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The Origins of a Coming Ideal: Meritocracy in Britain 1750-1850

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British History in the Long 18th Century
The Origins of a Coming Ideal: Meritocracy in Britain 1750-1850
Penelope J. Corfield (Emeritus Professor)
25 May 2010 

This is a guest post by James Wilkinson, one of IHR Digital’s summer interns from the University of Leicester.

The focus of this talk by Professor Corfield is on the origins of meritocracy, rather than its achievement or wide scale adoption. Professor Corfield examines three themes in the talk. These are Early Meritocracy as the aristocracy of talent, the intellectual content of meritocracy and lastly, the nineteenth century quest of how to institutionalise meritocracy.

Corfield indicates that early supporters of this system perceived meritocracy and patronage as polar opposites and having little common ground. However Corfield highlights the influence of patronage in early meritocracy, by supporting upcoming individuals and facilitating their advancement, and of corruption and self interest being present in meritocracy.

Key Themes

Corfield introduces early meritocracy, as the aristocracy of talent in new professions, highlighting a wide array of terminology used by contemporaries to describe social change and the creation of new professional groups (for example, the typocracy and influence of the newspapers). Contemporary terminology is seen to refer more to talent rather than wealth, professionalism rather than business.

Intellectual context of meritocracy and ethos is featured most prominently in the professions, which links back into talent rather than wealth. What counts as an occupation of the meritocracy. The focus on gentlemanly behaviour and conduct by contemporaries is pointed out by Corfield.

The final theme which is located closer to the end of the date range stated is the nineteenth century quest of how to institutionalise and entrench meritocracy.

To listen to this podcast click here.