Merit vs. Unearned Advantage

Prompt: The academy/academia claims to rest on merit — the idea that we should earn what we have, that we should not have what we do not earn; moreover, that we should not claim to have earned what we did not fairly work for.

How do you decide whether you have earned certain advantages in your academic career, or whether you have some success because of unearned advantages?

How does your understanding of academic research, teaching, and service change depending on whether or not you succeed because of merit or because of other factors?

It seems to me that merit is a matter of perception and that it is bestowed upon those that either (or both) impress or conform to the systems/academies they wish to be part of. While the choice may be mine to join, I have to be willing to do the work deemed essential to be eligible. Thus, my choice is predicated upon the belief that the work I do is valuable to the academy and to its members. The sense that I belong, I imagine, would be derived from conversation as well as review of written work. And, while I intend for my words and work to speak for themselves, their acceptance requires approval from others based on their own perspectives, of which I often have little influence or prior knowledge, generally speaking. I imagine that my attitudes and opinions would be clear as I intended them to be, but based upon previous experiences often they can be interpreted in ways I never conceived. At times it has been to my advantage that other’s interpretation has resulted in a ‘new’ perspective, but often it does not.  

In order to determine whether one has earned certain advantages, one must be aware of the nature and culture of the clan to which they aspire to be part. Does my work contribute to what is already known, in some clear way? Is it worthy of consideration as new or does it confirm an already discovered line of reason? Who is it that I am interested in engaging? What niche does this group fill and how? I suspect the notion of earning advantage would also have to be measured by how I have legitimized, in my own mind, the work done by others. In so doing, it would be possible to examine the unearned advantages that contribute to my success.

As to the second question related to change in understanding, I’m having a bit of difficulty setting aside my experiences in the world to unpack and examine it.  And, by ‘other factors’ I am assuming it is equivalent to ‘unearned advantages’. Maybe I don’t need to think naively to respond. My understanding is based on the fallibility of humans: their inclination to seek out others who more often than not agree with their views, perspectives and their willingness to be agitated. Humans, being social creatures, want to belong to groups of others for reasons of validation and support. They are not inclined to seek conflict in order to ‘group’ together and share, and when conflict arises in a homogenous, it is often to resolve it rather to engage in it, allow its facets to be explored and come to some agreement as to how to move forward and grow from the experience. That result – to find a way forward and grow – is becoming more important in today’s society, but at the moment is as struggle.

I think that the concept of merit, versus unearned advantage, needs to be examined carefully both by the individual and the academy in order to be clear what is important and relevant in order to grow, change and possibly serve a better purpose than it does at the outset. And, the conditions of unearned advantage be identified and addressed intentionally in order to minimize their impact upon scholarship, leadership and teaching.


Merriam Webster Definition


a praiseworthy quality : VIRTUE

character or conduct deserving reward, honor, or esteem; also : ACHIEVEMENT