Towards a Level Playing Field
I tend to believe in a meritocracy. The American Ruling Class claims that a meritocracy was how the powers-that-be perpetuate themselves, but I do not think that's the case. That kind of elitism has some degree of meritocracy (competence counts), but it's more about connections (your parents and schoolmates count *more*). The Horatio Alger myth has the persistent power of urban legend simply because merit does count - somewhat.
Also, a meritocracy has the best promise of class mobility. There's something inherently "fair" about the idea. Those who work hard, are motivated, and possess skill should be successful.
Unfortunately, it's not that simple. The quality of one's educational system, one's home environment, one's neighborhood, and a whole host of other factors make the playing field far from level. Due to factors outside their control, large swaths of our population are effectively "handicapped" (in the sports sense). While it is still possible to succeed with these "handicaps", it makes a meritocracy far from fair.
Again, we're talking about a hypothetical meritocracy, which *is not* what we currently have in the USA. While there are elements of a meritocracy - and a huge *myth* that we're a meritocracy - personal connections and social class markers (dress, manner of speech, etc) play a much greater part in our modern society.
Even if the social class aspect were to disappear today, the uneven playing field would persist. This, too, is an echo of prejudice. It is pernicious, simply because it *can* be overcome. This allows the Horatio Alger myth to persist, justifying the privilege of those who got a head start on the playing field of life.
We can debate theoretical issues, but we cannot forget the complex reality on the ground. There are, right now, people who need to be in college to earn enough to live, but lack the skills needed to survive in a college environment. While remedial classes can help, they carry their own stigma. Yet simply tossing people into a task-conditions-standard environment without the basic skills needed to survive there is detrimental to all.
The obvious and needed solution is to totally overhaul the education system from the ground up - but until then, how can we best help those already in the belly of the beast?