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Academia's 3Ms (Merit, Money, Marriage)
January 9, 2011 - 8:30pm

The Economist's 16 December issue opened its article on why doctoral degrees waste 21st century students' time and money with a vignette about Martin Luther. The Economist longed for the days when theses were short, sweet, and revolutionary. I began my own academic life as a historian of Lutheran education and could not avoid seeing the deeper parallels between 16th century and 21st century crises in education.

At the moment, the Brits - most strikingly the shocked Duchess of Cornwall - find themselves at the epicenter of higher education’s socio-economic storm. Cries of ‘Tory scum’ and ‘off with their heads’ reportedly assaulted the Duchess’ and the Prince of Wales’ ears while their limo received an unwanted coat of paint. Those throwing insults at these icons of social hierarchy fear that money, not merit, will determine access to higher education under the Cameron government’s new scheme.

When Luther posted his theses, he instigated a series of educational reforms - some intended, some not - throughout Reformation Europe. To read the word of God in the vernacular required the ability to read and the teachers to impart the skill. In theory, everyone regardless of gender or station, needed to read the Bible. The drive for literacy guaranteed employment not only for university-educated men never before able to achieve early modern Europe’s closest analogue to tenure - the pastorate - but also for their wives. The spousal hire began with Luther’s creation of a married clergy. Husbands preached and taught boys. Their wives took the girls under wing.

Then, as now, governments wanted schoolmasters to identify the best and the brightest to send them on to university and positions of power. Then, as now, reality refused to conform to theory. Teachers desired salaries beyond what many parents could or would pay. Thus, the sons of those with money to pay or those born into the newly pro-creative clergy climbed the social ladder offered by higher education.

Their daughters and sisters bumped their heads on a lower ceiling. These young men married the girls educated by their mothers, who would in turn train their daughters to be suitable clerics’ wives capable of continuing the tradition.

In 2008, Terry Caesar wrote about the complicated overlapping categories of “faculty wife” and “adjunct instructor” in an essay for Insider Ed entitled “Composition and Cookies.” I will broaden the categories to include life-partners of any ilk and administrators. Every campus has at least one spousal silo of “little jobs” (as I once heard a chaired professor sneer) for PhDs on the tenure side-lines by choice or by necessity.

Whether held by men or women, spouses or alumni, these positions - my own included - tend to be those that nurture. We advise students on tricky decisions and applications; teach students the necessary groundwork for success in laboratories and libraries; and cultivate their spoken and written skills in native and foreign tongues. I often contemplate the similarity to the role my colleagues and I play to the cleric’s wife. No matter our gender, we are Mrs. Chips: the well-loved advisers at the emotional heart but professional periphery of academic life.

The limits of meritocracy struck home last month when the Gates Foundation announced a reduced number of Cambridge scholarships as the British Marshall Scholarship had in November. The opportunity for fully funded graduate study in Britain guaranteed to the top graduates of well-endowed East Coast institutions (Columbia and Williams to name but two) just became an even more ephemeral dream for those from families and undergraduate institutions unable to pay Britain’s high overseas student fees.

Who will retain the upper hand? Those from families like mine whose dinner table conversations resembled the high-octane banter of scholarship interviews (as a faculty brat, I have noted the high number of my own kind among the ranks of British scholarship recipients), and those with the money to pay for their degrees.

Marriage, money, and merit offer enduring if unstable access to academia. Mr Cameron’s Oxbridge government has shifted the balance back towards those like Charles and Camilla whose parents’ marriages and money guaranteed them academic access regardless of merit. The paint may have been an unseemly statement but surely not an unexpected one.

Evanston, Illinois in the USA

Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe is a regular contributor at University of Venus and an associate director of the office of fellowships and teaches history and American studies at Northwestern University, from which she earned her B.A. (1992). She earned M.Litt. (1994) and M.Phil. (1995) degrees in European History as a Marshall Scholar at Cambridge University before completing her Ph.D. at Princeton University (2000). In her so-called spare time, she fights household entropy, gardens, bakes boozy bundts, enjoys breakfast in Bollywood, and writes scholarly papers about funky monks. For more, visit or find Elizabeth on Twitter@ejlp and LinkedIn.


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