Should Academics Hire Academics Who Are Parents?

There’s a good blog called Crooked Timber (“out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made”), in which a philosophy professor named Ingrid Robeyns posted an interesting quandary: should we hire academics who are parents?

In many professions, you have to be a certified, skilled and experienced person, but there is an upper-ceiling on what will be demanded and expected from you for hiring purposes. You have to be good and good enough, but you don’t have to be better than all the others. In fact, there may be no way to say who is better than the others if we compare candidates who are all above a certain threshold of competences and experience. In academia, it seems that the sky is the limit. So it is not good enough to have a PhD degree, some teaching experience, some experience in administration, some experience abroad and a handful of high-quality publications; no, you need more of this compared with your competitors on the job market. You don’t need to be just good; you need to be better than the others. So if there is someone competing for the same job, who has been able and willing to work significantly more hours than you over the last years, than all other things equal that person will have a more impressing CV and will be hired (except if this person is a really horrible character, or known to be a person who always causes trouble).

In such a job market, which in hiring people does not work on sufficiency principles but on comparative principles, anybody who has activities/responsibilities that are consuming lots of time outside academia are in an obvious sense professionally disadvantaged. Parents are one group belonging to this category, but other carers are in this category too, for example adults who provide care for other adults.

Ingrid does a nice job of framing some of the spin-off issues this quandary entails. But when I was a mediocre philosophy major long long ago, we weren’t supposed to smuggle messy things like “gender” and “history” and “social science” into arguments. No indeed. Tracts stood or fell on their own logical consistency, or lack thereof.

Thus, for this argument, I’m trotting out an old philosophical tool: the reductio ad absurdum.

So here it goes: Yes, of course you should hire the more productive employee. Businesses (even academies) are seeking to maximize productivity per employee. All other businesses should do the same. This is a foundation of capitalism.

In fact, when it comes to snow days, kids’ sick days, class breakfasts, soccer practices, annoying quasi-holidays when schools are closed but “real” businesses aren’t, or summer holidays, the non-parent will always have the parent beat.

Thus, on a macro scale, it would evolve into a system where Workers work and Breeders breed and raise children—but don’t work themselves, because they’re not productive enough.

However, the only way to sustain such a reasonable system would be for the Workers to financially support the Breeders, since it’s not in the Workers’ best self-interest to stifle the supply of future Workers (for economic and corporate growth is the foundation of modern capitalism). Also, the only way for future Workers (i.e., children) to acquire the proper socialization to join the existing Workers is if Workers are not actively hostile to children and Breeders by refusing to provide for their material, social, and intellectual needs.

And if Workers are reasonable and proactive, they’ll have a vested interest in such a system, because when they retire, younger Workers who were once children will cook for and take care of older Workers in retirement homes, and they wouldn’t want these younger people to be incompetent, or worse, to hate them.

But the only way to support such a system is if the Workers will have to work even harder to sustain themselves, children, and Breeders.

But it will come to pass that some workers resent this—“Why should I work to support these people who are on a kind of welfare?”—just the same way many people resent paying property taxes to fund schools, even though they benefited from these same schools when they were children.

And it may also come to pass that just because a Worker is childless, it doesn’t mean they’re not an incompetent, or a bad Worker. In fact, doing-nothing-but-work May make Workers bitter and hostile, since the breeders are off going to the park and the beach and on bike rides, while they’re working 18-hour days. And what if, while working these 18-hour days, these Workers become less productive?

In that case, Workers who are incompetent, bitter, burnt out or merely less productive end up dropping out of the working pool, because, let’s face it, every time they look out the office window and see those happy kids, they’re getting evidence that there’s more to life than just work. Or, just looking outside the office window is a sign of non-productivity.

(And just to simplify, let’s just ignore the possible squeamishness that children might have about entering the Working system, or the hypothetical situation where Breeders or children stumble across the writings of someone like Karl Marx.)

And the more Workers that drop out, the harder the other Workers have to struggle, because now they have to support a whole other class of dependents: Former Workers. And pretty soon they can’t, and the whole system collapses.