Does Our Academic System Unnecessarily Pit People Against Each Other?

EdSurge Podcast

Does Our Academic System Unnecessarily Pit People Against Each Other?

By Jeffrey R. Young     Jul 12, 2022

Does Our Academic System Unnecessarily Pit People Against Each Other?

This article is part of the collection: The EdSurge Podcast.

Picture two undergrads taking a class together, both of them dreaming of winning a prized slot at the same graduate program. Are they able to cheer each other on, or is our higher ed system set up so that there are so few slots that each is much better off if they get a high grade and the other gets a lower grade? In other words, is the system set up to encourage one to want to step over the back of the other to get what they both want?

That’s one question raised by the work of philosopher Waheed Hussain in his 2020 scholarly paper, “Pitting People Against Each Other.” The work is unusually plain-spoken and approachable for a scholarly philosophy paper, and it won accolades as one of the most important papers of that year.

Higher education is one of the case studies the paper looks at as it explores whether the rivalries created by our social systems are morally problematic—in ways that could be remedied. The paper’s premise is that we should all take a closer look at how the systems we live in make us feel about ourselves and about our connections with our fellow citizens.

I came across this paper while researching our Bootstraps podcast series about educational equity. And I had tentatively set up an interview with Hussain about this paper for the series. But before we were able to have that conversation, Hussain passed away, taken by an aggressive cancer. (See tributes to the life and work of philosopher Waheed Hussain from colleagues here and here.)

In today’s highly polarized environment, Hussain’s framework for thinking about ethics in education seems more relevant and important than ever. And as we’ll get to later in this episode, this research is personal for me, and I’m very excited to shine a light on this work. So for this week’s podcast we’re diving into his argument, talking to a philosophy professor who studied with Hussain and regularly teaches the paper to his own students.

That scholar is Hamish Russell, a graduate student and part-time assistant professor at the University of Toronto. Russell studies the intersection of philosophy and business ethics, and, like Hussain did, he hopes to challenge the assumption that it’s OK for business leaders to suspend some traditional morality in the name of market competition—something sometimes taught at business schools.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page. Or read a portion of the transcript below, lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: Health care is an example of where the system in the U.S. creates unethical rivalries, according to Waheed Hussain. What does he say about that?

Hamish Russell: In the health care example, he asks us to compare two systems. One is where health care is just guaranteed—perhaps government supplied. In that case, your access to health care doesn't depend on any actions that you take. And it doesn't depend on any actions that other people take as well. You and your neighbor and everyone else down the street, or elsewhere across the country, have the same access to health care, regardless of what you do.

And Hussain says: Compare that with a system where your health care is based on the work that you're able to secure—where your access to health care is tied to your success in the labor market. There, your access to health care depends on the decisions that you make, but it also depends on the decisions that other people make as your competitors in the labor market. You and a neighbor or your colleague or your classmate in a similar course, you are competing against one another in the labor market. The quality of the health care plan you can get depends on you kind of beating out those rivals that [are] in competition for jobs.

Hussain's thought is that under that second kind of employment-based insurance system, people will turn into enemies. People turn into rivals in a competition for something that need not be distributed that way.

So he’s pointing out that while we might think the employer-based health care system is fair because anyone can compete for those jobs, a different design would be better from a moral standpoint because it would separate this basic need from a competition for jobs?

That’s right. And what’s particularly interesting about the paper is that he says there's something about it that actually isn't about fairness per se, and it isn't about efficiency. We often evaluate, for example, health care systems based on whether we think they're fair to everyone involved—are they fair to low-income people or people that are struggling to find work? Is the system efficient? But he says it's more to do with the relationships that people in a society find themselves in. They can either be able to have a sense of community or solidarity with one another because my doing well doesn't depend on you on your doing badly. We're not rivals in that sense. Or social systems can pit us against each other. They can make it so my doing better depends on me pushing other people into the dirt, as he puts it in at one point. Where my getting access to what I need or what I care about depends on other people failing to do so.

He also talks about the example of junior professors competing for jobs at a college. In one situation, Person A and Person B are vying for tenure. And he talks about different ways to design that competition, thinking about morality, right?

That's right. And that example is the one I find particularly funny because professor Hussain was up for tenure while this paper was under review. And so it's perhaps a little bit on the nose.

He describes this physics department that has two junior professors that haven't yet made tenure or on the track to do so. And the department has a policy for a long time which says, either both or just one or neither of these professors will make tenure. We’ll just evaluate it solely based on the work that they do.

It's pretty hard to make tenure. Each person going into the game has about a 50 percent chance of succeeding. But neither’s success depends on the other one's failure. So they can both be friends, they can egg each other along. They can celebrate in the other’s successes, lament in the other's failures, because nothing really depends on it.

And they might both end up winning, then?

They could both get tenure. They could be future colleagues. They don't need to sort of feel threatened if one of them, say, gets this great publication, because they both stand a chance of getting the tenured positions that they're after.

But then suppose the department decides, No, let's think about this whole tenure system a bit differently. We'll say there's just one position open. And we will award tenure to one of the two junior professors that we have, the one that does the best in terms of their research and their publications or whatever the metric is.

Now, the thing about that is that both still have about the same chance of success. Assuming that as before, they each have about a 50 percent chance of getting tenure. But now they're rivals.

Now, if one of them starts getting these great publications or getting these research grants that really put them ahead, the other one has reason to be concerned about that. Their own interests have been sent back. And Hussain says … that now the only way in which they can succeed is by ruining the other one's hopes and dreams. And he says there's something about that that isn't about fairness. It isn't about the efficiency or the productivity of the arrangement. It's about the kind of relationship that these junior professors are put into.

It seems like there's a lot of common sense to this argument that is very accessible to a non-philosopher. Do you think this is saying something new in the field of political philosophy?

One thing about much of academia is so many conversations are three steps deep into things that were said years ago. And every now and again, you get a paper that just cuts through that and tries to describe something that, once you hear it, feels like it should have been at the center of the discussion the whole time. And this “Pitting People Against Each Other” paper, I think, really fits that description.

There are precedents for it in some ways. What Hussain is talking about goes back to longstanding anxieties about markets and competition. But whereas much of that is focused on the idea that sometimes markets lead to inequality or lead to unfairness, or arguments about whether the market system is the most efficient way to arrange things, Hussain says there's something that this discussion's missing.

It's some value of solidarity.

There's something that's lost when we have to view one another—our colleagues, our classmates, our fellow citizens—as rivals. And that's not just about whether we have an equal society or equal system. And it's not about whether we have an efficient one. It's about how we stand in relation to one another. And that really hasn't been at the center of a lot of academic discussions of markets.

When I teach this, I find that the students immediately get it. They know what it's like to be pit against one another. I ask them to look at their classmates and think about the fact that if they're trying to all get into the same kinds of graduate programs or get into law school or something like that, then that is a loss. And Hussain argues that that's something we should regret or try to avoid when we can.

Yes, he seems to make a point of saying he’s not anti-competition. He's not anti-market. Instead, he says you can design a competitive system without such a sharp pitting against each other, right?

Yeah. He suggests a couple of ways to do that. You know, competitions are all well and good when they're kept within the spirit of a friendly competition. There's nothing wrong with being rivals in some cases.

He talks about, like, having a friendly tennis match. That's fine. There's nothing so great at stake there. But when what's at stake is access to goods like health care or housing or admission into professional programs where a bunch of candidates might be deserving, but they only take the ones that rank the highest in the assessment, well there we've raised the stakes maybe more than we want to.

He thinks that where rivalry or competition becomes a concern is when we are competing for the things that make for a good and a secure life. There the competition is no longer the sort of friendly-spirited thing that's contained and isn't eating away at us.

It makes me think of the novel “The Hunger Games.” And he even mentions gladiatorial combat, where two people enter and only one leaves.

That's right. There's this moment in the article that I always find myself coming back to, where he talks about taking his daughter to the local park and sort of looking around at the other children and parents and thinking, look, these are my kids' rivals. If I want my kids to have the best shot at succeeding, then I'm gonna have to start doing what these other parents are doing, which is enrolling my daughter in extra [after-school] programs, making sure that they can do what they can to get into the best universities and from there into the best graduate programs. … We should just be in a sense of community, but actually, we're rivals. We don't think of it that way, but, but we are.

We don't even have to make an intention to sort of push the other person into the dirt, so to speak. The structure is set up where we're going to be doing that regardless of whether we're thinking about it or not.

I’ve been debating about how soon to mention this because I wanted to focus on his argument above all here. But I knew Waheed personally—we went to college together and I considered him a close friend. I hung out on those playgrounds with him in Washington, D.C.—where we both lived for a while—while my kids played with his daughter and son. And it was such a shock when he was diagnosed with cancer and died so young. You studied with him. What was he like to work with?

As an advisor, it's fair to say that he was always a little bit intimidating to me because you could count on him to ask penetrating questions. To back up and say, look, Hamish, what are you talking about? What are the assumptions that you're bringing to this? Are those the right assumptions to bring?

Which is just the right advice to get as a graduate student because you think about a project and you read the literature on it and you try to sort of work out how you can make a move within that literature. But Hussain was such a thinker, trying to think beyond the frameworks or the assumptions in which the literature had gotten stuck. And you could count on him in a meeting to really push you.

He was also loved as an undergraduate instructor. He taught this big introduction to ethics class, and I haven't seen a professor succeed so much at getting a whole lecture room of students just excited. And he would make sure to get their engagement.

Famously, he would make students stand up in order to ask a question or to answer a question or make a comment. He would get them to stand up and address the whole room. And, you know, usually the students would be a little apprehensive about this at the start, but then they would build their confidence as the class went along.

I also think it’s worth saying that the campus where he taught—the University of Toronto Scarborough—is in a relatively underprivileged suburb of Toronto. A lot of the students are first- or second-generation immigrants to Canada. They're also first-generation university students some of the time. And it meant a lot to them to have a professor called Waheed Hussain at the front of the lecture hall. Someone to look up to and see themselves in. And he called them in to be part of the conversation.

There was a memorial event to commemorate his death, and students came out and really talked about how he had shaped their lives. You know, they’d kept in touch, they'd gone on to pursue these different careers, but he was the professor that really made them feel empowered to think their own way and defend their own view and be confident in that.

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