Maybe I should just turn this into an exclusively academic labor blog. After all, there’s so much material out there these days. Here’s an internal blog fight covered by the “On Hiring” blog at the Chronicle. On one side we get:
Like major league baseball, a successful academic career is a very good gig. Do we really owe every 22-year-old that is admitted to a Ph.D. program the right to that career solely on the basis of getting into a Ph.D. program? Or is it enough to give them a chance to succeed, knowing full well that not all of them will? Personally, I’d rather give more people a chance, in large part because I don’t think we know which 22-year-olds are going to make the best academics. Like it or not, academia is a meritocracy. It may be a highly flawed meritocracy susceptible to overvaluing labels or fads of the day, but ultimately tenure is bestowed on those who earn the respect of their peers, and the more of your peers that respect you, the more job offers you are going to get and the more money you are going to make.
On the other side we get:
To step back a bit, I’m bothered by Josh’s apparent acceptance of the concept of “meritocracy.” As political scientist James Flynn has pointed out, there’s ultimately no such thing as a meritocracy….To put in in the context of academia: If these jobs are truly desirable, people will do what they can to get them. “People doing what they can” is inconsistent with the idea of a level playing field which is a precondition for merit-based hiring. Just take a look at letters of recommendation written by big shots to see what I mean. Or, to put it another way, meritocracy eats itself.
If you read this blog regularly, you know I’m a lot more sympathetic with the second position than the first. Nevertheless, this whole argument makes me uncomfortable. I don’t care whether academia is a meritocracy or not, particularly since I’ve been around it long enough to know it isn’t. What I care about is that as long as there are far too many Ph.D.s chasing far too few tenure track jobs, thousands of people will be investing thousands up thousands of dollars and some of the best years of their life in pursuit of jobs that they won’t get, and will either make a pittance as an alternative or leave their respective fields entirely, thereby giving them a very expensive wall decoration for their home offices.
People who actually have tenure track jobs need to put themselves in these other people’s shoes. Think how mad you’d be if this happened to you. Are you going to treat people in that position the same way that Republican millionaires treat the poor? Cutting back on graduate school admissions in order to limit the number of people at all talent levels who end up in this position strikes me as the absolute minimum of what the rest of us can do. Navel-gazing on the subject of academic meritocracy, on the other hand, doesn’t strike me as helpful at all.