My latest column for Inside Higher Ed updates my viral essay from March 2014 about the job market, and asks us to use a bit of Rawls to think about our fate:
And for those of us who do (or will, in my case) have the privilege of working as part of an increasingly rare model that supports our activity as researchers, I have increasingly found myself thinking about what we do and do not deserve, in the manner of the philosopher John Rawls. For Rawls, we cannot possibly deserve our lot in life. This is for many reasons: our skills and attitudes depend on accidents of birth and parentage, for example. More fundamentally, the qualities that we happen to possess are (or are not) valued in certain ways by our particular social arrangement at our particular point in time.
Rawls, famously, suggests that we should design a just society from behind a veil of ignorance, not knowing which position in it we will occupy after our birth. Under these conditions, Rawls thinks, we would grant everyone basic rights, and those inequalities that exist would exist only insofar as they benefited those least well-off. It would be hard to argue, looking only at the system of higher education employment that we have today, that it would meet any kind of Rawlsian standard of justice.
Those of us who have had good fortune to be on the tenure track need to be humble about our luck. We have indeed worked hard for our position, so it can be difficult to feel that we don’t deserve it. But the number of astonishingly talented people who also deserve what we have should shame us from such feelings. We are not behind a veil of ignorance, and we cannot build a new order from scratch. But we should make sure that we are attentive to ways that we can use our positions to improve conditions for those who are least well-off. We cannot deserve our privilege, and they deserve no less.