June 5, 2007

The stress of meritocracy

Today’s top moment was receiving a pack of April and May New Yorker magazines from a woman who had read this entry. She was very happy to find a home for her old subscriptions and even suggested that I pass them on to Shelley for her tourist apartments so that they can continue a long and happy life. Expats get that way about their beloved magazines.

The first “Talk of the Town” commentary I read from the May 21 issue fit nicely with Trento’s Festival dell’Economia topic, “Human Capital, Social Capital” – at least the human side. It was about higher education and meritocracy. “Americans want education to be two things, universal and meritocratic.” So why all the stress? While everyone, in theory, gets a place at the starting line, the weeding process that makes the system efficient is hugely stressful. “The more purely meritocratic the system – the more open, the more efficient, the “fairer” – the more anxiety it produces, because there is no haven from competition….Everything you do in a meritocratic society is some kind of test, and there is never a final exam…..which at some point starts to get in the way of becoming educated. You can’t learn when you’re afraid of being wrong.”

I write to my US friends with their college-applying children that I am SOOOO happy not to be going through all that stress. Their children have applied to an array of “top” colleges, all are super kids with lots of interests and activities in addition to great grades, all are stressing on which school to pick, which one didn’t pick them etc. Their parents are stressing on the future fees….

My older son is just going to enrol in the University of Trento and study economics. Getting in is not the stressful part -- although there is an entrance exam that weeds out the true losers -- passing exams one after the other until the end, is. In fact, there is a very high percentage of non-finishers (about 70%). It is just a different way to let everyone get a place at the starting line, a different way to set in motion a weeding process and a different kind of stress.

The big difference is that Italians buy into a much less expensive version of stress.

Do they get a good education? From my experience, those with the desire to study and the capability to do so, come out very well prepared. The others less so. Not much of a difference there.

A domani,

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