Matthew Bowman: Why we aren’t always the masters of our own fate

In academia, as in life, meritocracy is largely a myth.

For four years I lived in an Arkansas town called Arkadelphia, because I taught history at a liberal arts college there. It was, in many ways, a lovely experience. The town could be charming when it tried. Every October, it held an “Arktoberfest” celebration. I would go running along a creek at night and although I was only two blocks from the town’s main road, the fireflies, shadows and towering, silent trees could fool me into thinking I was in a genuine forest.

My colleagues were kind and encouraging — at least my immediate colleagues. That is the sort of thing a lot of academics will tell you they’re looking for when they interview for jobs: an idealized academy with meaningful and intellectually fulfilling relationships based upon mentorship and collegiality rather than competition or backstabbing. Unfortunately, that’s hard to find anywhere, and saying that it was not my universal experience at this school shouldn’t be read as a unique condemnation.

Unfortunately, its top administration was, I gradually learned, comically incompetent, running up massive debts on the one hand and hiding them on the other, offering large contracts and excellent positions to cronies and encouraging faculty to squabble over the meager remains.

And there was, of course, loneliness. It wasn’t terrible, though I wasn’t yet married. I’m a natural introvert, and I buried myself in work. I wrote a book and a half. I organized an annual student trip to Washington, D.C. I designed lots of new classes. I joined a dynamic little writing group and periodically had dinner with colleagues. But sometimes, perhaps once a week, I’d lie awake at night, listening to the cars pull in and out of the parking lot of my apartment building, and wonder what I was doing there, hundreds of miles away from everybody with whom I had spent my life building close relationships.

The year after I got a new job in California, a new administration took over the poor school and gutted its faculty in the name of financial solvency. Were I still there — well, I wouldn’t actually be there. I would have been fired last year with around five dozen other professors, many of whom had devoted their lives to the place and genuinely loved the community. I’m lucky, and I know it.

I’m also lucky to have gotten a job there in the first place. The academic job market is tight and tough. According to one report, about 1 in 10 new history doctoral graduates in the 2019-2020 academic year are now full-time faculty members. That year, universities graduated nearly 2,000 new Ph.D.s in the field; around 500 jobs were available. And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic scattered the economy.

I learned later I was competing with Harvard graduates for a job in rural Arkansas. I am sure there were several hundred applicants for the position and equally sure that the majority of them could have done it as well as or better than I did.

All of this is to say, I ended up in Arkansas because, despite the stories we tell ourselves, our society is not really a meritocracy. There are innumerable factors beyond simple ability that go into every advantage, job, award any of us receives. It’s easy for us, as individualistic Americans, to commit the fundamental attribution error — a logical fallacy that leads us to overemphasize individual traits and deemphasize structural and environmental factors in just about everything.

He got the job because he worked harder; not, he got the job because he went to the same school as the hiring committee chair. Or, even more poisonously, I didn’t get the job because I’m not as hardworking; not, I didn’t get the job because there were 300 qualified applicants or, even more broadly, I didn’t get the job because of my name, ethnicity, religion.

The anxiety the fundamental attribution error can create is such that, once in graduate school, I and a number of my colleagues argued about whether hiring committees preferred our cover letters to be stapled or paper-clipped.

This way of thinking reduces all of society to an atomized cluster of individuals, and links our imagined success and failure solely to personal efforts. It’s a short step from there to linking success to personal virtue. This way of thinking takes hold of us and convinces us that we are somehow entirely self-made, bearing the responsibility and even the capacity to shape who we are separate from our communities.

And so, of course, this way of thinking convinced me that my success would require departure from my community and move to Arkansas, another in a long line of characters in American children’s literature who leave home.

That little liberal arts college’s slogan is “The School With a Heart.” The implicit promise in those words was that here was a place that understood the reality of community. Here was a place that saw through the fundamental attribution error and was willing to defy the ruthless logic of competition to nurture a healthy academic village. That’s a naive desire. To a greater or lesser extent, the market and its pressures pose such a complex and gigantic reality that no institution in the United States, let alone a small liberal arts college in Arkansas, can resist it.

Nonetheless, the school’s failures are still disappointing. They point, I think, to the reality that without our efforts, communities tend to come apart, dragged to pieces by the whirling gyroscope of our economics. I now live a long drive, instead of a plane flight, from my family.

Matthew Bowman is Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University.

Matthew Bowman is the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University and the author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith.”