Peter Levine, at the Institute of Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland, has an excellent post discussing the issues I raised in my post on generational changes in the academy. Peter links the changes I see to broader changes in the culture (as do Harry Brighouse and Andy Streich, in their comments on my original post). Peter raises a number of issues of importance (many of particular importance to those who teach at public universities, as both Peter and I do). But he also takes up the theme of "competition for status" that I was trying to address in my post, and links it to a broader change in our culture. I was particularly struck by the following remark, which seems dead-on to me:
I think that competition for status is fundamentally unsatisfying. Friedland and Morimoto detect a hollowing-out of adolescence as teenagers spend all their time doing activities they think will look good on their resumes. Many adolescent volunteers cannot explain why they perform particular service activities, other than for career advantage. For faculty, constant jockeying for position makes you into the "man in the grey flannel suit." There is no fundamental reason why you should publish more articles in competitive journals in order to receive offers from higher-status institutions. However, it can be profoundly rewarding to use one's academic freedom and skills to improve the place you are. As Albert Hirschman showed,** we have two strategies for addressing shortcomings in institutions: "exit" and "voice." When you try to use voice even though you could exit, you are loyal. And the best parts of life come from loyalty. I think the fact that modern academics prefer exit is what Jason means when he talks about "market forces." And we're the ones who lose.
Update: Some e-mailers are apparently wondering what the relation of all of this is to rankings in philosophy. I certainly wasn't intending to criticize rankings in philosophy; for one thing programs in philosophy have retained extraordinary strength over time by maintaining core groups of faculty over many years (Michigan and Princeton come to mind). There is also an issue here about status within a discipline and status in upper-middle class society, which are two very different issues. I am inclined to think that the former is mostly healthy, and the latter is mostly not. As Levine points out, US News and World Report University rankings clearly link university affiliation to class status. The competition universities engage in to improve their standings in these sorts of rankings have a bad effect both on society at large and on the academy, which is, after all, supposed to be a place in which students are introduced to values other than that of achieving a high socio-economic status.
This is not to say that rankings in philosophy only have good effects -- not even chocolate only has good effects. Peter Levine's post certainly outlines ways in which all quantifiable rankings have worrisome effects on communities, including disciplinary rankings (see also Becko Copenhaver's comment on my original post). I nonetheless promote rigorous quantifiable disciplinary speciality rankings, because I believe the goods they support outweigh their costs. More specifically, the existence of rankings such as the ones in US News and World Report has made the existence of rigorous disciplinary rankings essential. Faculty members at name-brand, private universities are now more than ever inclined to confuse the heightened class status achieved by association with a wealthy private institution with disciplinary achievement. Without disciplinary rankings, administrators would have greater difficulty making judgments of relative strength of departments. As a result, it would be more difficult for centers of research strength to emerge at (say) public universities which cater to a more economically diverse student body. But it is better for the strength of society and for the strength of disciplines to have excellent departments at public universities. For one thing, while many of the wealthiest business owners and corporate lawyers will continue to come from Harvard, many of the best physicists and mathematicians will continue to come from Brooklyn College.