Post Academic

The myths of merit

I wanted to echo some of the points Caroline made earlier in trying to encourage and talk down prospective grad students who have had a bad run of bad news as decisions come trickling in.  The first point to take solace in (maybe) is that bad news now might be at worst a mixed blessing in the long run and even the long short run.  There has been talk in academic circles of whether or not programs are unethical for admitting more students than there are full-time jobs at the end of the line, so one of the proposed remedies has been to shrink the size of programs.  Maybe some of you who are having a tough time getting into a Ph.D. program are being squeezed by the structural conditions that have been squeezing a lot of folks finishing up grad school.

Or maybe not–check out the last paragraph of Thomas Benton’s well-circulated Chronicle of Higher Ed essay, “The Big Lie About the ‘Life of the Mind'”, which insists that the powers-that-be use the myth of merit to ignore the messiness of such structural realities and to perpetuate a system that doesn’t work.  My second point picks up on Benton’s argument on/against meritocracy, that it is basically an ideology that props up “the life of the mind” and enables the haves to enjoy their privilege, only to be bothered enough by the have-nots to patronize them.  There is certainly a righteous appeal to Benton’s provocative narrative, and it is easy to buy into his argument on merit-as-ideology.  But say we ignore the most cynical claims he makes and not read into anyone’s intentions, because faculty types are probably a lot more sympathetic, actually well-meaning, and also stuck in a system where, although they benefit more, are mired in all sorts of institutional inertia.  Even when we set aside what Benton sees as the most nefarious and uncaring elements of the system, the meritocratic system fails to hold up, not because of an ideological duplicity, but because there’s an oversupply of merit in academia.

1. Too much merit: When I was first accepted to grad school and was on my campus recruitment visit, I talked with a professor about the affirmative action fellowship I was being offered.  He made a basic point that is particularly compelling: Whereas the debate on affirmative action always begins with the paranoid idea that some “less qualified” minority is being boosted up and taking up a spot of a “more qualified” (un-minority) candidate, he simply stated that there are more qualified candidates than can be accommodated to begin with (minorities, in this case), so the issue of merit as a means of judgment doesn’t apply so much, because it’s just not so scarce a resource.

2. Potentially arbitrary decisions: So when there are too many qualified candidates, be it for grad students or faculty positions, what becomes the criteria for decisions?  As someone put it on the Academic Wiki, when you have to pick 3 postdocs out of a pool of 1000+ candidates, “how can the decision be anything but arbitrary?”  I know folks who have multiple publications, a solid conferencing profile, and/or strong teaching evaluations who have been passed over for jobs year after year, probably for some people with a more voluminous CV and for others with fewer concrete achievements.  But who’s to say which candidate is “really” stronger?  And who’s to say the decisions aren’t based on random things and intangible factors, when the pool of qualified and meritorious candidates is so big?  You might think this is loser talk trying to rationalize why one doesn’t end up getting a tenure-track position or a grad program spot, but I doubt any evaluations committee can say with certainty and a straight face that there aren’t a bunch of other people they didn’t hire or accept that are just as deserving as the ones they did.  Talk about merit is moot a long time before any decisions are made.

Thomas Benton, “The Big Lie About the ‘Life of the Mind'” [Chronicle of Higher Education]

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