Monday, January 12, 2009

The Bright Side of Economic Freefall

As the soufflé of an overleveraged economy collapses, it’s easy to focus on the negative.

I spent most of December writing variations on “now maybe we can finally start to rethink how we do business” posts, so I won’t rehash that. I’ll just note that it would be criminal to let a perfectly good crisis go to waste, and leave it at that.

Instead, this one’s about psychology.

With faculty (and administrative) searches being cancelled left and right, I’m thinking that this dropoff might be the final nail in the coffin of the idea of ‘meritocracy.’ Simply put, the searches being cancelled now are no reflection of the quality of candidates, any more than the boom market of the sixties was a reflection of the quality of candidates then. The market is dramatically tougher now than it was just two or three years ago; to suggest that the candidate pool worsened in that time by several orders of magnitude is simply silly. The disconnect between ‘candidate quality’ and ‘market quality’ is so dramatic, at this point, that the ‘merit’ narrative is simply unsustainable. And that may actually be a good thing.

Although it certainly beats some of the historical alternatives, the ‘merit’ narrative strikes me as not just false, but actually damaging.

First, and most obviously, it suggests that the folks who don't land the positions they want are somehow damaged goods. Some of them may be, but in this market, they can't all be. I can't help but wonder to what degree the otherwise-puzzling persistence of long-term adjuncts who just keep on plugging, looking for the big break, is driven by a felt need to redeem themselves in this value system. It's not economically rational, but there must be something, or there wouldn't be so many people doing it. To the extent that we can start to distinguish 'pay' from 'worth,' maybe some people will finally feel like it's okay to try something else.

Second, the effects on the 'winners' are ambiguous, at best. Some seem to internalize the ranking, resulting in a career wasted in bitterness that they aren't ensconced at some higher-level institution. Those who do manage to land at the really prestigious places seem to fall prey to 'impostor syndrome' at fairly high levels. In either case, the self-doubt is both corrosive and unnecessary. Even the winners lose.

Over the break, I had the chance to read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, which is great fun. Among other things, the book spends some time on the idea of a 'threshold' of ability. As he tells it, between the limits of knowledge and the realities of life, it's often silly to pretend that minute differences in ability are actually meaningful. For many tasks -- including very high-end ones -- there's basically a 'threshold' of ability. Either you can do it, or you can't. Among those who can, single-measure differences are essentially arbitrary.

Yet we academics persist in believing that the Great Chain of Prestige, starting at Harvard and working its way on down, is founded in basic truth. And because it's an objective reflection of merit, being anyplace other than the tippity-top must reflect a personal failing.

The ghosts of cancelled searches this year suggest otherwise. If some of us start to realize that, this round of panic will actually have done some good.