January 18, 2022 - 7:00am

University education was once sold to adolescents as a place where they might ‘find themselves’ through the liberal arts. In this fantasy, students could discover a more ‘authentic’ self as they learned, through the fearless and broad-ranging inquiry of impassioned conversations in and outside of seminars, to question received ideas. Academia today is certainly a place where people can themselves anew, if not more authentically.

Scholars like Jessica Krug or Carrie Bourassa, both white women, reimagined themselves as women of colour. Rhodes scholar Mackenzie Fierceton, also a white woman, was recently revealed to have constructed an elaborate persona as a ‘first-generation’ college student who had been passed through the foster system and suffered horrific physical abuse. She had in fact been privately educated and raised by her radiologist mother.

Such cases are only the most visible portion of the constant, ubiquitous deceit that is now built into the application process, which rewards candidates who can most convincingly tell stories — that is, who can lie.

People aspiring to positions at elite universities, to prestigious grants, or, increasingly, to even rather menial employment, find themselves increasingly solicited to tell a false story about themselves. Many from the upper and upper-middle class, especially if they are younger than forty, carry in their heads at least one more-or-less fictitious autobiography, ready to present to potential employers. These narratives typically highlight the applicant’s ‘passion’ — their ostensibly long-held commitment to whatever line of work they are, for the most part, pursuing just in hope of a paycheque — and their ‘identity.’ The latter, instead of being a quality that makes each individual person unique, is rather what allows him or her to be sorted into categories recognised by institutions. Certain identities, we know, are more desirable than others; those are the ones that people pretend to have.

We cannot know how many applicants pass themselves off as more desirable races, social categories, etc., in order to improve their chances; but applications based on candidates’ stories about themselves necessarily invite them to.

We love stories about sufferers who heroically overcome hardship — and love to reward those who can convincingly present themselves to us as such triumphant underdogs. These stories satisfy two desires that are otherwise difficult to reconcile: our longings to help the unfortunate and to reward the successful. But those who are most capable of telling such stories, compellingly recounting their adversities and achievements, tend to be those who least need our help. They are, in fact, rather privileged, since it requires some degree of leisure, education, and well-being to learn the codes of storytelling needed to appeal to listeners whose sympathies, if manipulated, might open to the doors to still more material resources and prestige.

On the other hand, the most privileged are so rich and connected that they can by-pass the indignity of giving exaggerated accounts of their own abjection in order to get a job or scholarship. They will never be caught in the embarrassment of a Jessica Krug or Mackenzie Fierceton. Rather than directing our ire at the latter, who, however contemptible, are simply responding to incentives, we should ask what our elites gain from subjecting them, and us, to such perverse competitions in self-narration.

Blake Smith is a Harper-Schmidt Fellow at the University of Chicago. A historian of modern France, he is also a translator of contemporary francophone fiction and a regular contributor to Tablet.