Standardization as a Tool of Oppression: How the Education System Controls Thought and Serves as a Gatekeeper to the Ruling Elite

Kali Ma | Education | Theory | July 10th, 2013

The "ruling elite" is a tiny minority roughly comprised of the nation's top 1% income earners who own more wealth than the bottom 95% of the population combined.[1] Those who make up this ruling elite are wealthy, mostly white, individuals. They are overwhelmingly educated at the most prestigious elite institutions and are the leaders in all major fields within society.

In order for this tiny minority to rule over the majority, it needs mechanisms in place to keep the majority from overtaking its power. Our standardized education system serves as a vital gatekeeper to the ruling class and legitimizes their power and authority. Standardization - or the use of pre-determined measures to judge individuals - is essential to controlling thought and promoting a particular ideology to the exclusion of all other perspectives. Ideology in this context means a set of values, beliefs and ideas shared by a group of individuals that reflects their economic, political, and social interests. For an ideology to become dominant, it must be accepted by the majority and serve as a lens through which most individuals view society. The more people interpret the world through a particular perspective, the more power those who benefit from that perspective gain.

Standardization is vital to perpetuating the elite's ideology and serves to: 1) legitimize the rule of those in power; 2) train individuals to obey and defer to authority, as opposed to teaching them critical thinking skills; and 3) exclude competing perspectives and people that threaten the interests of the ruling class. The education system is particularly effective in meeting these objectives because it presents itself as a system of merit where students are rewarded in proportion to their efforts. However, when we examine the education system more closely, it becomes clear that its structure heavily favors affluent individuals and those most likely to further the elite's ideology.

Legitimizing the Ruling Elite - The Myth of Meritocracy

Central to the legitimization of those in power is the myth of meritocracy, which consists of two main assumptions: 1) that individuals succeed in proportion to their abilities, and 2) that those in leadership occupy their positions because they are the most intelligent and talented individuals in society. It also asserts that anyone can attain this elite status if they possess superior abilities and talents.

As a result of these assumptions, meritocracy advances the philosophy that certain individuals are "superior," which legitimizes the rule by the "superior" few over those perceived as "inferior." This separation into "inferiors" and "superiors" takes place in our education system, which constantly ranks students based on standardized criteria. "Inferior" are those who, through inherent or self-created deficiencies, do not meet the "standard" and are, therefore, deemed unqualified or unintelligent. In other words, their voices and perspectives are silenced in favor of those who meet or exceed the standard. Persons deemed "inferior" simply become the subjects of power and thereby outsource their decision-making to a tiny privileged elite.

The most talented and intellectually "superior" individuals usually go on to attend our nation's elite universities. Contrary to the claims of meritocracy, however, students who attend these elite institutions are not necessarily more intelligent or talented, but rather enjoy the advantages of their socio-economic privilege.

Meritocracy Myth Debunked: Elite Schools and the "Intergenerational Reproduction of Privilege"

Elite universities play an essential role in generating new members for the ruling class and legitimizing their governance over the majority. Analyzing the process that produces this ruling elite is key to revealing how an affluent, mostly white, minority still remains in power today.

Instead of public schools, upper-class children attend exclusive private schools, expensive prep or boarding schools, and eventually enroll at our nation's elite universities. Throughout their lives, they are groomed to be society's leaders and are constantly reminded of their "superior destiny." As a result, they are confident about their abilities and view lower classes as subjects to be led, ruled, and guided.

The dichotomy between the upper class and everyone else becomes obvious when we examine elite institutions. According to a study, only 6.5% of Harvard students received federal financial aid in the form of Pell Grants, which are generally given to students in the bottom half of the income distribution. [2] This means that only about 6.5% of students from the bottom half of the income bracket were enrolled at Harvard during the 2008-2009 school year. Nearly three quarters of all students at elite colleges come from the top income quartile, while only 3 percent come from households in the bottom quartile. [3] The top 25% in terms of income are 25 times more likely to attend a "top tier" college than are those in the bottom 25%.[4]

Most high-achieving, low-income students outside of urban areas do not even apply to selective universities because of geographic and social barriers. [5] Many lack the basic information about "top-tier" institutions while others simply do not know anyone who attended a selective university, and likely, sense that they do not belong in these schools.[6]

Admission into elite universities heavily favors the privileged in several ways, including: preference given to family legacy students, those who can afford to pay full tuition, and students who receive high scores on standardized exams for which tutoring is essentially required and usually quite expensive.[7] "Legacy applicants" who had at least one parent graduate from an elite institution are up to 45% more likely to be admitted to that school.[8] On the other hand, a study revealed that during the admissions process, elite schools awarded zero points to low-income individuals for their socio-economic status, thus failing to acknowledge the obvious economic and social disadvantages those students had to overcome in order to achieve academic success. [9]

Clearly, privileged individuals have significant advantages when it comes to enrollment at our nation's "top tier" institutions. This, however, is not entirely the result of their own efforts as the myth of meritocracy would have us believe, but rather the socio-economic advantages tied to their affluent status. Notably, even members of the elite establishment have admitted that the system favors the wealthy: according to Anthony Carnevale - former Clinton administration appointee and current director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce -"The education system is an increasingly powerful mechanism for the intergenerational reproduction of privilege."[10]

Standardization Teaches Unquestioning Obedience

Meritocracy also assumes that all individuals are equally situated and can therefore be properly judged by the same measures. Merit is determined by extensive use of standardized exams that evaluate students' aptitude and rank them based on criteria established by the power structure.

Most schools today do not encourage children to think critically or express themselves in their own way; instead, they teach students how to best restate what they have learned. Individuals who memorize well and are able to repeat certain facts most closely to the expected standard are considered intelligent and reward with good grades and high scores on exams. Creativity, thinking outside the box, raising questions that challenge the status quo, and engaging with the learning material in a lively manner is simply not tolerated. Very rarely are students rewarded for their own critical thinking and creativity. A system that expects students to memorize and copy a pre-determined standard does not teach critical thinking or the sharing of different ideas and perspectives - it teaches obedience.

Proponents of standardized testing claim that the exams have the ability to assess students' abilities and predict future success. Standardization teaches us early on that there is a prevailing, dominant measure by which all people can be legitimately judged. As a result, it effectively promotes only one type of assessment based on the values of the dominant ideology to the exclusion of all other measures and perspectives. In other words, students are taught to believe that only one particular set of skills is valuable and that there is only one type of "intelligence" worth expressing. Standardization is, in effect, an authoritarian mechanism that measures a student's compliance to a set of criteria or answers deemed "correct" by those in authority. There is no independent critical or analytical thinking involved, which is exactly the type of intelligence the ruling elite - who depend on an obedient and unquestioning populace - counts on.

The values the dominant ideology promotes directly and indirectly through standardization are: unquestioning obedience to authority; the importance of such obedience; the belief that only certain skills and types of intelligence are "superior"; and that those in authority are the most qualified to occupy positions of power. These values and beliefs provide great deference to authority and obviously benefit the ruling elite.

Standardized exam performance also has a considerable impact on one's future educational and life opportunities; thus, it is a highly effective mechanism for separating individuals into their respective socio-economic ranks. The fact that standardized exams produce results that disproportionately disenfranchise minorities and lower classes is key to eliminating competition and securing the power of the ruling elite.

Standardized Testing: A Mechanism for Exclusion

Keeping the ranks of power homogeneous is essential to promoting a particular ideology that benefits the ruling class. Different perspectives and "outsiders" are a direct threat unless, of course, they can be assimilated into the system and used to promote its agenda. The mechanisms by which individuals are excluded are mostly covert and appear under the cloak of meritocracy which asserts that the "best and the brightest" naturally succeed.

Exclusion Based on Economic Status, Race, and Ideology

Racial and economic inequalities are ongoing problems that have never been properly addressed. In fact, economic inequality, which disproportionately affects women and minorities, is worse today than it was during the Great Depression.[11] In addition to pure racism, sexism and classism, systemic exclusion of most minorities, women, and the poor also serves to eliminate competing political interests and exclude different perspectives that threaten the interests of the ruling class.

1. Socio-Economic Exclusion

Most universities, including elite institutions, still use standardized testing as an important factor in admissions. Test scores from the SAT show white, wealthy students consistently outperforming minorities and the economically disadvantaged by a wide margin. [12] The results imply that the most intelligent and successful individuals within our society are wealthy whites.

Based on these results we can either believe that: a) the tests are legitimate and that minorities and economically disadvantaged individuals areinherently inferior to white, wealthy students OR, b) that minorities and economically disadvantaged students are not inherently inferior, and that the tests are illegitimate as assessors of intelligence and predictors of future success. If we believe that the tests are legitimate and that students perform poorly because of financial disadvantages, then we must still reject this unfair assessment that disproportionally affects economically disadvantaged students.

According to Edwin Black, author of the War Against the Weak, standardized exams such as the SAT serve as "vehicles for cultural exclusion." [13] Research linking test performance to family income suggests that what these exams really measure are an individual's access to certain resources like test preparation classes, tutoring, and private school education. [14] A study recently found that a student's socio-economic background has a "considerable" impact on his or her secondary educational achievements, particularly in the United States.[15] Standardized testing exploits this disadvantage and efficiently keeps people in their respective socio-economic ranks.

With so much emphasis placed on standardized testing, it is the perfect tool to prevent individuals from rising above their economic statuses in a seemingly legitimate way. Generally speaking, unless a person is well-connected - which often comes with wealth and social status - they are unlikely to do much better economically than their parents.

By continuing to legitimize standardized exams, it seems that we as a society have accepted the belief - consciously or not - that wealthy (mostly white) individuals are inherently superior. Interestingly, the origins of standardized testing are grounded in this exact racist and classist belief.

2. Racial Exclusion

Standardized exams and I.Q. tests emerged in the early 1900s and were extensively promoted by the eugenics movement. [16] The premise of eugenics was that Nordic, upper class whites were inherently superior and more intelligent than other races.[17] In the 1920s, Carl Brigham, a psychologist and figure in the eugenics movement, developed the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or what is now referred to as the SAT.[18] Brigham believed that whites born in America were inherently superior and more intelligent than other races, including southern and eastern European immigrants, whom he deemed equally inferior.[19] Eugenics was widely accepted throughout America's leadership class and heavily financed by influential organizations like the Carnegie Institution and Rockefeller Foundation.[20] Over a period of about 60 years, eugenics led to the forcible sterilization of 60,000 Americans who were deemed "unfit" due to race, social status or other "defective" traits.[21]

Is it a coincidence, then, that privileged white students disproportionately outperform minorities and economically disadvantaged students on an exam created by a man who firmly believed in the superiority of white, upper class individuals? Do we honestly believe that privileged whites are inherently superior to everyone else? And what does it say about the ideology of our ruling elite when some of its most influential members like the Carnegie and Rockefeller families financed an overtly racist and classist movement that led to the forcible sterilization of 60,000 people?

It is no coincidence that standardized testing promotes a certain type of intelligence that happens to benefit white, upper class individuals. The classist and racist implications of standardized testing are evident in their origins and results. By shaping the perception that certain groups are naturally unintelligent, the system dehumanizes whole classes of people and effectively silences their voices. The results provide seemingly legitimate "proof" that minorities and the poor are inherently inferior and that they deserve to occupy a lower rank in society. In truth, however, our education system is a convenient excuse to justify the position of those in power while giving the appearance, through seemingly legitimate means, that this power was attained in a fair and just manner.

3. Ideological Exclusion

Discrimination based on race and class is an intersection of several issues: pure racism and classism as well as the elimination of competing ideologies and political interests that would - at the very least - significantly weaken the dominant ideology. The inclusion of diversity is a direct threat to the homogeneous make-up of the ruling elite, which depends on its ideology to sustain its power. Being part of the ruling elite is not just about wealth, race, and social status: it is just as much - if not more - about sharing particular ideological perspectives that advance the interests of the privileged class as a whole.

For instance, while affirmative action programs have been instrumental in providing educational opportunities for racial minorities, they have mostly helped upper class minority students.[22] The fact that these programs assist mostly privileged students further suggests that the system favors the wealthy. One reason for this is that upper class individuals share similar social and economic interests with those in power and are more likely to advance the dominant ideology because they themselves have benefited from the status quo. As a result, they are less likely to challenge existing conditions in any significant way and are not viewed as a direct threat to the system.

It is important to note that simply placing women, racial minorities, or economically disadvantaged people into positions of power does not guarantee a diversity of ideas or that our system will become any more just. We only need to look at our current leaders in various areas who, despite their minority statuses, dutifully serve the power structure. It is not about who embodies the dominant ideology, but rather what values and beliefs an individual actually represents. That is why standardization of education is such an effective tool - by imposing its own standards and values, the system shuts out all alternative perspectives that do not advance the interests of the ruling class.

"Success" within society most often reflects the extent to which a person obeys or furthers the interests of the power structure. This is true for individuals of all backgrounds and social classes. While some people from modest or minority backgrounds move up to the ranks of the privileged elite, they are few and far between and heavily underrepresented compared to their numbers within the population. Because success depends on obedience to the dominant ideology, there is a strong incentive to disregard one's own viewpoints and assimilate to the system's ideology. Obviously, not all individuals within society have identical perspectives; yet the system, nevertheless, compels most of us to suppress our unique experiences, observations, and impressions in order to prevent us from utilizing those perspectives to meaningfully challenge the status quo.

This repression is a direct consequence of standardization, which rewards obedience to authority and promotes a one-sided perspective to which all people are expected to assimilate. This is why the status quo is incredibly difficult to change: because we are induced and indoctrinated into a mindset that only benefits those in power and severely restricts our self-expression. Any perspectives or ideas that fall outside of the artificial norm are disregarded, and the people who express them often alienated or even punished.

The standardized education system is particularly effective in procuring conformity because it makes "success" dependant on obedience to the dominant ideology that represents the interests of the ruling elite.

Alternatives to Standardization

According to educators who support systemic reform, a student-centered approach to education would produce much more equitable results. [23] A more holistic model for educating students would, for instance: teach children leadership skills and social responsibility, encourage them to cooperate with their peers, challenge students to critically analyze current events, and teach them to construct well-reasoned arguments to defend their ideas.[24] This type of teaching style would actively engage students with each other and foster critical thinking that encourages various viewpoints to enter into awareness. Such lively engagement would undoubtedly reveal talents, strengths, and abilities that standardized tests are designed to disregard.

Eventually, assessment of students would become much more equitable, because each individual would express different skills and talents as opposed to being judged by a fixed, homogeneous standard. There would be no preference for one type of intelligence, which would make standardized testing irrelevant. Without standardization, the system would find it much more difficult to promote its homogeneous ideology, legitimize the rule by a tiny elite, and justify its obvious discrimination against the poor, minorities, and alternative perspectives that challenge its power.

The essential feature of standardization is that it presents information from the perspective of those in power. For instance, corporate textbooks bury important historical facts and recount events from the one-sided point of view of the ruling class - presidents, businessmen, diplomats, and generals - thereby silencing the voices of ordinary people.[25] Recognizing this disparity, the Zinn Education Project offers teaching materials to educators based on Howard Zinn's bestselling book A People's History of the United States. [26] The materials introduce students to a more a comprehensive and honest version of history viewed from the perspective of ordinary people. The lesson plans focus on the history of women, working class people, Native Americans, people of color, as well as historical figures who are often mischaracterized or ignored in traditional textbooks.

One teaching strategy promoted by the Zinn Education Project focuses on role-playing during which students imagine themselves as various individuals throughout history and contemplate the circumstances and realities those people faced.[27] This creative technique encourages students to directly engage with traditionally ignored viewpoints and offers an alternative to the homogeneous (and often misleading) version of history promoted by the power structure.

As these few examples illustrate, standardized education is not the only option. There are many practical alternatives that bring education to life and teach students the necessary analytical skills essential to understanding the world and viewing it in a more complex, accurate light.

Current Education System Is About Indoctrination

Conformity to a standard severely limits our possibilities and is a devastating waste of human potential that only benefits those in power. The eugenics roots of standardized testing reveal that these exams are not harmless assessment tools, but rather instruments of oppression.

When we analyze the outcomes our current system has produced, it becomes clear that its goals are not about educating students. The education system: disenfranchises the lower classes and racial minorities; makes academic success dependent on financial resources and obedience to the dominant ideology; imposes the same standards on all individuals, as opposed to cultivating their unique talents and abilities; silences different perspectives and expressions of intelligence; imposes standards that disproportionally benefit the privileged few; and teaches students what to think instead of how to critically analyze their environment.

These poor results are not a coincidence or even a result of widespread incompetence - the system is simply designed to fail. This failure only benefits the ruling elite who continuously remains in power, is never disenfranchised, never too poor to afford education, never "inferior" enough to occupy low-ranking positions in society, and whose perspectives are never excluded or silenced from the mainstream. The actual purpose of our education system is to indoctrinate individuals into the dominant ideology and eliminate perspectives and people that challenge it in any way. This exclusion is reflected in the homogeneous ranks of power, which overwhelmingly include wealthy, mostly white individuals who share similar political, social, and economic interests.

When power is concentrated in the hands of the few, it becomes easy to maneuver and manipulate. Mechanisms such as standardized testing are introduced by those in authority and are, therefore, effortlessly implemented into the system. We rarely, if ever, question the decisions of people in power because we have been taught to obey authority and defer to its "superior" judgment.

This is how a tiny 1% elite is able to rule over the majority without overt tyranny: by controlling thought, and in turn, behavior. The standardized education system is critical to achieving this objective and thus serves as a protector and gatekeeper to those in power.


[1] Andrew Gavin Marshall, "The Shocking Amount of Wealth and Power Held by 0.001% of the World Population," AlterNet, June 12, 2013,

[2] David Leonhardt, "How Elite Colleges Still Aren't Diverse," The New York Times, March 29, 2011,

[3] Thomas B. Edsall. "The Reproduction of Privilege", The New York Times, March 12, 2012,

[4] Jerome Karabel, "The New College Try," The New York Times, September 24, 2007,

[5] Josh Freedman, "Why American Colleges Are Becoming a Force for Inequality," The Atlantic, May 16, 2013,

[6] Marisa Treviño, Study: Low-income, high-achieving students think prominent universities are out of their league," NBCLatino, March 20, 2013,

[7] Kristin Rawls, "4 Ways College Admissions Committees Stack the Deck in Favor of Already Privileged Applicants," AlterNet, November 12, 2012, ,

[8] Elyse Ashburn, "Legacy's Advantage May Be Greater Than Was Thought," The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 5, 2011,

[9] David Leonhardt, "How Elite Colleges Still Aren't Diverse," The New York Times, March 29, 2011, ,

[10] Thomas B. Edsall, "The Reproduction of Privilege," The New York Times, March 12, 2012,

[11] Annie Lowrey, "Income Inequality May Take Toll on Growth," The New York Times, October 18, 2012,

[12] Scott Jaschik, "New Evidence of Racial Bias on SAT," Inside Higher Ed, June 21, 2010,

[13] Edwin Black, War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race, (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows 2003), p. 85

[14] Sean F. Reardon, "No Rich Child Left Behind," The New York Times, April 27, 2013,

[15] Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, Economic Policy Reports: Going for Growth (2010), p. 187 ; see also Dan Froomkin, "Social Immobility: Climbing the Economic Ladder is Harder In The U.S. Than In Most European Countries," September 21, 2010,

[16] Black, 78-83

[17] Black, xv

[18] Black, 78-83

[19] Black, 78-83

[20] Black, 40, 93-99

[21] Black, xv

[22] Richard D. Kahlenberg, "Why not an income-based affirmative action?" The Washington Post, November 8, 2012,

[23] Jesse Hagopian, "'Occupy Education' Debates the Gates Foundation (and Wins)," March 13, 2012,

[24] Jesse Hagopian, "'Occupy Education' Debates the Gates Foundation (and Wins)," March 13, 2012,

[25] Teaching A People's History: Zinn Education Project, "About the Zinn Education Project,", Accessed June 18, 2013

[26] Teaching A People's History: Zinn Education Project, "About the Zinn Education Project,", Accessed June 18, 2013

[27] Bill Bigelow, "A People's History, A People's Pedagogy," Zinn Education Project,, Accessed June 18, 2013