On the Death of Democratic Higher Education


Rick Perlstein in The Nation:

Here’s a personal observation with a political thrust: if I were single, I don’t think I could handle dating a graduate student in the humanities or the social sciences. Or someone with a PhD but not a tenure-track job. Or perhaps even a junior professor working for tenure. When I close my eyes and think of friends who’re sweating their way up that greasy poll to find steady work as a professional scholar, the images I come up with are of people at wits’ end, often hardly capable of healthy relationships at all.

I think of one, a recently minted history doctorate, for whom a two-year postdoctoral fellowship fortuitously dropped from the sky—but whom before that happened I regularly had to almost literally talk down from the ledge, so frazzled was she by the thought of piecing together more years with a $15,000 income; or maybe (she didn’t have any teaching lined up for this fall when the postdoc came through) no income at all.

I think of another, a gifted and committed teacher, the single mother of a disabled son, whose employer, a downtown commuter college, began cutting her course load the more experienced she got—the better she got—because it was cheaper to hire teachers who were green. She referred to this as her “poverty summer,” and I think she was near to the ledge too.

There’s another guy, a romance languages doctorate from one of the world’s great research universities, also a gifted and committed teacher. He came from a working-class background—his dad drives a truck for Coca-Cola, and he himself has had jobs like warehouseman and forklift driver. Because of all that, he possessed a psychological profile that made thriving in academia difficult: namely, he is self-possessed, confident and utterly lacking in the other-directed brown-nose-itutde that is the mark of the modern professional managerial class. When he realized that most critical theory wasn’t to his taste, he avoided it—except when he had to parrot it back to his professors to pass his field exams. He also didn’t frantically seek lines on his curriculum vitae, grinding the same research into half a dozen all-but-identical conference papers. He didn’t suck up. Instead, all he did was write a brilliant dissertation with a timely and politically relevant theme, in elegant, readable prose. All the while he feasted upon books about every subject under the sun (an insatiable auto-didact; his love of knowledge burns more brightly than that of just about anyone I’ve ever met, and outshines every professor I know. Simultaneously, a natural-born teacher, he joyfully practiced the arts of citizenship just about every day of the week in the form of long and passionate and generous e-mails to his working-class relatives, most of them Christian conservatives, teaching them about the sins of the national security state, the historical accomplishments of the welfare state, and so on and so forth. In a better world, academia would beat a path to his gentleman’s door. Instead, he knows tenured employment is almost unimaginable. So he’s applied to about a hundred jobs this summer, desperate to keep up with his mortgage—every kind of job, including one as an on-campus building manager. He finally ended up with a year-long contract at a private school teaching science to eighth graders. Though he has no particular interest in and no experience with science, he’s glad to be working at all.

I think about a junior professor I know, also at a great research university—I have to be careful here; academics are petty, and who knows what identifying detail might set off one of (his or her) colleagues on whom the rest of (her or his) professional life depends—who is up for tenure this year.