pelican edition of Young’s
No doubt as Young
The leading meritocrats of yesterday and today are admired and said to excel. Here lies the confusion: excellence conflicts with merit. To excel, as the Latin root suggests, means to break a framework, not to make the best of it. Meritocrats can be excellent individuals, yet their performances are normally judged in relation to specific frameworks and goals. As such, they conform; the excellent often do not. Young
Kuhn, on the other hand, portrays science as giving more attention to conformism than excellence. He grants that excellence, or “genius” as he calls it, is required to “shift the vision” i.e. to create a new paradigm, incommensurable with the former one (Kuhn 1996, 115–122; this argument, by the way, is self-contradictory for one needs nonconformity to break a framework). He allows scientific leaders to be sufficiently nonconformist so as to break the framework occasionally, but normal scientists conform both in following the paradigm and in switching allegiance to a new one when told to do so (Kuhn 1996, 152–153). He considers normal scientific activity, rather than excellence, to be the main avenue to the “gestalt switch.” (Kuhn 1996, 166) A new paradigm wins consensus within the scientific community that endorses the choice, either irrationally or through common sense. In Kuhn’s words, a scientist is successful when his endeavor “is rewarded through recognition by other members of his professional group and by them alone” (Kuhn 1999, 21). Kuhn rightly uses Galileo
Admittedly, research today—both “hard” and “soft”—closely follows Kuhn’s meritocratic picture. Editors of scientific periodicals and books—the springboard for academic success—as well as their purposefully chosen peer reviewers, employ meritocratic criteria (Agassi 1990). Normal scientists become opinion leaders in the wake of their popularity, rather than their contributions to science. Opinion leaders are mentioned in scholarly meetings and publications as a matter of ritual, their arguments repeated, hailed and embellished with trendy expressions. Universities, especially those called “centers of excellence,” select and praise faculty and students according to pre-established parameters (Readings 1996, chap. 2)—an evident contradiction causing confusion. Criteria for the evaluation of projects or exam questions are formulated accordingly. Students are said to “excel” when they manage to produce a flawless, up-to-date compliance with currently accepted views. The damage is vividly described by Karl Popper
Instead of encouraging the student to devote himself to his studies for the sake of studying, instead of encouraging in him a real love for his subject for inquiry, he is encouraged to study for the sake of his personal career; he is led to acquire only such knowledge as is serviceable in getting him over the hurdles which he must clear for the sake of his advancement. In other words, even in the field of science, our methods of selection are based upon an appeal to personal ambition of a somewhat crude form. (Popper 1966, vol. 1, 135)
The reasons for sticking to meritocratic criteria are easy to comprehend: a meritocratic option is safer than a violation of the framework; excellence is harder to recognize since it often takes time to become established. Yet, the establishment excludes nonconformists at the risk of thereby excluding excellence as well.
Yet today more than ever, the need for excellence is great, both inside and outside science. Kuhn and Young
It is not that these centers should be closed, or that we should encourage anarchy or altogether abandon a meritocratic approach for which we still have no substitute. Yet, it is wise to be aware of the need for excellence and how it differs from merit, in order to avoid confusing the two and to better engage with opinions that are not quite in line with the received paradigm. To reduce risk, changes of frameworks can be controlled and made gradual.3 In any case, when requesting merit, it is advisable to clearly specify and debate the criteria for merit. If this is not done, one falls into the generally accepted, confused meaning of the concept.
To conclude, the history of science has gone through a few paradigm shifts, including that of Pierre Duhem
The history of science can lead the way, since it can pinpoint past cases of real excellence that are not always easily spotted, and foster their repetition. This implies the particular responsibility of calling to attention the fact that merit does not always mean excellence.
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Readings, B. (1996). The University in Ruins. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.