Education versus employability. A reply to Daniel James Țurcaș and others

Common sense: why don’t you practise your violin more? You are really talented.

Also common sense: why would you waste your time practising a musical instrument, if you can’t sustain a living from it?


Taken together, these two questions express everything that is wrong with our education system. The reason is that there are two largely disparate sets of values at work: while the first question expresses educational values, the second is driven by concerns of what now often goes under the heading of employability. While many European education systems pride themselves on fostering the first set, they ultimately honour the second set. The two questions jumped at me when trying to figure out what’s wrong with meritocratic hero narratives designed to empower first-generation students. In reply to my previous piece a number of people have pointed out that it’s basically a Good Thing to spread stories by first-generation academics, the reason being that it might ultimately allow for sharing struggles and rasing awareness. I agree that such stories might be empowering etc. but something keeps nagging me. So here it is:

Academic success as a student follows a different logic than success as an academic employee. Performing well as a student can be honoured by, by and large, academic standards. Even if studying is often competitive, students do not need to compete, because, at least in principle, grades, even good ones, are not a limited resource. By contrast, academic employment is strongly limited. Therefore, academics compete in a zero-sum game. Arguably, then, empowerment for first-gen students might work very well for student success, but it probably has nothing to offer when it comes to employment. My worry is that empowerment through first-gen stories might be taken as a recipe or empowerment for the job market, when in fact it mostly speaks to values that hold or should hold in educational contexts.

Here is what I wrote about these different sets of values two years ago: Most education systems hold a simple promise: If you work hard enough, you’ll get a good grade. While this is a problematic belief in itself, it is a feasible idea in principle. The real problem begins with the transition from education to employment relations in academia. If you have a well performing course, you can give all of your thirty students a high grade. But you can’t give thirty applicants for the same position the job you’ve advertised, even if all the applicants are equally brilliant. Now the problem in higher education is that the transition from educational rewards to employment rewards is often rather subtle. Accordingly, someone not getting a job might draw the same conclusion as someone not getting a good grade.

It is here that we are prone to fallacious reasoning and it is here that especially academic employers need to behave more responsibly: Telling people that “the best candidate” will get the job might too easily come across like telling your first-year students that the best people will get a top grade. But the job market is a zero sum game, while studying is not. (It might be that there is more than just one best candidate or it might be impossible for the employer to determine who the best candidate is.) So a competition among students is of a completely different kind than a competition between job candidates. But this fact is often obscured. An obvious indicator of this is that for PhD candidates it is often unclear whether they are employees or students. Yet, it strikes me as a category mistake to speak about (not) “deserving” a job in the same way as about deserving a certain grade or diploma. So while, at least in an ideal world, a bad grade is a reflection of the work you’ve done, not getting a job is not a reflection of the work you’ve done. There is no intrinsic relation between the latter two things. Now that doesn’t mean that (the prospect of doing) good work is not a condition for getting a job, it just means that there is no relation of being deserving or undeserving.

Or to put the same point somewhat differently, while not every performance deserves a good grade, everyone deserves a job.

Between coming out and self-praise? The meritocratic ring of first-generation stories

Recently, I took part in an initiative concerning first-generation academics. As I took it, the idea was that established professors take the lead in talking about their special experiences and career paths in view of their non-academic backgrounds. The idea strikes me as good and empowering. Although people from non-academic backgrounds have significantly fewer chances of upward social mobility, let alone landing a sustainable position in academia, it is not impossible. Given this, it makes sense to raise awareness for the specific obstacles and stigma, yes, stigma, and perhaps to encourage those sitting on the fence about giving it a try. All the power to empowerment, of course. But is that really the effect of this kind of initiative? Here are some doubts.

“Aren’t you mostly engaging in self-praise?” Thus spoke my interlocutor after reading some of the professorial testimonials showing that they “had made it”. I explained at length how I hoped that these stories would help starting a conversation, eventually empowering some people from similar backgrounds and enlightening those unaware of first-gen issues. What’s not to like? “Well,” my interlocutor retorted, “of course, these are good intentions. But who is the intended audience of these testimonials?” Initially, I took my interlocutor’s criticism of self-praise to be totally unfair. In my view, class separations had tightened rather than loosened, so what could be wrong about raising awareness?

Listening to myself, my answers began to ring hollow soon, though: Who would read this? And wasn’t my story really just like patting myself on the back. Would it not just come across like any old meritocratic hero story? ‘Look, I’ve made it, despite …’ The American Dream all over again. Of course, this sounds too harsh. Reading all the stories by others (and not just professors), there were lots of intriguing perspectives. So one effect of this initiative might be that of normalising talk about diverse backgrounds. That would be good indeed. But while normalisation of such talk might be desirable, it doesn’t shed any light on the actual mechanisms obstructing social mobility. Indeed, thinking back, what really made a difference for me was not the opportunity to talk about my background but the political efforts allowing for social mobility within schools and financial support.

Now you might object that I’m misunderstanding such initiatives. While social mobility is hampered by lack of political and financial support, it is also hampered by stigma and more subtle forms of social oppression. These issues are addressed by such initiatives. The situation for first-gen students and academics will not only be improved by throwing money at it, but by normalising such backgrounds. But will it really?

Looking back at the situation I was met with as a student, what helped me most was, among many other things, the then widespread idea that it doesn’t matter where you come from. This idea is ingrained in countless songs, stories, and pop culture at large that accompanied my youth. It carries an enticing promise: the promise that you can just invent yourself – irrespective of who your parents or your ancestry are. Rather than highlighting my background (which I didn’t feel very connected to anyway), then, I felt empowered by the assumption that my background doesn’t matter. When I say in my testimonial that I was lucky to have grown up in a politically empowering environment, I partly refer to this idea. The political birth of this idea is probably linked to 1968, stressing a cut with previous generations especially in Nazi Germany. By the 1970s and 1980s, it probably had taken some hold in educational institutions.

Now you might rightly object that this idea, while perhaps desirable, is not true of the class differences that now rule many educational decisions. To this I’d reply that even back then ‘when I was young’, this idea was not true of most political mechanisms. The ties to the Nazi past were not really cut and we still had strong class differences. The point of the idea that your ancestry doesn’t matter is that it was a normative idea. It shouldn’t matter where you come from, even if it still did.

But if your class or ancestry shouldn’t matter, then what good does it do to focus on the differences in backgrounds? Thinking about this, I realise I’m torn about first-generation initiatives. On the one hand, I really believe that normalisation of such talk might help individuals in navigating through their environments. On the other hand, I worry that I end up normalising meritocratic drivel instead.

Yet again, while class origins (and the meritocratic hero narratives about overcoming them) shouldn’t matter, they do make a difference. While good education should be available to everyone and not hampered by origins, educational paths are often construed as stories of overcoming one’s origins. The Latin roots of “education” in the verbs “educare” (“to train”) and “educere” (“to lead out”) insinuate as much. If this is correct, education means at least partly leaving behind one’s origins.

In this sense, stories about educational paths will probably remain, at least to some degree, stories about leaving one’s origins behind. The very term “first-generation student” or “academic” has this narrative baked into it. So yes, keep talking about origins, but don’t forget to fight for political and financial support.


Many thanks to Daniel James Țurcaș and Barbara Vetter for launching the recent FirstGenPhilosophers initiative of the Gesellschaft für Analytische Philosophie (GAP), and to Marija Weste for inspiring conversations on the topic. – As it happens, this blog is now nearly four years old. So special thanks also to all my readers and interlocutors.

Just a joke? A pseudonymous guest post on “we too” by Anickodnes

In the past few days, the most recent decision by five people, in the USA, to cancel the right to abortion of 40 million women has raised heated debates and criticism. As it often happens, cultured people, artists, have spontaneously gathered in pointing their fingers against this decision which puts – dangerously – women in danger. Danger not to be able to decide for themselves, danger to have to give up their health – in what is, sadly, the same old story. The discussion around women and their rights is something that never sleeps nor goes on holydays. It fills in the gaps, it fills in the blanks.

Some days ago, I have read in a newspaper a declaration by the art director Oliver Stone, whose basic idea was: after “me too”, when you go out with a woman it is better to go together with two other persons (to avoid any possible accusation of abuse by that woman, that was the sense of this speech). My first reaction was that of being irritated although, as a European woman, I am aware that I am probably overlooking the American proportions of the “me too” story and the interferences in men’s lives (I tend to think that in America everything is bigger than here, from food to streets and distances). Yet Stone’s words sound stupid, flatly stupid. They sound as if there was an ongoing war between, on the one hand, women willing to report every single abuse – verbal, physical – and to side amongst “the good ones”, and on the other, victim-men, falsely accused of every evil in the world and continuously, tenuously under attack. As if any kind of dialogue among two disagreeing parts was not even possible; as if expressing one’s own disagreement had become the equivalent of an accusation that cannot but be solved in a court. Since when has talking or expressing disagreement become something to condemn?

These are the questions I asked myself, for lately I have felt myself almost guilty for having expressed loud disagreement on words. I have told a colleague of mine that the words he has addressed me with when we were examining together were not funny and utterly inappropriate. He has told me, in front a student who had just done a poor performance, that it was my fault if she had failed, that my explanations in class had not been good enough. Sure, he was joking. The problem is … well no, plural, there are many problems. Here are a few: I work twice as much as him, who dislikes teaching and dislikes students. I prepare my courses thoroughly because I enjoy it, I prepare the students for the exams trying to do my best, because I think it is my job. Of course, none of us is infallible, but at least trying to do our best is something we can do. Oh, I was forgetting I also do his consultation hours, for he does not reply to the messages of his students. Since word has gotten around that I reply to emails and that I care for their preparation, students started asking me more and more for meeting and discussing. So, these were part of my reasons to be mad at my colleague. I literally saw red when he was joking. Oh, I was forgetting I hardly imagine him doing the same joke with another male colleague. I am younger than him, and a woman: as an ex of mine (wondering why it is an ex? Here is why) told me, once when I was complaining about this colleague to him, that “it is normal that he looks down on you, you are a female colleague, and younger, that can be irritating.” (Understood why?)

No, certain things are not normal. Not because we are part of the “cultured people”, and therefore good. Culture is neither synonymous nor exchangeable with moral, or ethical behavior. Not necessarily. De Sade wrote books that are hard to read, yet they are books. Certain philosophical doctrines – just think about Augustine, the scariest face of God and predestination – are more than controversial – almost built up against ethics.

But certain behaviors are not normal, because they come with the assumption that it is normal to look down on someone because of her or his belonging to a gender, an orientation, a group she or he just belongs to by nature. There is nothing to say, no doubt, about the fact that I am younger and a woman. But this does not make a target of me. I am not by nature irritating anyone. I have the same right as him to have students that fail (of course!). Nor would I ever make any such jokes about a colleague in front of a student. Does this mean I am good? Particularly good?

Not even for a second. When I am at work, I focus on what I am doing, and that’s it.

Well, what has happened next is that tired of years of similar (but never that irritating) verbal normal mistreatments by this senior male colleague, I have reported this story to head of my department. Because I think that such behavior and tone compromise the quality of our work and pollute the air we all breathe (including students). I found that joke unprofessional and misplaced and did want a more authoritative voice than mine to take a stand against it. I have found but support and sincere solidarity. Not because we are good; we are human beings who struggle each day to do our best – and we can fail. Yet I have felt guilty for this. So guilty to have talked. Am I exaggerating? Am I going to be perceived as a hysterical woman? These were my doubts. Eventually, I already had replied to him, loud and clear – that his joke was not funny and misplaced.

I have concluded that this sense of guilt is the “men’s look”, the so-called male gaze I was raised with – as a daughter, as a student, as a girlfriend, as a colleague. Education is a powerful tool, the most powerful of voices – just like it is hard to forget how to bike, it is equally hard to forget the voices of our childhood. I am not going to give examples, each of us has way too many, I am sure. The problem is to get rid of such voices and to become able to hear one’s own. The voice that tells you: I might be perceived as hysterical, and so what? Surely there is someone who also thinks I am no good, or stupid, or whatever. What is not normal, is to leave the ground to people who decide for us who we are, and how we should be treated. Even among us, the “cultured people”.