April 27, 2004

The Elect and the Damned

Henry Farrell of Crooked Timber writes about Invisible Adjunct, and about the neo-pseudo-Calvinist belief that those who hold tenured jobs are the Elect--smart, hard-working, morally worthy, justly rewarded for their virtue--and that those who do not attain tenure are the Damned--not so smart, unable to work hard enough to push their writings to the publication stage, less than morally worthy, and justly not rewarded for their lack of virtue:

Crooked Timber: Academic Calvinism : ...I was talking about Invisible Adjunct with friends this weekend, trying to figure out why so many tenured and tenure-track faculty are dismissive or hostile towards adjunct faculty. Some tenured or tenure track commenters on IA’s site were quite convinced that the distinction between adjuncts and tenure track faculty reflected the judgement of the market on their respective quality as academics. This is Max Weber’s thesis on the origins of capitalism replayed as farce. Weber argued that Calvinist theology provided capitalism’s tutelary spirit. Calvinist beliefs in predestination led believers to distinguish between the elect and the preterite - those who were destined to go to heaven, and those who were destined to go to hell. Because it was impossible to be sure whether they were going to ascend to paradise or to burn, Calvinists sought evidence that they were favoured by God through accumulating goods without consuming them. If you did well in worldly affairs, you could take this as a sign of God’s favour.

This may or may not be a good historical explanation. Still, it captures a set of attitudes expounded by some (although certainly not all) exponents of free markets. In many important respects, markets are political creations - they reflect differences in the bargaining power of different social groups. If you’re a freshly minted humanities Ph.D., even if you’re a wonderful humanities Ph.D., you’re going to have real trouble in finding a tenure track job because there are many, many others just like you. It’s easy for employers to exploit you - and you have relatively little recourse when they do. Some few get good jobs, but they’re lucky as well as talented. [1] It is almost certain that there are other, equally qualified individuals who don’t get jobs, simply because they didn’t get the lucky break (and lucky breaks are rare when you’re in a group with a systematically weak bargaining position).

The Calvinist illusion is that luck has nothing to do with it - markets reward virtue. Success in selling your wares is the only necessary proof of one’s innate superiority. I imagine that some tenured and tenure track professors are quite convinced that their privileged position is an appropriate reflection their academic virtue. Indeed, to the extent that most successful professors are good at what they do, they’re right - the problem is that there are almost certainly many others out there who are equally talented, but just haven’t gotten the breaks. Calvinist reasoning isn’t unique to academics.... But it makes for lousy reasoning and self-serving arguments that markets produce the best possible outcomes in the best of all possible worlds (which isn’t to say that there aren’t more subtle and thoughtful arguments for free markets out there).

Posted by DeLong at April 27, 2004 07:32 PM | TrackBack | | Other weblogs commenting on this post

Luck has everything to do with it for everyone but the exceptionally gifted. There is generational luck -- the luck of coming into the academic market when supply is tight and everyone has 3 or 4 offers from good places (lucky me). There is the luck of the hiring committee -- who was on leave in a given year, who made the pitches at the department meeting in what order? Who had to go out to pee when the crucial vote was taken? Who voted out of ignorance he or she later regretted?

Everyone gets a couple of kicks at the can. The above is the first kick. The second kick is less aleatory, but one can be ahead of the curve -- too soon with the right idea.

Finally there is just simple life luck. Marriage, divorce, sickness, all affect productivity.

Scientists who depend on flow of grants have it even harder -- miss one and the path-dependent life-cycle takes an almost irreversible downward turn. The rest of us can usually self-finance our work, like poets and writers. But not the cash-heavy hard sciences.

Calvinismn always had a large self-serving element in it. Always nice to know your among the elect. Of course, if you are a real Calvinist, you never know for sure, and get to enjoy a life of high anxiety.

Posted by: Knut Wicksell on April 27, 2004 07:52 PM


As someone who left the academic path, I think masochism may be selected more than virtue. Or is masochism a virtue?

Posted by: rps on April 27, 2004 08:14 PM


Very nice. What needs special emphasis when notions of the elect are extended to present day phenomena is that fortunate Calvinists made up the part about wordly blessings reflecting other-worldly status. The logical argument for predetermination is awfully hard to extend to one's material situation in this world. Calvin, who insisted his writings were merely clarifications of difficult biblical passages, would have had to admit that Jesus was an advocate of the poor. The suggestion that the elect were identifiable by material success is pure hypocracy of the sort any good Marxist would know on sight. Try explaining that to the arrogant tenured.

Posted by: K Harris on April 28, 2004 06:44 AM


The adjuncts are kind of like the minor league of academia...only with a poorer chance of succeeding in the majors and comparatively less well paid

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Posted by: Sam Jackson on April 28, 2004 06:50 AM


K Harris -- Calvin himself strenuously discouraged discussion of predestination because it easily led to confusion. Later Puritan efforts to see worldly success as a "sign of election" were exactly what he, and many theologians, were worried about. Equally pernicious for him and Luther were arguments about a "Third use of the Law". (That is, that the first "use" of God's laws and commandments is that we should follow them...only we can't, because we're sinful. The second is that, not able to follow them even when we try, they drive us to despair in ourselves and turn to God's grace and mercy). The supposed third use was that those who found themselves (after trying, failing, despairing, and turning to God) now able to "follow the law" could take this as a sign that God's grace had transformed them and they were saved. The potential both for hypocrisy and for self-satisfaction (Luther's special bugaboo) was so high that orthodox theologians always rejected this line of thought.

As for academics: it's my experience that there are actually three categories: the stars (deservedly or not), who rarely mull on the details of their election. Many are truly wonderful scholars, generous and respectful of all and often actively supportive of the unlucky, others are self-satisfied twits, but they all have little incentive to mull on their deservingness.

Then there's the "middling elect" -- those who can on the one hand point to concrete achievements that justify their tenuredness (or tenure-trackedness), but feel considerable anxiety about why it's them and not the equally qualified damned (adjuncts, lecturers, and those who have given up on academia). Like the "stars", this can cut two ways, as solidarity or as snobbishness. One can say: "there but for the grace of random search details go I"...or one can say, "I _must_ deserve this...I must, I must." The latter are the ones who set off IA's bullshit detectors (and Brad's and Crooked Timbers', too).

And then there are those who are evidently not among the (secular, though scarcely market-determined) elect, whose complaints are many and justified, and well analyzed in the posting. It isn't fair, and especially, it isn't fair either to the students that universities are supposed to teach, or to the society that subsidizes universities in various ways to teach us all, though instruction and through research and writing. The illusion that universities can be equated with profit-oriented institutions in a market tends to increase the unfairness, but so does the opposite illusion that universities have nothing at all to do with various "markets", being instead some higher form of institution which is good in and of itself without any possible critique or reform.

Posted by: PQuincy on April 28, 2004 07:43 AM


There is a non-Calvinist explanation for the hostility toward adjuncts.

They are a cheap labor pool, and as such they reduce the number of tenure tracks available.

It's the immigration/outsourcing argument applied to academia.

Posted by: Matthew Saroff on April 28, 2004 08:34 AM


One thing I have never been able to figure out: why should adjuncts be paid so much more miserably than tenure-track but yet untenured faculty? Please don't bring up the line about administrative "duties." i think this can only be explained in terms of the deep-seated hostility of permanent faculty to having adjuncts at all. In any other industry I can think of, an independent contractor would charge more for roughly qualitatively equal services than an in-house employee, for obvious reasons.

I surmise that for many people (including me) "adjuncting" would actually be relatively appealing if it weren't so indecorously paid, especially for those who have meanwhile established satisfying careers outside of academia.

Posted by: pierluigi on April 28, 2004 08:48 AM


Another line of reasoning helped justify capitalism: God does not change his mind once he has made it. Therefore, once you are Elect, you are Elect forever. Even if you commit a horrofic sin, you are still Elect. Therefore, no act committed by someone who is Elect can ever cause them to go to hell. Therefore, in your business dealings, you can lie, cheat, steal, and exploit your workers, and none of it causes you to lose your status among the Elect. More so, God knows the future, so he must have known you were going to do these things, even when he first choose you to be Elect, therefore he approves of what you are doing.

During the English Revolution, England's poor and working class got hold of this line reasoning, and decided it applied to them as well. Therefore they could drink, whore, swear, and gamble, all with God's approval. Christopher Hill's book, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution, is very worth reading on this topic, and I've put up so long excerpts from the book:


Posted by: Lawrence Krubner on April 28, 2004 09:12 AM


Given the increasing use of adjunct faculty, one difference between newly tenured faculty in many colleges and the "old farts" is that the newly tenured faculty have often worked as part-timers, and they know how adjunct faculty are getting screwed over. Perhaps I'm overgeneralizing from my own case (adjunct for about six years, then I got a tenure-track job), but I think the antagonism between tenured profs and adjunct teachers will decrease soon, as more and more college professors wear the "adjunct" hat for at least some of their careers.

Posted by: Miles Jackson on April 28, 2004 11:55 AM


It ain't worth the effort. First they try to grind you to perfection in grad school, then they stamp out the last nub of creative thinking in the tenure track game. The reward is actually pretty sad. I am glad they booted me out of grad school (three scholarships does not equal four qualified persons they have promised a thrid year fo funding too)...but then look at the UOP model and be afraid, very afraid....But then demographics is about to savage academia and leave them with a bare pipeline when the exodus begins....

Posted by: Allen M on April 28, 2004 12:32 PM


Allen M. wrote, "First they try to grind you to perfection in grad school, then they stamp out the last nub of creative thinking in the tenure track game."

In elementary school, I was told, "I know it's tough for you here, but just wait till you get to high school--it's different. Come high school, I was told the same thing about college. Come college I was told the same thing about grad school. But in grad school I was quite close to a number of my professors, and I could see where I was headed. It wasn't pretty and I left.

Posted by: Handy Fuse on April 28, 2004 02:21 PM


I'm sorry Brad but Calvinism is a phase.

Posted by: Rocky Whorer on April 29, 2004 08:40 PM


Will no one say the obvious-- that part of the reason the elect feel they are morally superior is because often they got there because of belonging to some minority group, which is also a sign of moral superiority in those circles?

Before you dismiss me as a Klansman, remember: This is the one area where you can literally advertise a preference for women, blacks, whatever. It's right there in the ads in the back of the Chronicle of Higher Education and we all know it.

Posted by: Mike G on April 30, 2004 02:16 PM


Actually, Mike, most of the "superior" people I encountered while on the market were older white guys (yeah, I know it's a cliche, but there's a reason for that) who were hired _before_ affirmative action.

It's a lot harder to feel like one is part of a superior elite if there's always the niggling doubts that perhaps one was not selected for one's qualifications but for physical factors beyond one's control. Most of the women and people of color I knew were damn grateful to be working in their fields, and wanted others to do well too.

Recall, too, that there's a generational divide here; the older profs _are_ skewed toward male and white -- no matter what you'd like to believe.

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