Waking Up: Meritocracy in Education Must Be Dismantled
An educator seeks to cultivate tomorrow’s leaders with a more holistic approach.
Breathe in, breathe out.
Breathe in, breathe out.
My face gets hot and my vision blurs as steam billows outward.
A rush of sensations—thoughts, feelings, memories, ideas, dreams, desires, reassurances—envelop me as I struggle to hold a steady breath.
“What’s going on?”
“What have I done?”
I didn't realize I was in so deep. I hadn’t anticipated that I’d become an accomplice, an agent of the state and upholder of the systems we so critically analyze and deconstruct in my class. I thought I was helping the youth by holding space in my classroom to critique these systems of control. I thought by offering ways to engage in activism that I was empowering them to cause change. I really believed my science projects were an exercise in co-imagining a future where science and technology can open up new opportunities for community growth and empowerment.
All of it sounded so good on paper. I didn’t know my efforts in the classroom, although of purest intention, would only feed into a malicious cycle, one that robs each person in it of their soul, their essence, no matter their role.
An Epiphany Changed My Perspective on Education
I spent six long years working on my lessons, teaching strategies, projects, community outreach, classroom management and communication skills so that I could be the kind of ideal teacher I’d read about and admired. But no matter how many students enjoyed my class, or how many awards I received for a job well done, I still felt empty. I figured I’d continue working on my craft until I developed a reputation as a great educator, and that like most of my mentors and idols, the satisfaction of a job well done would fuel my passion and make it all worthwhile.
But now I see I was simply asleep—a side effect of working from within a system designed for control.
I didn’t expect waking up would be like this: seeing so clearly, feeling so deeply. But I guess there are no coincidences. It was destined to be that way: Once I finally healed enough from my past traumas, my mind, body and heart would align, and my soul would be filled with the hyper-awareness of all the selves I have scattered across time and space, existing in my memory or someone else’s.
The Myth of American Meritocracy
I see myself as a child again, being socialized at school to believe American meritocracy will free me from the grips of poverty, ignorance and misfortune. I’m encouraged to compete for the acknowledgment and validation that what I’m so positive about is real and empirically true. I’m reminded that my tears and anxieties have no place in the classroom because it distracts from the learning. I’m assured that my instinctual shyness towards some adults was a result of my unstable home life, and not my ability to feel the darkness and sadness they hide.
I feel my teen self seeking comfort in the consistency of the classroom setting, and the constant praise I receive for being “one of the good ones”—the pride in being deemed outstanding for valuing knowledge over trivial feelings. I hear the applause for awards I’d won for executing the complex logical acrobatics the hard sciences require. Yet I struggle to fill the pits of my heart, where the pain lies, and occasionally rises when I’m cold-called to answer a question. But this version of me is eager to please and is good at navigating toxic relationships.
I recall the insecurities and overcompensating behaviors during my time existing and studying on a predominantly white undergraduate college campus. I remember buckling under the pressures of a high end, fully-funded science lab that demanded strict adherence to lab protocol—protocol I was learning for the first time, while so many of my peers already knew it by heart.
I see myself engaging in substance abuse and unsafe sexual practices to cope with the feelings of loneliness and inadequacy. I experience again the depression and self-isolation I underwent when I realized schooling wasn’t going to deliver on my post-graduation happily-ever-after fantasy.
A Meritocratic Education System Is Simply Not Effective
Being awake now, I can experience these past versions of myself and see the impact this system has had on my development over time. It gives context to my personal experience and weaves it into a systemic issue. But it doesn’t stop there. I simultaneously become aware of the hundreds of versions that have existed and will continue to exist in the minds of my current and former students.
The teacher who held space for more personal conversations. The teacher with the fun project. The teacher who failed them. The teacher they dreaded to visit because she was too coldly logical and confusing. The kooky teacher with strange ideas about the mind and the universe. The teacher who won’t let them eat in class. The intimidating teacher. The teacher that doesn’t believe in Jesus. The teacher they feel they let down because they didn't graduate. The teacher they stopped talking to because life got too real and they didn’t want her to be disappointed.
There were so many instances where I felt the deeper socio-emotional and spiritual aches my students and I experienced at the hands of this system, but I couldn’t communicate what I was feeling intuitively. I’d been too disconnected from my emotions, for too long. My brain, so good at logic games, would play tricks to convince me that the system could be fixed if I just stayed in it long enough and tried harder. I was sure that if I just gave more of myself in the classroom, all of my students could pass. All of them would graduate, go to college and become successful. I was living proof you could succeed if you play the game right. I regurgitated this dogma to students and parents like incantations, limiting the capabilities of human creativity to that which can be graded with a rubric.
As I articulate my current experience with self, I can expand outside my mind’s desire to analyze and judge my unfortunate participation in this system. This newfound awareness brings into perspective that this system isn’t new. My ancestral trauma primes me to fear and respect the powers that be—not to bite the hand that feeds but to beat them at their own game. And although countless authors, scholars and mentors encouraged my ability to reprogram the system from within, I see now that it was a flawed motive from the start.
Only when community becomes aligned like our individual selves, can true, large-scale, meaningful change come to education. Only when unity and self-love become the standard all measured are by, will the controlling education system be dismantled.
The Solution Is a Holistic Approach to Education
With this new perspective, I now see so much. My students who ignore the lesson but appreciate my work are my allies—they co-create a space with me that values honest and tender communication. Those students who despise school but come to share their lived experiences with me are my new mentors. They show me the power of human connection and its spiritual value. My anxious students who struggle to complete timed performance tasks, but confidently share their smiles and laughter, are the models of genuine expression I never had in a school setting. Even the students who talk back, defy school rules and hurt others in search of their passion showcase the power of the human heart, regardless of its level of maturity or experience.
Aside from the intense personal reflection, my awakening from within the education system has shown me that we are on a path towards radical change—a path that leads to where education isn’t measured by grades assigned to productivity, but rather by the cultivation of healthy relationships. Where the desire to learn isn’t tied to intrinsic curiosity or a belief in meritocracy, but a passion to connect with community, the environment and the cosmos beyond.
Our guides won’t be people on a podium, but rather the youth who choose to defy the system: The ones who ditch class to be outside in nature. The ones who cherish their friendships over sitting quietly for hours. The ones who refuse to follow rules. They carry the seeds of the ancestors, which is why they won’t fall in line. Their existence is resistance against the monopolization of logic for profit.
As a newly awakened educator, it is my duty to speak into existence the fall of this failing education system, so that these seeds may be sown in the compost, and a new vision for holistic education can be dreamed up from outside the classroom walls.