For high-achieving high school students, nothing is more validating than a report card full of straight A’s. These hallowed grades promise salaried rewards aplenty in the working world. Even more importantly, contemporary culture tends to treat educational success as a sign of moral worth: Parents and grandparents and teachers are proud of kids who do well in school. They shouldn’t be.
Earlier this week, an international team of scientists published a paper announcing that they had identified 1,271 genetic variants that are associated with how many years people spend in school. Their result follows on from several other academics’ papers and years of research identifying the genetic variants associated with educational achievements.
These studies do not support the idea that intelligence is all down to genetics: Even with full knowledge of all these variants, an analysis of any one individual’s genes could not be used to make a meaningful prediction about whether they’re going to get a PhD or drop out of school. But they do show that genetics have an impact; while genetics do not definitively determine how someone will fare in school, they create certain predispositions. In total, all the genetic variants account for 11% of variation in educational attainment across the population. This is pretty significant. In comparison, The Atlantic notes, research shows that household income explains 7% of variation in educational achievement.
There are many reasons these results might seem alarming given the history of the eugenics movement, which promotes the idea of genetically-determined intelligence as a basis for superiority. But there are also many reasons why they should not be ignored: As the scientists explain in a FAQ accompanying their paper, knowledge about how genetics influences years in schooling can help correct inequalities. For example, if we know someone is genetically predisposed to have less success in school, we can change teaching methods or provide extra tutoring to combat that disadvantage.
But amidst all the worrying over how genetics could influence the way we think about a person’s success in school lies a fundamental, unquestioned assumption: That such an intelligence-based meritocracy should exist in the first place. We are so invested in the idea that academic achievement is a de facto good that we fail to consider whether intelligence should be rewarded in the first place.
If we didn’t associate intelligence with personal worth, there would be as little controversy as the genetics of education as there is over the genetics of height. And yet we use educational success as an indicator of personal value—despite the fact that many of the factors that determine our experiences in school are beyond our control.
How you perform in the classroom is the result of a mixture of environmental and biological factors, including but not limited to genetics, your family’s socioeconomic status, the level of emphasis that your family places on education, whether you have a skill set that conveniently matches exam requirements, and whether you have access to good teachers. Doing well in school is, predominantly, a sign of good luck.
On one level, we know that academic success isn’t the only measure of value. Poets and artists and writers who flunk out of school are heralded for the brilliance that their narrow education systems didn’t recognize. But what about all the people who don’t achieve international recognition for their creativity but are still highly creative, or socially graceful, or just plain nice?
An ideal world, surely, wouldn’t be one where the most intelligent do the best, regardless of their family’s wealth, but a world in which everyone’s talents are equally recognized and rewarded. In 1958, sociologist Michael Young created the term “meritocracy” in a dystopian novel that warned of the horrors of categorizing humans by intelligence. Four decades on, in 2001, he wrote in The Guardian of his despair at how the word had been adapted with none of the negative connotations he intended. “With an amazing battery of certificates and degrees at its disposal, education has put its seal of approval on a minority, and its seal of disapproval on the many who fail to shine from the time they are relegated to the bottom streams at the age of seven or before,” he wrote.
Those who buy into meritocratic ideals “actually believe they have morality on their side” added Young. As they’ve attributed their success to their own inherent worth, inequality has increased. Soaring wages for those at the top are, under the eyes of meritocrats, just rewards for their talents.
Of course pursuing knowledge is a valuable endeavor. But you can gain knowledge whether you’re studying for a final or working in kitchens, farms, concert halls, and railways. The notion that rewards should go to the most intelligent isn’t a sign of a fair society, but a truly unjust one.