A week ago, AMC released Lucky Hank, a new television series based on Richard Russo’s hilarious novel Straight Man. The novel and series tell the story of Hank Devereaux, Jr., an underachieving English professor at an underfunded Railton College.
The opening scene has Lucky Hank responding after a creative writing student who thinks he has great literary promise has read a particularly bad story aloud during a writing workshop. Devereaux criticizes the story’s “wandering point of view” and “distancing of the reader”—not to mention the theme of necrophilia. The sophomoric student contends that he may in fact be the next Chaucer, whereas the professor’s only published novel isn’t even available in the campus bookstore. Devereaux retorts by mounting his harshest critique of them all:
You’re here! You’re here! The fact that you’re here is evidence that you didn’t try hard in high school or show much promise. And even if your presence at this middling college in this sad forgotten town was some bizarre anomaly and you do have the promise of genius—which I’ll bet a kidney you don’t—it will never surface. I’m not a good enough writer or writing teacher to bring it out of you. And how do I know that? How? Because I, too, am here! At Railton College! Mediocracy’s capital!
I’m not nearly funny enough to think thoughts like these about my students, the college where I teach, or my own frequent mediocracy—much less to say them aloud. Certainly, I have experienced my share of the resentment and self-loathing they express.
Real-life Tier II or III (“middling”) institutions miss few opportunities to name and celebrate the extraordinary successes and merits of their students. In this, they look more like Harvard or Yale than Railton. In a recent essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Evan Mandery notes how loudly elite universities praise prodigious accomplishments. Mandery cites one Ivy League president’s declaration to entering first year students: “All of you have been blessed with exceptional talents and your time on this campus is itself a great gift.” Mandery notes:
No one said anything that day about the importance of public service or the students’ good fortune in being born into wealthy families…. No, they were instead honored for the prodigious talents and accomplishments. The message could not have been clearer: You deserve this.
According to Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?, our dominant culture, including higher education, presumes that success is individually earned and deserved. This meritocratic ideal produces hubris in those at the top (like entering students at elite universities) and resentment and humiliation in those who don’t make it (like Lucky Hank). Indeed, Sandel shows how the civil strife and decaying democracy in which we find ourselves can be traced to the meritocratic assumptions of cultured elites and the populist backlash and resentment.
Many accept meritocracy as an ideal that we haven’t lived up to. They want to improve access to higher education so that anyone “can make it if they try.” But Sandel’s critique suggests that even if—and especially when—everyone is given a shot, meritocracy offers nothing and no one to thank or blame for one’s successes or failures other than oneself. Thus, we lose the ability to empathize with others, to be humbled by the natural talents and fortunate circumstances that we didn’t choose or earn, and to feel a debt of gratitude and respond generously for the good of the whole. We lose a sense of the common good.
How does this influence the way we think about and teach for vocation—for purposeful lives leveraged for the flourishing of all? Vocation inversely relates to meritocracy in three overlapping ways.
First, Sandel insists that the renewal of the common good relies on finding ways to honor all kinds of work, especially the underpaid work of those without college degrees. Some will ask: Won’t recognizing the work of others undercut the reason students go to college (for more pay, and thus more recognition)? I’m not sure, but not doing so has been problematic for higher education. Note, for example, the populist backlash against the perceived hubris of elites, which has led to the decreasing percentage of people who believe that college has a positive impact on our nation. Besides, if we emphasize the unique contributions of the college-educated, spurning all others to get more students, any talk of educating them for the common good would undercut itself, widening the divisions that education is meant to heal.
Second, understanding meritocracy’s grip on our culture as a whole and higher education within it enables us to avoid what another critic, Daniel Markovits, calls “the meritocracy trap” in a book by that name. (Listen to a helpful podcast episode here.) He and Sandel both make the point that meritocracy ensnares not only the “underachievers” but also the winners, who spend more and more of their time—and their selves—at work and in endless status competitions with other elites. According to one review of Markovitz’s work, “elites are shuttled into a life-long, endless competition that not only consumes their life quantitatively but qualitatively as well, leaving no room for self-expression, actualization, or discovery—only self-exploitation, value extraction, and endless anxiety.” Yet a life called forward is simply not available to those who endlessly leverage their abilities. I fear that too many students and colleges essentially confuse the called life with this sad, “successful” simulacrum.
The third point I want to make about vocation within our meritocratic culture has to do with the relation between being lucky (like Hank) and being gifted (which I think our students are rightfully called). It thus also has to do with the difference between humility and gratitude. Let me explain.
Sandel names humility as the virtue that we most need right now and the one precluded by our meritocratic culture. He traces humility to the recognition of luck. Once we realize that much of who we are and what we do is the product of good fortune, we might become appropriately humble about “our” success. He suggests that admissions processes at elite colleges integrate such luck. Once a college applicant meets a certain threshold of merit (is “good enough” in Markovitz words), decisions should be made by lottery. The entering first-year class could then be told that, yes, they have talent, but also that they got lucky, and so might enter their studies and careers with humility and empathy for the less fortunate.
Will they also be grateful? As one who thinks about vocation from within a church-related college, I think Sandel misses something here. He frequently uses luck, fortune, fate, and the grace of God interchangeably, suggesting that each is equally good at chastening hubris and assuaging resentment. That may be true, but they do not seem equally good at cultivating gratitude. Could students or employees who are lucky become grateful and respond graciously? Doing so may take something closer to an understanding of being gifted as being the recipient of others’ (or an Other’s) gifts.
This gets us deep into theological accounts of vocation and questions of how far (and in what direction) they can be stretched into more secular terms without also undercutting themselves—as when the Ivy League president called the entering students “blessed” and “gifted” and meant only “you deserve this.”
I’ll think more about giftedness and gratitude—and pitfalls also therein—in an upcoming post.
Jason Mahn is professor of religion and director of the Presidential Center for Faith and Learning at Augustana College, Rock Island, IL. His essay “The Conflict in Our Callings: The Anguish (and Joy) of Willing Several Things” appeared in Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education (Oxford 2017). He has recently authored Neighbor Love through Fearful Days: Finding Meaning and Purpose in a Time of Crisis (Fortress 2021) and co-edited So That All May Flourish: The Aims of Lutheran Higher Education (Fortress 2023). For other posts by Jason, click here.