Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Against the Academe

I missed this post from a couple of weeks ago. Perhaps you did too. I'm surprised that I didn't see it linked up on Crooked Timber.

Professor Timothy Burke (history, Swarthmore), "Angry at Academe":

(long, worthwhile post, excerpted but heavily edited here):
I think all that is valuable and productive about higher education (perhaps education in general) is now very much at stake politically in a way that it has not been in Western society since the mid-19th Century. That concerns me in terms of narrow self-interest but also because I really do believe in both the down-to-earth and abstract value of higher education. I blog because I want to understand how we're seen, to hone my own ability to enter a wider public conversation, and to think about what it is that scholars and educators need to do to reform their own practices. I want to understand where we are at fault, where public critics of academia may be mistaken or malicious in their views, and where we're entangled in some much more complex social matrix that isn't easily encompassed by debates within the public sphere.

So when and where there is public anger in the United States at academia, where is it coming from? It's important to note at the start that a lot of people aren't angry at higher education. By some measures, higher education in the United States is more successful, more productive, and more valued than ever before. To some extent, the rhetoric of "crisis" is fundamentally misplaced. American higher education is the envy of the world, and not merely because of the resources we lavish upon it. It is also organized in a way that many admire, but that many more centralized national administrations hesitate to imitate for ideological reasons. I often have a hard time getting past the strange irony of seemingly "conservative" critics in the United States demanding a far more extensive role for centralized governmental administration and control over universities. You only have to look across the Atlantic to see the negative consequences of strong centralization in higher education.

That said, a lot of Americans really are angry or dismissive towards academic institutions and towards academic professionals. Some are that way all the time, some are only that way in response to particular incidents. Some are passionately angry, others are ironically bemused by what they see in academia. I take these feelings and arguments very seriously.

So why is there this structure of feeling in early 21st Century America?

Personal experiences
1) Episodic reactions to specific public controversies involving academia.
2) Specific negative personal experiences with higher education (where the university or faculty are at fault).
3) A general personal belief system opposed to academia.

Social antagonisms
4) Specific social antagonism #1 (academia in specific).
5) Specific social antagonism #2 (political economy of professionals).
6) Specific social antagonism #3 (political economy of expertise/technocracy).
7) General social antagonism (blue state/red state, winner/loser).

Philosophical and cultural views
8). The devaluation of higher education.
9) Deep tropes of anti-intellectualism.
10) Specific ideological use of professoriate as "soft target" & distraction.
11) Specific personal experience where the student or former student was in the wrong.
It's a long post, and the comments are longer. But well worth reading, and do read the further explications of each of the above points.

Very interesting though, similar to Michael Berube's books on the attacks on higher education. Whatever you feel about Horowitz's campaign, it's an interesting read in its own right.

Perhaps you feel differently, because none of you are teaching in the humanities or at underfunded public universities. Law schools have separate endowments at any rate and are much more comfortable in their position. The sciences are entirely separate in their methods; individual professors who run labs fundraise themselves from industry to support their graduate students with fellowships ( e.g. my roommate, a bioengineering Ph.D.). Can you imagine having to do that and teach and write?

Humanities professors don't have to do this, but they're always in other types of danger. When I went to Suburban State School, half of my classes in political science were taught by adjuncts and lecturers, because it's cheaper for the university--and this shortchanges the students. Budget crises in Sunny State are nothing new. I had a full scholarship, but I did work as a grader for the political science department to supplement (in addition to working at a day care center). In retrospect, I think I would have been pissed off to know that a senior in the honors program was grading my final rather than the professor (but there's not much difference between an advanced senior and a first year graduate student, so...).

In law school, it was the same rough deal with the high cost of education in law school. Alas, even if there was more funding by the state or through private endowment, I wonder if law school could ever be cheaper, since it's a "professional" degree. No fellowships for us! Not even if you want to be an academic. And there's hardly any debt forgiveness for public interest lawyers. I started TAing to get some extra income. Graduate students are used to teach foundational courses all the time. Again, this shortchanges the students. Even if there is a departmental professor, the grad students assemble/edit the readers,and do all of the grading and conduct the discussion sections, making them work more than their max 20 hours/week--on top of coursework and research. This is why graduate student instructors campaigned so long and hard to unionize in various state school systemn New York and California.

You law professors might not be so affected by the antagonism against and devaluation of higher education that's been worsening of late. But maybe you went to a public university as an undergraduate or have academic friends in other disciplines. And maybe you do get some anti-intellectual flak directed your way. It comes in all forms form mild to virulent. I remember reading that Rick Garnett had a hard time convincing his neighbor that he really did work during the summer.

And this phenomenon isn't only at public universities. Apparently, private universities are getting more expensive as well, and so the cost of education is going up even as higher education itself is being underfunded and (arguably) undervalued by our society and government. And yet, it's never been more vital in today's economy to obtain sufficient human capital through the accretion of degrees. It's damn near impossible these days to get a decent job with sufficient mobility in pay and prestige with only a high school education. Can you imagine stopping with even a bachelor's degree if you are not in the computer or hard sciences? Even in those disciplines, the pay scale increases significantly with further levels of education.

It seems that we are all too far down the path of "over-education," and yet it's harder to get over-educated and not go into serious debt. And as Prof. Burke says, it doesn't help that there's antagonism ranging from mild-to-virulent against the enterprise of education itself.


Blogger Jeffrey Harrison said...

There seem to be two issue here. 1. Did Irvine blunder? Obviously.

2. Is it somehow unthought of, unusal, etc. to consider political views? In our profession I have seen hiring decisions at every level, tenure letters, tenere decisions, and every other type of law school personnel decision shaded by the political views of the candidate. How is this different?

9/15/2007 9:31 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home