When I was in elementary school, I was part of a group of students who were tested to see if they qualified for the “gifted” program. Reportedly, my results were borderline, with the guidance counselor telling my mom — and her subsequently telling me — that I was ultimately not “gifted” but made up for it with hard work. Then, for the rest of my life, I heard a clear narrative of decline over and over: there was a time not so long ago, the story goes, when someone could graduate high school in Flint, then step into a job at “the shop” (GM) and be essentially set for life, with a virtually guaranteed job, generous benefits, and a pension. I watched as people tried to convince themselves that Flint could reinvent itself — by finding another institution that would provide them with the lifestyle that GM had taken from them.
This brings me to this guy. (Incidentally, I’ve shared several posts from The Last Psychiatrist, a blog I discovered yesterday and subsequently devoured — very much worth adding to your Google Reader.) An entitled layabout, the subject of the New York Times profile discussed in the post is waiting for someone to come along and offer him the “full package”: a high-powered corporate management job with boundless potential for career advancement. In the meantime, he turned down a job for $40K in favor of living with his parents and searching for work online a couple hours each morning.
The Last Psychiatrist links this poor lad’s listless fate to a broad range of social circumstances that he characterizes as essentially an inter-generational Ponzi scheme of ever-growing entitlement paired with ever-shrinking risk appetite. What I wonder here is whether academia in particular has been something of an amplified version of this trend, with its guarantee of lifetime employment paired with a nominal meritocracy that “everyone knows” really comes down to institutional affiliation and patronage networks — if you can get into that Ivy League program and study with the right guy (let’s admit it, it’s an old white man in 90% of these scenarios), you’re set for life.
I wonder if the remarkable passivity of so many young academics — who know all about the “job market” but make no concrete steps toward a backup plan — in the face of these trends is due to a sense of learned helplessness. I had a lot of reasons, both good and bad, for taking the risk of choosing the lesser-known Chicago Theological Seminary when I had the chance to go to Vanderbilt, but one of them was my sense that the kinds of people who got “full rides” to well-known schools so often turned into the kinds of people who expect “full rides” all around, who expect that if they just fulfill their requirements, their institutional affiliation will ultimately carry them. When it doesn’t, they don’t really know what to do.
By choosing the lesser-known school and deciding to make up for it in the way my second-grade guidance counselor already saw as my characteristic way of working harder, I wound up with a much more extensive publication record than most of my peers. My success in publishing articles created a kind of snowball effect insofar as it boosted my confidence, enabling me to take the risk of writing the Zizek book — and more recently it’s allowed me to expand my writing into less conventional areas as well (most notably the awkwardness book, but also some cultural criticism in for the “general public”).
It could turn out to be the case that I totally screwed myself by not getting the “master signifier” of a quasi-Ivy school, but it’s also the case that I’ve probably better equipped myself to figure out something else along the way. Meanwhile, I know recent graduates from quasi-Ivies who ask me basic questions like how to go about submitting an article for a journal and who expect it to take an unspecified number of years before they’d even consider trying to publish their dissertations — and I know a lot of “starving artist”-type academics, almost always from a working- or lower-class background and very often first-generation college grads, who have been much more aggressive and entrepreneurial about trying to make an impact on their field.
A big example of this is obviously Anthony’s co-editing of the After the Postsecular and the Postmodern volume, and although I am sometimes snarky toward them, the circle of young academics and writers centered on “Speculative Realism” have also been remarkably aggressive in putting some real infrastructure in place for their movement, from conferences to an online journal to the large number of Speculative Realism books in the Zero Books series. There’s no guarantee that any of us will be successful in traditional terms, but in the meantime we’re doing what we got into academia to do: to be part of the conversation, to put our own stamp on the field.
I wonder if in this sense, a working-class or lower-class background might be an advantage — along with being part of a disadvantaged group more generally. The Last Psychiatrist rightly points out, for instance, that it’s impossible to imagine a similar profile being written about a female layabout. It’s been my experience in life and more recently in teaching that women tend to be more hungry and ambitious, because we’re at a very fruitful moment when opportunities for women have been opened up but are not yet taken for granted. Similarly, when I was at CTS, I made an effort to put out a periodic list of accomplishments from PhD students — conference participation, publications, teaching, etc. — and there was a very clear pattern that African American students were more aggressive in pursuing such opportunities. (Meanwhile, I got an e-mail from an incoming white male PhD student who pointed out that many of the figures he was interested in studying referred continually to bodies of literature he wasn’t familiar with and wondered what he should do about that. The obvious solution — read the stuff they’re citing — apparently had not occurred to him.)
White males have a tendency to be aggrieved about affirmative action, but I daresay that in a hypothetical pure meritocracy they’d be at a huge disadvantage anyway — women, minorities, and working- and lower-class people simply want it more and don’t expect it to be handed to them.
There are obvious drawbacks to this attitude — it can require a naive belief in a meritocracy that doesn’t exist, which can then sour into a presumption that everyone who is favored by the institutions is by definition undeserving (a danger that I think one can see in this very post); it obviously fits all too well with the ideology of neo-liberalism; and most crucially, it is oriented almost exclusively around individual advancement and is therefore difficult to channel toward systemic changes (because no one believes in the system more than the social climber; see Don Draper) — but there’s still something powerful about it, something promising.