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Memoirs of a dossier-reader

It’s worse to be looking for a job than to be on the other end. I can testify to that, having been on the market not so long ago. Nevertheless those who are hiring deserve a bit of sympathy too. A few words from a dossier-reader may help dispel some of the fantasies, morose or extravagant, that I at least, having sent off my too-thin packets, was prone to.
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We have one yes to offer, and many many nos. The standard rejection letter says something like “We had many worthy applicants; unfortunately we could only choose one”. Small comfort, but true. Saying no is in general not pleasant (though the unpleasantness of saying no is quite different in its consequences than that of being told no). Saying no to well-qualified, interesting people is especially not pleasant. I would not want a colleague who enjoyed it.
The tough-minded may say: “It’s pointless to regret the nos. We have one slot; we try to fill it with the best person we can get. Those we don’t pick, if they have talent & ambition, will do fine. If they haven’t any talent, they should find something else to do. We have no reason to regret turning them down.” If ‘justice’ means that jobs should be allotted according to merit, then the job system in philosophy (I mean the American system) is not markedly less unjust than the educational system that produces candidates for it. It may even be a little more just, because the sorting that goes on in graduate school can diminish to some degree initial inequalities of capital (economic and scholarly). In sensible departments, talent and hard work do pay off, and help overcome a lack of social polish and even a deficit in intellectual preparation. Sensible departments, moreover, when hiring go for substance not class markers.
The issue is not so much whether, in following the usual procedures, we are being just, and have no reason for regret on those grounds; it is that even so not everyone who by their merits deserves to, succeeds. Theodicy attempts to show, universally, how to reconcile the imperfections of justice in the sæculum with the demand of reason—the Idea, as Kant would say—that justice be done. Almost always it ends, however mildly it begins, with a hard truth or two: that the apparently good are not good, that the good of the whole requires sacrifice of parts. Leibniz’s God will not let the misery even of an entire Earth deter him from imposing order on Creation, the beautiful order of the greatest good. Augustine, for his part, characteristically refuses to mitigate the arbitrariness of the divine decree: the unbaptised are condemned because even in them the corruption of original sin exceeds infinitely their supposed innocence; as for the rest of us, works are at best an index of salvation or reprobation that, because there can be no this-worldly determination of the divine will, is decided independently of works.
Intrinsic merit & industry are sometimes rewarded in the expected ways; sometimes in unexpected ways; sometimes not at all. Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick is a fable; but so too is the anti-Alger of A Cool Million (). There is no moral to be drawn, unless it is Leibniz’s: in the absence of revelation, we cannot do better than to follow the presumptive will of God, or the presumptive ways of justice; but we can do much worse.
() See the last chapter of Ragged Dick. Alger’s works can be found online at the Virginia Electronic Text Center. A first edition of Ragged Dick will run you upwards of $900, but others can be had for a dollar. Nathanel West’s A Cool Million, or, the Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin was first published in 1934, a year after Miss Lonelyhearts, and five years before his best known work, The Day of the Locust. Mark Twain had already written two parodies of Alger (“The Good Little Boy” and “The Bad Little Boy”), which was perhaps all that the world needed.

LinkDecember 11, 2004 in Academic Affairs