The Myth of Meritocracies

This is a post about mental health.

I think it’s time we recognize that academia never has been, and never will be, a meritocracy. Is it something to aspire to? Absolutely. Does revealing the myth of a meritocracy imply that those who have been successful within academia did not earn it? Absolutely not.

Acknowledging that the presumed meritocracy of academia is a myth liberates us individually as well as collectively. It allows us to step back and look at the ways in which the power structure of academia needs to be challenged, and where this very same power structure paradoxically needs to be supported. Education is the most important issue of our generation.

Academia’s meritocracy myth occurred to me when a good friend of mine posted on Facebook that while she loves her current career outside of academia, she often misses the critical thinking and research aspect that made her excel during her doctoral experience. The implied narrative was that she felt like a failure for leaving. This exact same friend was a super star in the department, I heard whispered stories of her numerous and prestigious grants while in graduate school, and that she was a darling amongst faculty because of her excellent work. She was In. Every. Single. Respect highly successful.

Following her successful defense, she did not get an academic position and decided to leave academia. I remember visiting her that summer. I was stunned she was leaving. She couldn’t leave. She was too smart. I was also stunned to hear how she refused to participate in the adjunct system, and that she felt once she started down that path she would never be taken seriously as a scholar. Oh how right she was. I look back on that conversation as most likely the beginnings of my own senses that something was afoul in academia.

At the time I visited her, I was drafting my dissertation proposal, full of hope and the strong belief that if my research was amazing, I would not have to leave academia. I would just have to try harder. Do my absolute best. So I did. And just like my friend, but without the same amount of accolades and honors she garnered during graduate school, I too failed at academia.

Or, perhaps, academia failed us.

How is it that this strong, intelligent and powerful friend of mine still feels like a failure at times? Why do I still feel like a failure, like my current legal situation is my fault? That the onus is on me for breaking the sacred covenant of academia and speaking out, for being uppity, for being arrogant enough to assume I had rights.

The only conclusion I came to from these musings is that these false-beliefs of failure held by myself and so many others are based on the myth of the meritocracy. We believed that even as jobs became more and more scarce, we still stood a chance at succeeding if we were the very best.

And when we didn’t succeed at an academic position, it was unassailable proof that we, in fact, were not the very best.

I won’t waste time on illustrating just how flawed that thinking is, instead, I want to focus on the toll this belief in meritocracy takes on our mental health.

I agonized over how to write this post. I’ve been sitting on it for two months now. This post is probably not legally wise. But the thing is—it’s important. And to be perfectly honest, I no longer care. I have already lost everything. And it is important to address my truth of depression and anxiety, and where its underpinnings are. I hope this helps some of you feel less alone, more sane, and more forgiving towards yourselves.

One of the ways in which a case has been built against me has been to attack my mental stability. I have been accused of having a “delusional mind,” and “grandiose visions” of myself. This petty, and let’s face it, gendered line of attack is in lieu of any substantial evidence or facts against me. To put it simply: first amendment rights are a big deal. So is telling the truth. And so it being able to back up that truth with documentation. I have done all of this.

The only line of attack against me appears to be undercutting my mental stability. Which is enraging, especially because since October I have been tested to the extremes of depression and anxiety. My wonderful friends and family have taken shifts in taking care of me, checking in on me, and supporting me in so many ways. I am continually touched by how fortunate I am to have my friends and family. Without them I would not have had the strength to continue on.  

While my case is an extreme example, I think it powerfully demonstrates the damaging ethos surrounding merit in academia. How we must believe in merit-based advancement in order to get through the rigor of a PhD. To endure the hazing by fellow students and by faculty. To endure the hours of intellectually demanding research done in isolation. I think at various points, every single one of us has been broken (if only temporarily) by this toxic structure.

Why do we endure it? Why are the instances of mental illness in higher education appallingly high? I think a large factor in this is because we believe, on an innate level, that academia is still a meritocracy. That if we push ourselves to extremes, we will succeed. This toxic assumption is what breaks us. Leads to burn out. And depression.

Let’s change the narrative around mental health and academia—let’s demand more of academia. Or, perhaps, it’s time to forgive academia for failing us and move on.

Updates: So many things on my wish-list are happening, I can barely keep up. Which is thrilling. Thank you all. 

THANK YOU to Billy Bryan and Rebecca Jarvis for helping me get a survey of graduate student experience drafted and in the works. I'm so grateful to you for banding together to get this done. It's been amazing to be working on a team again for something so important

Tonight is the first conversation I'll be hosting (in my humble apartment) about academia in Brooklyn. I've assembled some amazing thinkers and forces, and I'm so excited to publish the minutes of our conversation soon.

I'm also collaborating to get an online conversation up and running for those of you not in the greater NYC area. As always, contact me if you are interested in participating. Due to the fact that I've had requests from multiple time-zones around the world for this conversation, this will take some logistical planning to ensure everyone who wants to participate can-- if you can help in that area that would also be much appreciated. 

As always, feel free to contact me to share, collaborate, or just talk.  (If you wish to remain anonymous, just put a fake name in or even fake email-- but know if you put a fake email I won't be able to write you back)

 

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