Perhaps it’s from having a stubbornly blue collar, but snobbery has never appealed to me. While in seminary at Boston University, I applied for a transfer to Harvard Divinity School. In spite of being accepted, I stayed at my alma mater and paid the consequences. There’s a strange loyalty among the working class, you see. And now I’m finally seeing my former mistress, academia, taking a turn toward the lowly but worthy. The title of a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education says it all: “As Scholars Are Driven to Less Prestigious Journals, New Measures of Quality Emerge.” Hmm, why might that be? The industry mantra, “publish or perish” has grown more aggressive over the years and the number of publishers has decreased. Your academic net worth, it seems, can no longer be based on how elite you are.
People are funny that way. We’re very impressed by those paraded before us as successes—as if some kind of magic clings to those who are where we wish we were. In academia where you went to school matters more than what you’ve proven yourself capable of. If you attended the “best” schools your work will be accepted by the “best” journals and publishers. What rarified company you’ll keep! For the rest of us, well, we have the numbers. And blue collars aren’t afraid of hard work. Let the academic aristocracy enjoy its laurels. Laurels are poisonous, however, for those with an eye open for parables.
Primates, according to those who know them best, can see through pretense. I often wonder if our political chaos isn’t based on this simple fact of biology. As a priest I knew once told me, “We put our pants on one leg at a time too.” This didn’t prevent many postulants I knew from anticipating the day when they would be ontologically transformed. Priesting, I was informed, would make them better than the laity. Closer to God. Here it was, even among the clergy—the desire for prestige. Chimpanzees will take down an alpha who abuses his power. Nature has a set of balances. Tampering with them leads to, well, scholars being driven to less prestigious journals and the like. The net result, as the Chronicle suggests (if read one way), is that the last shall be first and the first last. Probably it’s the result of reading too much Bible in my formative years, but I’ve always appreciated parables.