“If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”— O. Wilde

Friday, March 20, 2015

Indicting the Educational-Industrial Complex

In an essay titled  "History Under Attack," Princeton history prof Tony Grafton, former president of the American Historical Association, circles the wagons for the academic establishment here. I don't know about "history" being attacked, but the keepers of the crypt, the professional history professors, certainly are.
The academy as a whole is corrupt, they tell us. We professors are imprisoned within sclerotic disciplines, obsessed with highly specialized research. We can’t write except in meaningless jargon, and we address only esoteric students, thus ensuring that we have no audience. We train our graduate students to do the same, even though they, unlike us, won’t be rewarded for doing so by gaining tenure-track jobs. We usually don’t train our undergraduates at all, since we leave lower-level teaching to adjunct and contingent faculty. And when we do deign to spend time with them, we offer not rigorous training in source criticism, literary analysis, and argument, but indoctrination into our own left-wing view of politics, the arts, and pretty much everything else.
For all their disagreements on detail, almost all of these critics agree, not only on the symptoms but also on their causes. They have met the enemy, and he is us. We professors have shed our basic responsibility, teaching, in favor of research. Instead of grounding eager young people in the liberal arts, nine or twelve or fifteen hours a week, we barely enter the classroom. Instead we are off-campus, secluded at home or in a library or archive, pursuing specialized research. Every year we write more and more about less and less, filling libraries with unread books and articles and babbling at pointless conferences. And every year we are rewarded for this dereliction with higher salaries and more privileges.
This rich, protean indictment appears, in all its varied forms, in many places—from trade books produced by professors, think-tankers, and journalists to journalistic articles and blog posts. It echoes and reverberates and deafens, like conversation in a fashionable restaurant. And it is often expressed with memorable savagery. Let professors pay for their own vacations in Tuscany, write Hacker and Dreifus, unsubtly suggesting that research trips are really luxurious jaunts to places in the sun.  
It’s easy enough to refute individual articles of this indictment. 
Well, in a nation where college students' ignorance of even the most basic facts of history and civics is well-chronicled,  I don't think he does very well with the refutation part atall atall, but you can read the whole thing and decide for yourself. I do give him credit for getting the indictment right, though. Perhaps the only justice in the whole corrupt enterprise is that the true believers, the adjunct professors, get screwed by the system even worse than they screw the students.

1 comment:

Tim Kowal said...

More to Rod Dreher's interest in his recent post ( http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/humanities-fragments-ruins/ ), a vacationing Tom forwards this along:


To go by this critique, the obsession with the minute and the technical not only determines the course of scholars’ research; worse still, it shapes their teaching. Nowadays specialists can’t teach the survey courses of yesteryear. They haven’t read widely or thought about the big themes of history or literature (which of course was easier back when most ideas that mattered emanated from two continents). Instead they offer seminars focused on tiny questions and single authors and artists. Charismatic in their intellect, these professors seduce the most gifted students into imitating them. The university thus becomes a machine—as the critics endlessly repeat—for producing teachers and students who know more and more about less and less.
Students who come through this routine may be wonderful scholars in the sense that they can skillfully carry out the exercises with which professional historians or literary critics earn their livings. But their journey to the PhD locks them into little boxes, even smaller than those that house their teachers. They know nothing about the boxes to their right and left, to say nothing of those in other rows: it’s like some hideous academic parody of the Matrix.
Students from the old system were prepared to take the values and history and literature they had discussed along with them into the world, and use them as a way to think about their experiences. Students from the new system are unworldly to the point of absurdity. As William Deresiewicz lamented in a memorable article in this publication, they probably know how to talk in foreign languages with highly educated colleagues around the world, but they can’t carry on a conversation with their plumber—much less take an informed position on national politics, or even on the university governance issues that shape their experience as students and will shape their lives if they become professors.