This chapter presents a historical analysis of the American culture of meritocracy as manifested in education. Merit is most often understood as being a personal matter, as existing in individual personality traits such as competency, intelligence, and diligence—which are themselves rooted in cognition, biology, and morality. The chapter discusses how individuals make choices and take action, but do so within the confines of their cultural understandings and as these conform to the existing social order. Much of the work of educational institutions is therefore less concerned with teaching or learning, and more concerned with sorting or positioning everyone in relation to the others around them, and then in communicating that position to other institutions through a process that can be called credentialing.
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