22 Ajantha Subramanian: meritocracy, caste, and class (EF, JP)

Ajantha Subramanian‘s new book The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India is much more than simply an historical and ethnographic study of the elite Indian Institutes of Technology. John and Elizabeth speak with Ajantha about the language of “merit” and the ways in which it can conceal the continuing relevance of caste (and class, and race) privilege–in India, yes, but also in American and other meritocratic democracies as well.

Our wide-ranging discussion explored how inequality gets reproduced, passed on and justified. We talked about some of the ways caste–often framed as a fundamentally “Eastern” form of difference–not only seems to have a lot in common with race, but also shares a history through colonial, plantation-based capitalism. This may explain some of the ways “merit” has also made race (and class) disparities invisible in the United States. This topic surfaced during our discussion of the ways in which dominant groups excoriate the “identity politics” of those seeking greater access to privileged domains, and claim their own independence from “ascriptive” identities while silently relying on the privilege and other hidden advantages of particular racial or caste-based forms of belonging.

Our companion text, Privilege, by Shamus Khan, addresses very similar issues in the elite high school where he was a student, teacher and sociological researcher, St. Paul’s School. Khan traces a shift over the past decades (we argued a bit about the time frame) from a conception of privilege defined by maintaining boundaries, to one based on the privileged person’s capacity to move with ease through all social contexts.

Discussed in this episode:

Ajantha Subramanian, Shorelines: Space and Rights in South India

Anthony Abraham Jack, The Privileged Poor : How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students 

Nicholas Lehmann, The Big Test

John Carson, The Measure of Merit

Anthony Trollope, Phineas Finn

Jennifer Ruth, Novel Professions

Lauren Goodlad, Victorian Literature and the Victorian State

Donna Tartt, The Secret History

Sujatha Gidla, Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India

Listen to the episode here:

Transcript Available here:

Author: plotznik

I teach English (mainly the novel and Victorian literature) at Brandeis University, and live in Brookline.

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