Wednesday, June 20, 2012

How Faith in Meritocracy Undermines Meritocracy

I spent some time this morning involved in another debate at Ethics Alarms, once again arguing that it might be wrong to tell people who are struggling to find employment that their problems can only be the result of their being stupid, or lazy, or just plain not knowing how to look for a job.  Yet precisely those kinds of accusations continue to fly freely in the commentary of people who have no idea what the conditions on the ground are like for young people today.  People like Jack Marshall have no qualms about casting aspersions on the character of bright, earnest, committed, hardworking people, because as far as the accusers are concerned, if you’d done things right you would have gotten what you wanted.

It’s not as though such people – generally middle-aged and middle class – start out with the conviction that their younger and poorer targets are good for nothing, and then construct the meritocratic myth as an explanation for why.  Quite the opposite; they believe so firmly in the perfection of the system through which kids acquire training and education and employment prospects that it only allows one explanation for most people’s failure.  That’s the very problem with their view.  If you are to convince them that an unemployed law school graduate is unemployed by no fault of his own, you must first compel them to abandon their entire way of perceiving American society.

People who are currently in their forties or fifties and have attained middle class status came up through a much different reality than what is faced by young adults in the twenty-first century.  So it is with every generation.  The trends, experiences, and rules of one can’t be expected to apply to the next.  That doesn’t stop anybody from judging the present as if they were interpreting the past.

Yet obviously there are some things about the circumstances surrounding today’s graduates that are wildly different from the situation that was faced by graduates twenty or thirty years ago.  For one thing, there’s a goddamn lot more of them.  For another, they’re carrying a staggeringly higher average debt load.  Obviously, the current global economic crisis is of issue, as well.  Add to that that between then and now, the overall structure of the economy has been transformed, with the death of manufacturing industries, the consolidation of corporate ownership into fewer and fewer hands, and so forth.

Whether the United States has ever possessed a true meritocracy is up for debate, but even if it has, amidst all those changes it can’t rationally be asserted that the same merits today gain the same outcomes that they would have a generation or two prior.  In fact, most people seem to acknowledge this.  There’s little doubt that the Bachelor’s degree has been devalued by its ubiquity, and it seems like this is common knowledge.  Yet that doesn’t stop the accusations of laziness and stupidity from being thrown at unemployed graduates either.

I’ve tended to think that such accusations are just insulting and oblivious to the reality faced by many people like myself today.  But having given the perspective of people like Jack Marshall more thought today, I think it quite possible that negative attitudes towards struggling graduates are much more than that.  They may actually be indicative of a significant part of the reason why all the nation’s unemployed lawyers face so much hardship in the modern job market.

It’s worth considering with what kind of people I and other bright, yet invisible job seekers are applying.  Who is in charge of corporate human resources today if not middle-aged, middle class individuals who came up through life in a time when college degrees were rare and valuable, and the world prosperous for people who held them?  I dare say that most of these people have perspectives like that of Jack Marshall.  I’m sure that most of them believe that today’s America is a perfect meritocracy, because that’s what it was when they were kids, and as far as their concerned that ‘s all that it ever was or ever could be.

That perspective can’t be undermined by anything, no matter how many over-educated applicants come slinking to their offices in pursuit of entry level jobs outside of their chosen fields.  Based on all the anecdotal evidence I’ve come across, certainly including depressingly much of my own, these people are almost universally turned away.  I had long supposed that the reasons for this are that employers expect such people to want too much money, not take an interest in the job, and leave as soon as something better comes along.

I still see it that way, but with new and potentially meaningful nuance.  Low-level employers are probably right when they assume that NYU grads, or engineers, or lawyers who apply with them aren’t pursuing what they want.  If American society is a meritocracy, then intelligent, talented, qualified individuals who pursue what they want get what they want.  Individuals who believe this and are in a position to hire an overqualified applicant won’t accept that the application is the result of them being genuinely short on options.  Instead, they will assume that something must be wrong.

I shudder to think how many people have been shut out from gainful employment because of the reasoning that says, “With this person’s background, either he’s too unmotivated to apply for a job in his field, or his despicable character prevents him from being a good employee anywhere.”  It’s not a malicious sentiment.  Quite the contrary, it’s perfectly altruistic; it emphasizes that if the person is good he will find his way to the better job that suits him, and need never waste his time on something that he doesn’t want to do, is overqualified for, and will not make enough money doing.

On some level, I’ve always recognized that about my situation.  I’ve gotten the sense that many of the people who slip my resume soundlessly into the trash imagine that I’ll be fine, that I didn’t need their job, that the right alternative will be just around the corner if I’m willing to look for it.  It simply isn’t the case.  There are times when bright men and women have to settle for less.  There are times when talents have to be misplaced just to get oneself out of an awful situation.  You can’t recognize that if you believe that America is, always has been, and always will be a pure meritocracy.  And yet you have to recognize it if you’re in a position to help people by hiring them into just such a situation.

Young people’s fates are held now by people who cannot recognize that which they must recognize in order to handle those fates properly.  In this way, faith in meritocracy undermines meritocracy.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Causes Can Have More Than One Effect

Before the night is over here, I want to make an additional comment on the same Morning Edition segment that I posted about earlier.  Thinking back on it, I realize that while my incredulousness about the use of Death of a Salesman to illustrate the concept of the American dream was well worth emphasizing, I missed the opportunity to remark on another, possibly more significant aspect of the story.

The subject of the story and its authors all make terrible assumptions about the American dream, but they make equally terrible and even more common assumptions about education as the pathway to it.  They pretend at compassionate liberalism but are seemingly guilty of very subtle acts of blaming the victim.  After outlining Juan Carlos Reyes’ triumphal narrative, they emphasize the fact that he is aware of the fact that the vast majority of people from his neighborhood didn’t make it out, and that he wonders why.

The story goes on to quote Jim Cullen, the author of The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation, as saying “A college degree has become, in effect, the lottery ticket of American life.”  I very much agree with that remark as it appears on the surface, but apparently in context it was meant to refer not to the value of the degree itself but the likelihood of obtaining one in the first place if you come from a challenging background.  Everyone involved in presenting his story looks at Reyes and makes the same mistake of confusing correlation and causality that I see at every turn in topics of education and employment.

As it’s presented by NPR, it was the act of getting a college degree that turned Reyes’ life around; nothing else.  Yet the actual story that’s presented of him, if one pays attention to it, focuses on the interventions of a committed high school teacher who pushed Reyes to pursue and achieve more, and who took an active interest in Reyes’ future.

It may be presumptuous, but I feel confident in assuming that she wasn’t the only presence in his life that offered encouragement, advice, and more importantly, support and assistance.  It seems to me that it’s an exceptional mistake to say that this man was destined for nothing until he got a college degree, at which point his future opened up wide for him.  It seems like a mistake in light of the fact that Morning Edition and Reyes himself wonder aloud about what it could be that differentiates him from other people who came from his beginnings but didn’t dream big, didn’t go to Baruch College, didn’t become a senior manager in the Office of the President at Columbia Teacher’s College.

It’s as though the program comes right to the brink of asking the right question but then falls back on the assumption that there must be something wrong with all the Hispanic kids who didn’t make it, even if it isn’t their own fault.  Morning Edition entertains the notion that there’s some specific set of tools that lead a disadvantaged youth to college, but it oddly fails to consider whether those tools are important beyond simply compelling a student into higher education.

If there are certain circumstances that contribute to a person like Reyes going to college, isn’t it just possible that those circumstances, and not merely the presence of a college degree, contribute to such a person’s success?  Maybe for some impoverished youths, the lack of a social support structure and connections within the middle class does more to limit their prospects than the lack of an education.  Conversely, maybe a person who pursued higher education but lacked any external influences that ranged beyond their impoverished background wouldn’t get as far as Reyes, who had at least one experienced and well-connected teacher actively supporting his trajectory in life.

Morning Edition further quotes Jim Cullen as saying that some would look at Reyes’ story as proof that the system works while others would see the fact that he is only an exception as proof that there is something seriously wrong with that system.  For my part, I would take it as further evidence that we are aggressively focused on entirely the wrong system in trying to explain the source of economic opportunity.  Yet the possibility that status and social influence might have something to do with economic outcomes seems as obvious to me as the fact that Death of a Salesman is not a happy story.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Death of an Academic

Today, Morning Edition featured, as part of their series on the American dream, a story about a man named Juan Carlos Reyes, went to college in order to work his way out of poverty in the South Bronx.  They said that Reyes was introduced to the notion of the American dream via Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.  Reyes describes the idea as that "with hard work and dedication you'll get a nice house, a nice car, and enough money for your kids to go to school."  Afterwards, the program transitioned to its next segment by pointing out that Miller's play was one of many examples of the American dream being a theme of literature.

I find it amusing that no one involved in the segment seemed to recognize the irony of using that particular piece of literature as an illustration of the topic of the series.  Yes, the protagonist, Willy Loman, was a successful person, but his success came at the expense of his happiness and peace of mind.  Is that fact irrelevant to our understanding of the American dream?  Miller conveyed the impression that Willy Loman pursued the surest path to more money and possessions despite the fact that there was another livelihood that would have suited him better and perhaps led to a happier marriage and a better upbringing for his children, even if in a smaller home.

For a long time, I have had the sense that people would understand Miller's play better if it was updated for a modern audience.  I've considered the idea of writing a version called Death of an Academic.  In the social circumstances in which Miller was writing, a man was generally expected to pursue the molded image of the American dream by committing himself early and completely to sales.  Today the assumption is that the more you devote yourself to formal education, the more money you'll acquire, and thus the closer you'll be to the American dream.  Young men and women are expected to follow that path regardless of resources, personal interest, or aptitude.

The Reyes story presents him as having been saved from the unacceptable fate of following his initial ambition to become a doorman.  Before being steered toward higher education, he reasoned that people in that position made sixteen dollars per hour and that that would suit him fine.  He may be better off and happier now than he would have been if he'd acceded to lesser ambitions, but that's not the main idea that I get from the way the story is presented.  Instead, the message seems to be that sixteen dollars per hour is simply not enough.

I graduated with honors from NYU.  In the years between doing so and becoming a full-time freelancer, I never had a job that paid more than nine dollars an hour.  It was a meager existence, but still I was able to support myself - or at least I would have been were it not for the crushing debt I incurred in going to school.  How much more resentful I would be of that fact had I gone to college merely as a means to an end, and not because I was genuinely, passionately interested in my education.

With each generation, we slightly change the shape of the American dream.  But we don't change the notion that one size fits all, that that dream looks the same and feels the same for every type of person.  In fact, some people are better off becoming carpenters than traveling salesmen; some people are better off becoming doormen than graduate teaching assistants.