Merit vs Justice, or why we shouldn’t rank philosophy programs

Should philosophy departments and graduate programs be ranked, and if so, how?

This has been the topic of intense debate this week. I would like to contribute an XCP perspective to the line of argumentation begun by Ed Kazarian and John Drabinski. Because in fact, we here at XCP have been arguing for quite some time that the discipline’s “demographic problem” intersects with (in the feminist sense of “intersection”) the analytic/continental divide (and it’s supposed overcoming/pluralization). Or, to use Kristie Dotson’s terms, “diverse practices” and “diverse practitioners” are not independent variables.

No matter how you measure it, philosophical “respectability” will always further marginalize the most marginal members of the discipline and profession. Different methods of measurement might slightly alter the composition of the groups thrown under the bus (valuing ethics and continental more centrally will, I bet, be better for white women), but somebody’s still gonna take the fall, and that somebody will be found at a node of intersecting oppressions.

The academic merit system is a means of reproducing the racist, classist, cis/heteropatriarchial, ableist distribution of resources, wealth, opportunities, and privilege. Assessments of philosophical merit are deeply tied to assessments of academic merit in general: citations, grant money, placement at elite institutions, etc.

What if, instead of revising our assement of merit, we reoriented our aims and centered justice, not merit? Sure, that’s not going to be helpful when we’ve gotta make a case to deans about why we still need philosophy programs…Justice is not something most academic institutions really care about, and caring about justice is not the route to producing high-merit outcomes. However, what if instead of trying to “save” philosophy as part of an incredibly oppressive institution, what if we practiced philosophy in a way that was intentionally transformative? (For what it’s worth, I know on the ground you’ve gotta speak out of both sides of your mouth at once, playing respectable enough to keep getting the resources to do your transformative work…)

8 thoughts on “Merit vs Justice, or why we shouldn’t rank philosophy programs

  1. lesbian phallusophy

    Yes, yes, please. The meritocracy is one of the first myths that must be dismantled in all anti-oppression work. If more philosophers would take the opportunity to do so in the ways you suggest, Megahertz, here’s what could happen: they could use the fact that philosophy’s importance and merits as a field are in question to align themselves with other fields, people and communities whose importance and merits are in question. And we could all make a better world.

    1. lesbian phallusophy

      …And this conversation feels very connected, for me, to what a former student said to me earlier today: how upsetting it is that the media emphasizes that a Black or Brown child who was murdered by police was an honors student. As if that makes their loss any greater, as if it’s ok that white supremacy only deigns to “care” when a Black or Brown young person has proven their “merit.” I understand why family members may emphasize honors student status, but I think it’s very different than when the media does so with no context of white supremacy. The appeal to honors student status by family members often highlights that not even “merit” can protect a Black or Brown child, and might not even confer “grievability,” as earlier posts by Andreas M and Dione’s and Megahertz’s replies invoke.

      1. Megahertz Post author

        that’s a great point about “merit” not even protecting black and brown people. respectability is always conditional and instrumental, and if those conditions or the instrumental ends no longer favor white supremacy, then respectability won’t save you. i wish we would think and talk more about how appeals to philosophical respectability won’t in the end, “save” us as a discipline in the university.

  2. Ed Kazarian

    Thank you for this. I’ve been somewhat more cautious in public than I have in a number of private conversations about coming down on the notion of ‘merit’ in academia per se, for many of the reasons that you cite. Accordingly, I’m thrilled to see the argument getting made so well here.

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  6. Jason Hills

    Great post. I concur–especially about how respectability will always marginalize someone, and public discourse on the matter tends to ignore the distinction between diverse philosophies vs. practioners. Too often, pluralistic moves coming from dominant traditions ignore or deny the marginalizing institutions that defy inclusive pluralism. The pluralism that marginalizing institutions support looks a lot like a museum: everyone’s represented, but the marginalized groups are dead and stuffed. Chariacatures of what they were or are.

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