I don’t know if a regular schedule has ever been established for such things, but journalists love to write the-sky-is-falling stories about higher education. Perennial favorites include Those Silly Professors and Their Wacky Research ON YOUR TAX MONEY, Ain’t No Academic Standards No Mo’, Who Do These Elites Think They Are, and Jobs Done Been And Gone. It is in this last category that So You Want to be a Professor?, from the Wall Street Journal of 23 April 2009, falls.
The author is Naomi Schaeffer Riley, that paper’s “deputy Taste Editor.” I know, I know; obviously a deputy taste editor from a conservative paper has unimpeachable higher education credentials and a tracker’s profound knowledge of the lay of the academic land, so I’d probably better remember my place. Remembering one’s place is something that doesn’t come naturally to people from the west coast, however.
This article is the same old hysteria: schools are cutting down on graduate admissions, she says, observing that it’s far more expensive to train graduate students—small classes with senior faculty, lots of individual attention and so on. Given what are presumed to be diminishing professional prospects, the question is (as one administrator put it), “Is it fair to bring them in?” Riley also observes, in contrast to the costs of providing graduate education and the slim job prospects on the other end of it, that graduate students save institutions money by providing cheap labor: they teach (so the theory runs) huge sections of undergraduates in lower-division and non-major classes, thus providing the service of a battalion of professors at a fraction of the cost. Yet because more and more universities are forced to rely on contingent faculty (part-time, non-tenure track etc.), the Real Jobs so sought by graduate students are evaporating. Do you want devote your prime career-building, childbearing and family-establishing years to indentured servitude, idealistic young’uns? Throw off your chains! Do something else! Perhaps you can ascend to the stratospheric glories of being a Deputy Taste Editor!
Why the bile, you ask? Deputy Taste Editor Riley is not on her own, here; she is parroting the thoughts of one Peter Berkowitz of the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank at Stanford. (I’m annoyed by much of what comes out of there, but there are GREAT archives that graduate students are allowed to use, so I’m forever grateful for that.) Now, a quick dance over to the Hoover website tells me that Berkowitz lists, among his specialties, “Classical and Contemporary Liberalism,” so when Riley tosses off this closer:
Higher education has gone so far off the rails in recent years that parents and students hardly know what they are supposed to have learned in a freshman composition course or in Sociology 101. And as long as there is a degree waiting at the other end, they hardly care.
…I now better understand the context. Universities are bastions of Liberal thought, ergo they are in a perpetual state of moral and intellectual decay! A Hoover specialist in Liberalism is, let’s face it, like a Nazi doctor specializing in Jewish or Romani physiognamy: fatally hostile and biased from the outset. One might as well get Dick Cheney’s opinion on firearms safety.
Still unexplained, of course, is precisely which golden age of higher education Riley and Berkowitz and the other toga-clad philosopher kings and queens would have us remember. There were always mickey mouse courses, there was always discrimination and academic caprice (though there are greater protections now), and there were never any guarantees. I suspect that the growing postwar market meant that far more mediocrities got jobs and tenure—survive a doctoral program and you’re in, somewhere—not, to me, necessarily a good thing. Similarly, such past realities of academic life as sexual harassment of students with few consequences and systematic exclusion of women and minorities from the professoriate will also have to be weighed in the balance, because those were also realities of the Lost Golden Age.
Ms. Riley’s own background sheds some light on this. Here she is, and from her own page we learn that she graduated from Harvard in 1998 and also writes for (wait for it) the National Review. How is it that someone who is closer to thirty than forty writes as if things have gone downhill since she and the other fourteenth-century Clerkes of Oxenforde were singing bawdy songs and awaiting their Church benefices or royal appointments? The simultaneously hand-wringing yet snarky tone is the familiar product of the Harvard and Yale conservative—a peculiarly pseudo-populist hyper-elitist who makes money and scores points by decrying the real and imagined excesses of these same elites to the perpetually enraged hoi-polloi. As a scribbler-caste, such people are often neocon camp-followers, purveying supercilious, reactionary bile with an air of dismayed confusion, as if they were so preoccupied twirling their canes that they took the wrong exit from The Club. She’s Harvard, Berkowitz is Harvard and Yale (according to her; his page lists only Yale), and their worldview is based on the idea that whatever holds true for those august institutions must also hold true—somehow—you know, down there. This is where she is most uninformed and ridiculous.
For example, she observes that “universities in lower tiers might not have to do as much because they can get away with having a higher percentage of classes taught by graduate students.” Except for the fact that faculty at many universities know that since they don’t have the money to attract the Harvard and Yale types, their graduate students aren’t quite ready to accept the responsibility of lecture halls teeming with undergraduates. At such places, those courses remain faculty assignments and TAs (for which resources a shrinking) do other kinds of work. This distinction between kinds of institutions is completely lost on someone who has never set metaphorical foot outside an Ivy League institution. It’s a privileged position to be in, certainly; God bless the child who’s got his own and all that, but the greater cluelessness is breathtaking. She also describes those who hold doctoral fellowships this way: “They pay no tuition and receive a school-year stipend between $10,000 and $20,000.” There is far more variation in the real world than she is aware of, both in terms of money and in terms of tuition waivers, and even those who hold fellowships often make profound sacrifices to pursue doctoral degrees.
The greater message of Riley’s idiotic column is this: What in the world would you want with the higher education enterprise—it’ll eat you up and you still won’t get a good job and anyway it sucks. This from someone who wears her Harvard degree like gang colors?! One would hope that the Wall Street Journal would know better than to run this kind of professional snarkerei. Or not? Is now my cue to start shedding bitter tears that people find newspapers to be irrelevant?
OK, young’uns, step back from the ledge. Certainly, placing graduate students in full-time academic positions is always a crapshoot—for the student, the advisor, the graduating institution, and the hiring institution. ’Twas ever thus, and to act like the this is a new situation is simply wrong. It is also not the case that glistening Ph.D products from the Ivies are considered to be the best fit for all institutions. Louis Menand has written (in the Chronicle of Higher Education and elsewhere) about the limited utility of the standard research Ph.D; it may be that certain institutions have not adjusted as readily as they might, and thus produce a trailing-edge product, so to speak. As I’ve said before, there are no statistics that are relevant: each job is unique, and you’re unique, and you’ve got to acquire the skills in your program and outside it that are going to make you The Right Hire. You’re also going to have to persistent and resourceful in managing your doctoral career and your life and your career aspirations. It will forever be better to shoot the moon, even if you fail, than to wonder for the rest of your life if you wouldn’t have been happier following your dream than growing old doing something, you know, “sensible”—like peddling a particularly poisonous kind of glib, supercilious cynicism for the Wall Street Journal and National Review.