The reason why I don’t participate in the current flurry of posts that try to answer the question of “What’s the matter with higher education?” is that I don’t want to become part of the academia-bashing movement. The seemingly progressive bloggers who have jumped on the bandwagon of studiously listing all of academia’s ills don’t see that the only goal they achieve is helping the cause of those who hate the very word “education.”
As my regular readers might have noticed, I don’t enjoy wallowing in the doom-and-gloom scenarios my fellow academic so often relish. Of course, there are problems in academia, just like in any other area of life. But the idea that academia is getting worse is preposterous. The number of disabled students and students from ethnic minorities keeps growing on campuses across North America. The number of women who graduate on all levels has also exploded in the recent two decades. Professors don’t come almost exclusively from the ranks of the upper middle classes any more. When I read scholarly articles in my field, I always feel impressed by how much more rigorous the scholarship is becoming. Electronic publishing makes reading more accessible for everybody. Doing research is much simpler today when we have global communications and electronic access to archives halfway around the world.
If all of this isn’t progress, then I don’t know what is.
Yes, there is adjunctification, and it’s obviously not a positive development. But the tenured and tenure-track faculty at my college is at least 40% female. Adjuncts are also mostly women but when exactly would they have had better jobs? In the 50s and the 60s? They probably wouldn’t have any jobs at all. Of course, the situation of an adjunct is far from perfect. But it’s in any case better than the life of a miserable 50s housewife.
So I’ll be damned if I lend a helping hand to the ultra-conservative forces whose greatest dream is to rob academia of its prestige and destroy our progressive campuses. The servility of academics who fall over themselves in their hurry to dump on a great system of higher education that we have in this country and to debase themselves to serve some very dubious political goals is astounding. In this boring self-flagellation, I see nothing but the same old pseudo-liberal guilt that is now riding even higher than usual on the wave of the 99% vs 1% movement.
I say let’s stop wallowing in misery already and start concentrating on all of the amazing achievements of our academia in the recent decades. This will allow us to achieve even more, instead of promoting the misguided belief in the academia of the past that somehow managed to be so much better than the kind we have today, in spite of being all-male, all-white, and all-upper-middle-class.
48 thoughts on “Is Anything the Matter with Higher Education?”
I wish people who write these posts would put as much time/effort into attempted to SOLVE the problems that do exist!
That’s exactly what I’m saying!
Quite a nasty comment from the pov of people fighting for raises and better contracts for others, sitting in meetings after business hours figuring out how to best define and address what’s going on, how to best grip the situation of those terminated and those having their workloads increased for that reason, how to frame documents, what the legal meaning of language in documents is, and so on.
Also: Grafton’s piece was in a nationally distributed publication and discussed nationally distributed books on “the crisis.” What is wrong with discussing reactions to and assessments of it? These pieces are opinion makers and worth knowing about, considering implications of, etc.
These pieces about how academia is the source of all ills get published every 15 minutes. I can’t find a single other area of life that gets dumped on as often. Take the judicial system that makes countless mistakes. How often do you see judges fall over themselves in a rush to criticize the judicial system?
And how often do you see doctors debase themselves with endless self-criticism?
Let’s remember that medical and judicial mistakes actually kill people. Yet, the collective need to dump on academics is a lot more wide-spread and supported by many academics.
Do you have any non-anecdotal evidence that academia is less upper middle class derived in the last few decades? I think the opposite may be true. This definitely needs to change, and I applaud efforts to raise awareness.
The absolute majority of my students are the first person in their families to go to college. As for professors, even back at Yale almost every tenured superstar came from dire poverty and near illiteracy. Of course, there aren’t any actual studies conducted because questions about one’s social class are considered very rude.
This is anecdotal. My experience is the opposite. Do you have any statistical evidence? also, tenured superstars back when you were in grad school do not reflect the current situation. As far as your students, how many will end up outcompeting those from the upper middle classes when it comes to getting tenured positions in academia? One third of undergrads at my elite institution are first generation but virtually all the grad students I’ve gotten to know are from either academic backgrounds or their parents were professionals of some type.
“This is anecdotal. My experience is the opposite.”
“Do you have any statistical evidence?”
“As far as your students, how many will end up outcompeting those from the upper middle classes when it comes to getting tenured positions in academia?”
Clarissa, predict the future for us.
“One third of undergrads at my elite institution”
What do you mean by “elite”? When I see that word used to describe academic institutions it’s often shorthand for “fucking expensive”. Scholarships etc. notwithstanding you kind of expect to see more moneyed people than not at such a place.
“When I see that word used to describe academic institutions it’s often shorthand for “fucking expensive”. ”
-I couldn’t agree more.
“almost every tenured superstar came from dire poverty and near illiteracy. ”
Where did this info come from? At the Ivies today, rich students greatly outnumber poor, up to 25:1.
“A tenured superstar” obviously refers to professors, not students. These were my professors, I talked to them, listened to their stories. It is very very rare that a genius or just simply a brilliant scholar comes from a rich background. In my grad program, we had grad students from extremely wealthy families and a very small number of people from poor backgrounds. Guess which ones dropped out or didn’t manage to find a position in academia?
Okay, again it is your personal experience. In my discipline it is the opposite. And you are overlooking sweeping trends like loss of Pell grants and skyrocketing cost of higher education. So I think it is a little premature. You also stated in your original post that
“the misguided belief in the academia of the past that somehow managed to be so much better than the kind we have today, in spite of being all-male, all-white, and all-upper-middle-class.”
So how were all your tenured professors able to make it? I assumed they got through all the hurdles in the past sometime.
“So how were all your tenured professors able to make it?”
-Isabel, you are not reading carefully again. I wasn’t talking about all tenured professors. I was talking about the superstars. Those always manage to make it. But they are a tiny percentage.
“Okay, again it is your personal experience.”
-Would you expect me to describe somebody else’s personal experience on my blog? 🙂 🙂
Are we due for another round of “Please look at the blog’s header. It states: an academic’s opinions. . .”
It is so funny how people keep getting shocked that I blog about my personal experiences. Maybe I should start blogging about my collective experiences instead. That will be tricky, of course, seeing as I’m not a commune.
I don’t expect an academic to project their personal anecdotal experience onto the entire country; and then use that as a reason to complain about other discussions that are going on. Is that clearer?
If you don’t want to read about my opinions and experiences, then there is no reason for you to stay on this webpage. I don’t want to begin a discussion about the nature of blogging in every comment thread.
Okay you are getting all defensive again. I thought you liked arguing? I am challenging your view that this is a widespread trend.
btw I also seem to remember that you are from an academic background. This makes a big difference, as you point out when you are discussing your own students!
What do you expect from a person who needs to explain about once a month that her blog offers exactly what it says in the header?
“btw I also seem to remember that you are from an academic background. This makes a big difference, as you point out when you are discussing your own students!”
-I’m a penniless immigrant from a 3rd world country and unlike many of my colleagues from grad school who come from ultra-rich backgrounds, I do have a tenure-track position.
““This is anecdotal. My experience is the opposite.”
I wasn’t the one making sweeping generalizations. Ironically you missed my point. two anacdotes cancel each other out.
““Do you have any statistical evidence?”
Again, see above.
““As far as your students, how many will end up outcompeting those from the upper middle classes when it comes to getting tenured positions in academia?”
Clarissa, predict the future for us.”
Again…I wasn’t the one making sweeping claims about how much less elitist academia is today.
“One third of undergrads at my elite institution”
What do you mean by “elite”? When I see that word used to describe academic institutions it’s often shorthand for “fucking expensive”. Scholarships etc. notwithstanding you kind of expect to see more moneyed people than not at such a place.”
It is a public institution.
I have also witnessed half a dozen job searches in my time here, and pedigree matters. Absolutely.
“I have also witnessed half a dozen job searches in my time here, and pedigree matters. ”
-What do you mean?
I think liberality is over-rated. And if there are problems with higher-education, shouldn’t they be evaluated and faced with truth and honesty? Also, I hear these comments claiming conservatives are anti-education. Please furnish me with some examples…Thanks…
“Also, I hear these comments claiming conservatives are anti-education.”
Oh, no. You’re not baiting anyone into the “creationism is / is not science” debate again.
(P.S.: Rick Perry, Ron Paul, and Michelle Bachmann–like many other conservative politicians since Reagan–have all proposed to do away with the Department of Education. From what I can tell this proposal is mostly if not entirely ideological, with very little alternatives offered except “states’ll take care of it,” never minding the fact that many states have abysmally poor public education infrastructures. The D of E is far from perfect itself of course and I don’t know what the solution is but totally eliminating federal funding and oversight of education seems stupid and likely disastrous.
P.P.S: In 2009 and ’10 biennium the board of the Texas Education Agency–staffed with conservatives, few of whom were actual educators–proposed new textbook guidelines that, among other ideological sins, added “intelligent design” to the science curriculum, took Thomas Jefferson off a list of Enlightenment thinkers, emphasized the religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers while downplaying the principle of separation of church and state, lionized Jefferson Davis while diminishing Abraham Lincoln, and obscured the issue of slavery in the Civil War in favor of the “states’ rights” chestnut.
Thank you. I needed that…
The main ‘problem’ with university courses is that parents expect their kids to immediately be able to land into a ‘middle class job’ at the end of the course. This is flawed logic though because a degree is not meant to be vocational, it is about the transferable skills that you gain and the stuff that you actually learn.
Obviously getting a job after your degree is important, but it annoys me when parents put it before learning. You don’t just magically land on a job because you have a degree, if you want that to happen then you need to do a vocational course or some form of apprenticeship.
A bit of a tangential comment:
I also often get comments on posts where I describe personal experiences that go along the lines: But these are just *your* experiences, show us hard data instead, where is the research? This is anecdotal. It’s just your opinion.
I reserve the right to have an opinion about anything that strikes my fuckin’ fancy without having to do a PhD dissertation on the topic first. This is the blogosphere, not a peer-reviewed archival journal.
It is very natural and normal to form opinions based on one’s own experiences.
Life it too complex to do research of every single thing we think, observe, or feel to make sure it’s in line with the average or mainstream experience.
But do you project your personal experience to the rest of the country and announce that everyone else must be wrong/negative/in denial And then get defensive when someone responds (rather mildly, in my case) to your provocative remarks? Do you make sweeping, hyperbolic (and inconsistent) statements and then expect everyone to simply agree?
Of course it is easy to understand that it is your opinion! Why is this distinction so hard for people to understand? Also, don’t people reading the blog have a right to their own opinion, especially if they have other information and a reason for caring about the subject? I don’t know why everyone is getting so upset.
“I reserve the right to have an opinion about anything that strikes my fuckin’ fancy without having to do a PhD dissertation on the topic first. This is the blogosphere, not a peer-reviewed archival journal.”
-Exactly. It’s especially annoying when people start saying, “What kind of an academic are you if you didn’t provide any bibliography for this post?” I always wonder whether they are being purposefully obtuse or whether they are actually being serious.
Saying “academia is more accessible today than it was in the past” is not simply an opinion. If it goes against your readers’ experience as well as documentation of national trends, as someone helpfully provided here, as well as the undeniable fact that higher ed has become more expensive and Pell grants more difficult to get, it is natural for readers to ask what you are basing this on. Especially when in addition to all this, tenured positions are declining and therefore becoming more competitive. When you respond to readers’ comments with hostility, I have to wonder whether YOU are being purposefully obtuse or whether you are actually being serious.
The only emotional charge words on a screen carry is the one you choose to ascribe to them.
I will point out that, as I’ve been working with my profs in getting ready for doctoral programs, I have heard over and over again how terribly competitive the job market is for academics, especially for non-tech fields. I’m doing what I always do, which is make myself oblivious to the risks and soldier on with what I hope to make of my life, because if I kept worrying about the risks I’d paralyze myself. But it does make me fret just a teense…..
I know what you mean, Helena. In the 2 years I was on the job market, I consumed myself with anxiety and terror of what would happen if I don’t find a job. I was permanently sick because my body couldn’t deal with the stress, I was extremely depressed, I was literally eating my heart out. And now I look back at that time and ask myself, what was the point of all that suffering over things that didn’t even happen? Isn’t it best to safe the suffering until after they actually happen?
I also have come to believe that people who kept telling me horror stories about the academic job market and academia at large were not acting in my best interests. More and more, I come to suspect that they were trying to undermine me on purpose.
This is why I sincerely recommend to do all one can to exclude this kind of worry from one’s life as soon as possible. A job search is stressful as it is without all these apocalyptic scenarios playing over and over in one’s head. There are many places online where people can go and read about how they have no chance of a tenure-track job, how they will be stuck adjuncting forever, how academics are miserable and overworked. On this blog, I try to provide a place where such horrible scenarios are neither promoted nor reiterated. And I honestly believe that this will be more helpful to academic job seekers who read this blog that if I joined the doom-and-gloom crowd.
Thanks. That helps.
To be fair those same professors have been very encouraging of me. I don’t think they want to undermine me, unless they’re going about it in a highly conspiratorial reverse psychology sort of way that I would have to be a complete paranoid to believe. (I mean, I don’t believe it … don’t I???) I think they just want to make sure I understand that academia is not instant paradise, and that I will have to work hard to get the job I want. But I knew that.
If it’s the professors who do that, there might be a bit of an effort to highlight their own achievements in such stories. I know I often exaggerate how hard it was to write my doctoral dissertation because otherwise I feel like people don’t appreciate me as much as I deserve. 🙂 🙂
Having a great personality like yours will, without a doubt, be extremely helpful in the academic job search.
You ask for statistics, I give you statistics!
So, the best source I can find is: http://heri.ucla.edu/PDFs/40TrendsManuscript.pdf
The chart on page 41 seems the most relevant (granted this is from 2006, and a draft, but I doubt it changed much)- there is a gap between the median income of the families of college students and the nation at large, with the college-student families making more than the national average (note that this graph has been adjusted for inflation). This seems to be fairly constant with time, except for a jump in the 1980s. So at least over the past ~40 years it would seem there has not been a dramatic increase in the accessibility of a college education to lower-class populations. This document (10-11) also mentions a decline in the number of first generation college students since the 70’s (40% in ’71 vs. 17% in ’05).
http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s0300.pdf is the best reference for race and gender (I prefer government to non-government sources when it’s available by my cursory google search). Women have made substantial inroads to higher education, racial minorities have not made as much progress (unfortunately the racial information only goes back 20 years, but it’s a start). I do wish they would compare these percentages to the national race make-up; maybe they’re small increases in percentage, but have at least matched their national representation?
Conclusion: with the marked exception of gender, it does not appear that there has been a large increase in college education from lower socio-economic groups, on average (of course Clarissa’s school may be an exception).
And though I would say this is a problem, it is usually not the problem addressed by these doom and gloom articles about academia- just wanted to resolve the debate in the comments 😉
Actually the more interesting hypothesis on “what’s wrong” might be this: women who formerly would have taught K-12 are now at universities, so with that brain drain from K-12 plus all the adjunctification / budget cuts / NCLB, you get the current set of teaching and also workload problems.
Fact: when I enrolled at my public Ivy, tuition/fees were $600/yr and 3/4 of applicants were admitted. That was accessible even adjusting for inflation (and *far* more accessible than now), and yes there were lots of “first generation” students.
Liberal guilt = the tacit confession that one cannot manage one’s own psychology. It leads to all sorts of departures from the the real word into the world of make believe, whereby from confessing one’s “sins” one can become morally purified from within. Meanwhile, a lot that is going on in the real world is overlooked.
I never thought of this liberal self-flagellation as an attempt to purge an overburdened psyche but I think there is a lot to this idea. Especially since psychological hygiene is mostly non-existent in this country.
I think everyone has a prescription for what ails higher education, and I think I’m no exception. In fact, not more than a day before reading the present article I had been poking around in the Wayback Machine and found some of my old websites from around the turn of the century. One was a half-serious campaign website for a seat on a university board, which is an elected office in my home state. At the risk of sounding as if I’m bragging, it is often the case when I revisit my old content, that I find much that is fresh and reflects things people are talking abot today, as if I have a habit of being ahead of the curve. Anyway, from wayback in 2000, I bring you this!
“The only emotional charge words on a screen carry is the one you choose to ascribe to them.”
Another thing that only applies to commenters that the blogger currently disagrees with.
No, it applies to all human beings. 🙂 🙂
This is why the first thing I teach my students in literature classes is that you should never try to guess “what the author wanted to say or tried to do in the text.” 🙂
Two things I would accept in life: 1. continuing to teach ESL, because I really enjoy my job and find a lot of psychological harmony with it.
2. Teach at a University in Zimbabwe. Unfortunately, then I would not be teaching at a high level. However, my need to be amused is much, much higher than my need to be considered in any particular light by others.
In the mean time, I’m not making any particular efforts.
“However, my need to be amused is much, much higher than my need to be considered in any particular light by others.”
-This is, in my opinion, a sign of great psychological health and maturity. I always say that we know that we have really grown up when we realize that it doesn’t matter in the least what impression we make on others.
Yes, perhaps so. I think that I always had this arrogance about me, although sometimes I’ve been puzzled that it doesn’t go down well. My absolute NEED to be amused is very intense, though.
You sound very complicated, Jennifer…
Indeed, to HAVE TO be serious would be something unimaginable to me. The most serious truths cannot be imparted without some humour. So it was that I concluded my thesis with the resounding insight: “Some men are actually women.”
Ha ha ha! That sounds like a brilliant conclusion to a thesis!!