The Myth of Meritocracy: Reframing the American Dream

Given the theme of “Equity” for this year’s annual Rowland Conference, I thought it appropriate to write about the hidden barriers that can prevent success in school and life.  Particularly, I focus on the American Dream which is frequently mentioned in political rhetoric.  This blog post aims to start the conversation around equity issues, especially as it relates to those in poverty.

american-dreamThe American Dream is deeply embedded in the narrative of the United States.  Equality of opportunity is blindly assumed, with little thought to potential barriers.  A vast majority of Americans believe that if you go to school and work hard then you’ll “make it”.  Scant attention is provided to the externalities inherent in our free-market capitalist society.   The achievement ideology as it is currently defined and perceived in the United States is riddled with misconceptions. .  Most people do not fully understand why so many individuals fail in their quest to “make it” and usually blame is placed on the individual.  Overwhelming hurdles imposed by structural constraints not only limit opportunities but quell the aspirations of those striving towards becoming middle class.   As a component of social reproduction, cultural capital holds significant sway in the success of individuals both in school and in society.  Clearly the achievement ideology is fraught with misconceptions that lowers aspirations, which in turn negatively influences upward mobility. Thus, the American Dream should be promoted pragmatically, exposing the structural barriers that prevent individuals from achieving economic success in the United States.

Defining the American Dream

american-dream-2The achievement ideology is deeply ingrained in the psyche of most Americans.  It is unquestioningly presumed that if one works hard then they will succeed. The United States is based on the belief of meritocracy, which assumes equal opportunity; in other words a fair chance to “make it”.  The American Dream is an individualistic view that does not really account for external barriers.  It is widely believed that if a person is unsuccessful, then it is due to personal inadequacy.  This definition is not accurate and it inappropriately places heavy emphasis on individual agency.  People often think those in poverty are personally deficient, such as being lazy or stupid.   The achievement ideology in the United States presumes that those who fail have themselves to blame (MacLeod, 2009).  To counter this, MacLeod (2009) acknowledges that,

The view that the problem resides almost exclusively with the children and their families, and that some sort of cultural injection is needed to compensate for what they are missing, is not only intellectually bankrupt but also has contributed to the widespread popular notion that the plight of poor whites and minorities is entirely their own fault.  (p.100)

This view needs to be reframed so that everyone have a better understanding of those in poverty.  Furthermore, the current definition of the American Dream sets people up for defeat and a prolonged sense of despair.  There are stark differences in the obstacles, resources, and opportunities available to those in the lower class versus those in the upper echelon.  Acknowledgement of this dichotomy is necessary to understand how difficult it is to climb the socioeconomic ladder out of poverty.

Cultural and Social Capital

american-dream-3A major barrier to success in both school and the labor market is due in part to a lack of cultural capital.  Cultural capital is a nebulous term, but for the purposes this post will be thought of as the norms, knowledge, skills, and linguistic prowess of a particular social class (Mehan, 1992).  More specifically, it influences the ability of a particular class to navigate and operate within the socially dominant culture, which is most often much different than the culture of the lower classes.  Pierre Bourdieu, the progenitor of the notion of cultural capital, argues that schools and society reward the capital of the dominant class, providing elites with a distinct advantage (Kingston, 2001).  Sullivan (2001) complements this by saying cultural capital  possesses an “exclusionary character”, essentially handicapping those without the “right” stock of capital (p. 89).  Another equally important component of cultural capital is parental encouragement, which influences aspirations (Sullivan, 2001).  This is only a partial explanation for the academic and economic success of the socially privileged (Sullivan, 2001).  Ultimately, those in the middle class and above have a greater stock of cultural capital, particularly capital that is valued in the dominant culture.

MacLeod (2009) reveals that social capital and social networks that provide useful resources, are equally important to success in the labor market as cultural capital is.  In the assumed meritocratic free-market society, it is believed that human capital alone is enough to acquire employment, but this is just not true.  As McLeod (2009) discovers through his interviews, social connections are often necessary to get one’s foot in the door.  Another component of MacLeod’s (2009) findings is that those occupying the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder tend to lack social capital, just as they lack cultural capital.

Social Reproduction

american-dream-4The class one is born into is the social class they will likely remain through their adult years (MacLeod, 2009).  Those in the upper socioeconomic strata do not have to deal with certain hurdles that those living in poverty must contend with.  A multitude of factors contribute to social class reproduction, several have been discussed already.  Certainly there is some aspect of choice in determining one’s social class but mostly it is structural constraints that are to blame.  Family plays a crucial role in social reproduction, as do schools, the economy, race and peer groups (MacLeod, 2009).  All of these components operate to construct what Bourdieu calls habitus.  McLeod (2009) synthesizes habitus as “…composed of the attitudes, beliefs, and experiences of those inhabiting one’s social world.” (p. 15). Habitus influences one’s response to social structures in such a way that they reinforce class inequality (MacLeod, 2009).   Habitus foments particular attitudes which in turn influences agency.

Structure – Agency Dualism

american-dream-6The dominant social construction of the American Dream discounts structure and focuses solely on agency as the primary force in determining one’s outcome in life.  The reality is that structure and agency are inextricably linked; inequalities in structure inhibit individual agency (McLeod, 2009).  A paucity of stable, well paying jobs that do not require a college education has become the norm since the genesis of the postindustrial era.  Blue-collar jobs in factories that were once the foundation of the middle class are now scarce.  The labor market is now split into low-wage menial service sector jobs and high-wage technical positions that require expert cognitive skills (Levy & Murnane, 2004).  This has created a hollowing-out of the middle sector of the labor spectrum and a social division of labor (Bowles, 1971; Levy & Murnane, 2004).  Limited opportunities in the labor market is but one of countless structural constraints that restrict possibilities for those in poverty.  Though external obstacles are a dominant factor, individual agency does play a role in social reproduction.

Mehan (1992) finds that people do actively make their own choices in life, however theses choices are not made under conditions of their own choosing.   Agency can have positive influences though.  MacLeod (2009) found that one of the greatest acts of agency was moving to another location.  This changed the environment that the individual operated in and thus the related constraints.  Clearly individuals do contribute to their own successes or failures, but as noted, agency cannot be discussed without thought to structural forces.

Aspirations and Expectations

american-dream-8Hopelessness and cynicism pervade the outlooks of those in poverty due to limited occupational opportunities and generally depressing experiences (MacLeod, 2009).  Leveled aspirations play an integral role in shaping the outcomes of those in poverty.  Changed aspirations can affect expectations and ultimately new behaviors and attitudes (MacLeod, 2009, p. 149).  One’s attitude has direct implications for both academic and employment success.  A change in attitude and outlook can have a significant impact.

Often, parental roles are limited for those in poverty, due to a fear of setting high expectations that will only be crushed.  MacLeod (2009) found that one mother thought “ …it inappropriate to foster high aspirations in her children, fearing that unrealistically high goals only result in disappointment, frustrations, and feelings of failure and inadequacy.” (p.58).  In opposition of this, it has been found that parents that foster high expectations for their children tend to inspire higher aspirations and decreased hopelessness (MacLeod, 2009).  In addition to the family, peer groups can also sustain and alter the aspirations of individuals.  When there is nothing to look forward to, attitudes and aspirations falter.  Constant failure along with a dreary future leads to feelings of futility and desperation that only furthers social reproduction of the lower classes.


american-dream-5The American Dream persists despite a plethora of research that debunks the equality of opportunity myth.  What is touted as a meritocracy, is in actuality a closed opportunity structure. Despite this fact, people still believe that success depends solely on personal merit.  It is commonly believed that to succeed it is necessary to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”, supporting the ethos of individualism. A vast majority of people, including those in poverty, are blind to the impact of social class.  In the pursuit of the American Dream, countless individuals fail.  Usually failure is attributed to not trying hard enough or just not having what it takes (MacLeod, 2009).   There are however, numerous structural impediments that handicap those in poverty and prevent them from ever achieving the American Dream.  The social reproduction cycle is incredibly difficult to break out of and it engenders low aspirations and feelings of despair.   Potentially the most dangerous aspect of the myth of meritocracy is that some people do “make it” and climb the social ladder out of poverty.  This illusion of social mobility perpetuates the myth that it is agency and not structure that influences success.  Ultimately, the fact that upward mobility does exist legitimates the current inequalities in society (MacLeod, 2009).  Until there is substantial recognition of the structural barriers that constrain the opportunities of those in poverty, the American Dream will continue to be but a mirage for many.



Andrew Jones, 2015 Cohort, is a doctoral student at the University of Vermont in the education policy and leadership Ed.D. program.  He has taught for six years as a 9th grade science teacher at Mt. Abraham Union High School in Bristol Vermont and is currently the science department chair.  Along with his colleague Gabe Hamilton, Andrew Jones was awarded a 2015 Rowland Foundation Fellowship to research standards-based grading practices and to implement systemic change at Mount Abe.


All images are by artist Kay Crain and can be purchased here.


Bowles, S. (1971). Unequal education and the reproduction of the social division of labor.  Review of Radical Political Economics, 3(Fall/Winter), 17-46.

Kingston, P.W. (2001).  The unfulfilled promise of cultural capital theory.  Sociology of Education, 74, 88-99.

Levy, F. and Murnane, R.J. (2004).  The new division of labor: How computers are creating the next job market.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

MacLeod, J. (2009). Ain’t no makin’ it: Aspirations and attainment in a low-income neighborhood (Rev. ed.).  Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Mehan, H. (1992). Understanding inequality in schools: The contribution of interpretive studies. Sociology of Education, 65(1), 1-20.

Sullivan, A. (2001). Cultural capital and educational attainment.  Sociology, 35, 893-912. doi:10.1177/0038038501035004006



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