fidesquaerens (marta_bee) wrote,

discrimination vs. -ism

It seems like ageism is in the news (or at least the blogosphere) lately. A few days ago HuffPo published a post by Kelsey Caetano-Anolles, a seventeen year old college graduate. She wants to do a masters-level degree in clinical psychology next, but the programs she's applying to say she's too young. And then today, a major philosophy blog posted a letter from someone applying for a post-doc position, who was rejected because she's too old.

These experiences both provoked pretty similar reaction for me: pity for Ms. Caetano-Anolles and the anonymous post-doc applicant, but also, the belief that this was not discrimination. Or at least, that it wasn't bigotry (as the post-doc applicant claimed) or an example of an -ism.

That word, discrimination, is a funny concept. Technically it doesn't have a negative meaning. You can speak of a discriminating palate, for instance. In that sense, yes, the admissions committee and the funding committee discriminated. That's what you're supposed to do, with limited resources and a lot of applicants. But is it an unfair discrimination? For a lot of people, discrimination has a bad connotation. It's what the various -isms are (ageism, sexism, ableism, racism, etc.) To my mind, not all discrimination is an -ism; some is just recognizing that there's some distinction which makes a difference in the situation being considered.

Take the case of Callie Smartt. She was a high school cheerleader who happened to have cerebral palsy and was confined to a wheelchair. Some other cheerleaders' parents raised a fuss, and the next year Callie was told that she would have to audition for a spot on the squad - an audition full of gymnastics maneuvers that Callie could not perform. Suppose Callie wasn't singled out and all of the old squad along with the hopefuls had to try out. In his book Justice</i> (starting p. 184), Harvard ethics professor Michael Sandel looks at whether it's fair to kick Callie off the squad because she can't turn a cartwheel. He proposes two questions, and I think they get at the heart of this issue. Can a person fulfill the function of a cheerleader while confined to a wheelchair, and would Callie get an honor she doesn't deserve, if she stayed on the squad.

On the first point, Sandel thinks that you can be a cheerleader from a wheelchair. Callie can drive along the sideline, bellowing out chants and waving her arms and generally, you know, leading cheers. I'm not convinced that's all there is to it. There's a different between a mascot and a cheerleader. Cheerleaders get the crowd involved in a specific way that involves a specific set of skills. It's unfair, but the unfairness comes from Callie's illness, not from a decision made by the school.

As for the honor issue, that's tricksier. Football is big in Texas (where Callie lived), and cheerleading along with it. That means there's a lot of competition for those spots - and, high school being high school, a lot of fairly arbitrary criteria. If a girl isn't petite and so can't be tossed so high, she's not worthy of this "honor." Or if her metabolism isn't as high and she weighs a little more (not obese, just not as skinny.) If someone doesn't run in the right social circles or is more introverted off the field than the other cheerleaders, or if she wears glasses or has a funny accent or has a funny accent - I have known or heard of people denied cheerleading positions for most of these reasons. So I can't sort out what characteristics make someone "worthy" of this honor, and what are nonessential. But certainly being wheelchair-bound doesn't seem any more arbitrary han those other "reasons."

Let's take another example: Professor Lupin in the Harry Potter books. At the end of Azkaban Lupin resigns his job, and there are two reasons given. First, he is a danger to the students if he forgets to take his medication; and second, that Dumbledore shouldn't have to defend him to all the angry parents who won't want their children being taught by a werewolf. The first issue is genuine, but it's manageable if he just takes his medicine on time. To fire him for this reason would be unjust, just like it would be wrong to fire an "alcoholic" who had been sober for twenty years on the off-chance that he might slip again. But what about the second? Remus Lupin is a first-rate teacher, if the students can learn from him - but his lycanthropy interferes with his ability to do so. Parents might interfere with the student's ability to function. At a minimum they would probably warn their students not to be alone with him, and the older students would probably have those prejudices as their own. Through no fault of his own, now that he has been "outed" he won't be able to function properly. So his resignation was the result of discrimination, but not the bad kind. He perceived he couldn't fulfil his job's requirements and so he gave it up for someone that could. Not that the next professor to fill his position was a great step up(!); but I wouldn't call this bigotry or ableism or racism or anything like that.

Getting back to Kelsey and our anonymous postdoc candidate... it's pretty clear to me that Kelsey isn't equipped for this particular graduate program. A bold claim since I haven't seen her file, I know! But the specifics don't matter here. The purpose of being a student in a program like the one Kelsey is applying for is to become a clinical psychologist. Kelsey is clearly very bright and motivated, but there's no way she can fulfill that purpose by enrolling in that program. It has nothing to do with her. Her patients won't think a twenty-year-old (her age upon graduation) has enough life experience to offer advice or insight. If she was my therapist, I wouldn't take her seriously. And that may be society's fault rather than Kelsey's, but the fact still remains that it will keep Kelsey's education from accomplishing its function. So I don't think it's ageist to tun Kelsey down because of her age.

The post-doc applicant's situation is a little more complicated. A post-doc position seems different from, say, an adjunct position. For those not in academia, an adjunct is someone hired to teach a specific course or set of courses for a specific semester. That's different from a tenure-track position where the assumption is you usually keep teaching so long as you make progress toward tenure. With an adjunct, you're just a contractor who provides a service and is paid for it; the university is not involved in developing you as a researcher or professor. As I understand it, postdocs are between the two but usually seen as a step toward a tenure-track job. Part of their goal is to prepare you for that work which in turn is a decade-long process of getting books and articles published, serving as part of the university's administration, perfecting your teaching skills, and so on.

Can someone who is nearly fifty really benefit from a postdoc? If the postdoc's role is to prepare you for a long journey toward tenure which in turn is supposed to prepare you to be a contributing part of the academic community? I don't know. My instinct is, we're better off giving that postdoc to someone younger who has the time to develop and then have several years left to be a fully-trained, contributing academic. I think that is a valid concern, and as such it's not ageism. It's just taking a fair view of the situation and giving the resource where it can actually do the most good.

What do you guys think? Any thoughts on all of this?

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Tags: philosophy
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