Like Flowers in the Spring

Jonathan Bellman

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.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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12 Responses to Like Flowers in the Spring

  1. LuxieP says:

    Hear, hear! You are so right, in so many ways.
    I am still waiting to find this Golden Age that the political movement that calls itself “conservatism” idealizes.
    As someone who has risen from the bottom of the ladder to a somewhat more comfortable position, and is still trying to move up, I can honestly say that these “think tanks” and self-styled pundits have no clue what the world outside is like. Or, for that matter, how their poorly considered social policies really affect the people they’re supposedly helping.
    Argh! I have a fifteen page screed on this subject, but, yeah, I should probably stop now…

  2. S. Robbins says:

    As one who was recently accepted to a grad program in English, I have to thank you for this post. The stigma that going grad school in the humanities is a horrible mistake seems to be everywhere, and after so much discouragement I decided not to give it a shot. Unfortunately, I didn’t stop reading and got deeper into poetics, theory, philosophy, the history of ideas, etc. I decided that for better or worse I had to apply. I couldn’t live my life without at least trying to do what I want to do. If I didn’t get in, well, I’d do something else. If I fail somewhere along the way, I will do something else. The point is I know what risks I’m taking, and I’m taking them anyway. Whatever Riley’s problem is, I know I’ll have to contend with the (false) notion that art and philosophy are worthless to the rest of society or only relevant to some group of “Elitists” (although as you’ve pointed out, the purveyors of such notions are often privileged Ivy-League alums), but even though it’s a cliche I still appreciate the encouragement.

  3. Phil Ford says:

    This needed to be pointed out. Movement conservatism has long had a very practical orientation towards long-term political gain: you smother liberalism — liberal thought, liberal mores, an ambient liberal sensibility — by undermining its institutions, just as you would smother a flame by depriving it of air. The Bush-era politicization of government agencies (most notable in the Justice dept. purges), the endless conservative hyperventilation about the “liberal media,” the targeting of public arts funding for nominally libertarian (but usually social-conservative) reasons all come to mind.
    But universities remain a tough nut to crack. The idea of creating parallel conservative institutions, which has worked well for think tanks and research institutions (like the Hoover), has not turned out anything much more than bible schools. There are conservatives in academia (contrary to what you might have been told), but universities remain places where Americans of all stripes look forward to getting away from Mom and Dad and Potato City, Idaho, for a few years of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll, with maybe some freethinking to go with it. And it’s hard to tell Americans they shouldn’t bother to send their kids to college — Americans are supposed to be anti-intellectual and all, but in truth I think most Americans have a healthy respect for education, if only because they know that it is a time-honored way of getting ahead in life, and if there’s one thing that almost all Americans can agree on, it’s getting ahead.
    So rather than mount a frontal assault on academia, movement conservatives opt for guerrilla skirmishes — Trojan-Horse proposals for “reform,” like David Horowitz’s villainous “bill of academic rights” or Margaret Spellings’s attempts to extend the bonehead ethos of No Child Left Behind to higher education. Or else news opinion pieces like this, which are concern-trolling writ large. So you can’t convince the kids to stay with Mom and Dad in Potato City and you can’t remake the universities in the image of Potato City, but maybe you can convince the kids to get the hell out of college after four years. Be comforted, though, by the thought that no-one cares what these people think anymore.

  4. jonathan says:

    Beautifully put, Phil, though I wish I had your confidence that no one cares what these people think. In the first place, I’m not even sure they think it; their behaviors are so flagrantly at odds with the aulde gospell they preach that it’s basically just controlling propaganda. Secondly, much as I hate the cliché of the pendulum-swing of opinion (because it makes helpless plankton of us all: the tide goes this way, then that), I fear that “no one caring what these people think” is no more than that. Two scandals and a Zemblan terrorist attack and everyone will be chattering about God and guns and burning That Damned Liberal Constitution. Finally, I’m the sort of person who takes every last dose of antibiotic to make sure the infection is DEAD, not just suppressed, and I’m not sure there’s enough cultural antibiotic for their thuggish, nazified worldview.

  5. Lisa Hirsch says:

    Jonathan, fantastic, thank you.
    Phil, the only thing I’d add to your comments would be that the Bush administration thoroughly politicized everything it could, prefer the right politics to expertise.
    Did anyone else notice today’s Times op-ed about how higher education needs to change?

  6. Peter Alexander says:

    Yes, I saw the Times piece, and it covers a lot of the same ground, apparently. It was written by Mark Taylor, chair of the religion dept. at Columbia. He starts by observing “Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans).” Most of the readers of this blog could probably write the rest of it, other than the bizarre proposals that he comes up with to solve higher education’s ills.
    Yes, some of the problems he identifies are real — the financial pressure on university presses, for example — but it’s hard to see how it will help for universities to be “rigorously regulated and completely restructured.” Like a black hole, an ivy institution distorts the perception of everything around it; this Op-Ed, and the articles cited previously, are good examples.

  7. Tom Mulherin says:

    I’ve no problem with Prof. Bellman’s argument in general. But it’s worth pointing out that the move he makes to explain the bile and to set up the rest of the column doesn’t quite work. Why is this? Because “Classical and Contemporary Liberalism” doesn’t mean “Classical and Contemporary Left-Wing Thought.” Rather, it refers to the position in political philosophy known as liberalism, wherein liberty is the fundamental value.
    This view can take a variety of forms, some of which are “liberal” in the sense of left wing, and some of which are not (Hayek, for example, is not a liberal in this sense of being left-wing). This is especially evident when you consider that classical liberalism ties liberty closely to private property. In this sense, many of the views that we consider canonically left-wing (Marxism) don’t count as liberal views, but rather are opposed to liberalism.
    A good resource for this subject is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article on liberalism:
    I don’t think Prof. Bellman’s argument depends upon this distinction. But it is a distinction worth being aware of.

  8. Jonathan says:

    I’m hoping to spend more time with this article when the semester is over. I do understand the distinction, Tom; I consider myself deeply liberal but politically just slightly left of center. I may be guilty of a different oversimplification–I conceive the “Liberalism” in which Berkowitz specializes in polarized political terms because of his Hoover affiliation, the behavior of his familiar in the WSJ, etc. It is true that I don’t know his work, and really should not pre-judge it the way I did. I still have to wonder if I’m not right, though . . .

  9. Tom Mulherin says:

    “Familiar” is a lovely word for Riley.
    I’m not particularly familiar with his work myself, but looking at the back cover of his “Virtue and the Making of Modern Liberalism” indicates that in that volume he’s treating standard figures in the history of (political) liberalism: Kant, Hobbes, Locke, and Mill. The question then would be *how* he’s treating them — his liberalism may indeed be ideologically right of center.

  10. Tom Mulherin says:

    As an aside, if you wanted to argue the point you suggest, albeit heistantly, above (that PB’s liberalism is rightly conceived of as polarized), you could do it by showing that he isn’t really an heir to the liberal tradition inasmuch as his ideological commitments make it impossible for him to have the conception of liberty required to be a liberal.

  11. glen says:

    Some great insights, here’s my two cents: I’m really disturbed by the fact that all higher education, even all education in general, is currently being treated as job preparation. Where did this trade school mentality come from? Sure, you go to law school to become a lawyer, you go to technical institutes to be a mechanic or a medical assistant…but aren’t colleges and universities supposed to be something different than that? Isn’t there a value to having an education that goes beyond just getting a job at graduation? And specifically for musicians, most of the time you already have to be a relatively proficient musician before you’re even accepted to a graduate program, so it’s not like people apply to these programs to BECOME a musician as a profession.
    And I don’t think it’s any accident that these stories come out this time of year, it’s when all the parents are fretting over which college or university will best prepare their children for the tough job market!

  12. azala says:

    Most institutions of higher learning, state governments and even big corporations don’t do much to entice young people to pursue advanced studies. What’s the motivation factor then if there are no short-term incentives but only long-term hopes that amidst thousands of dollars in student loans, a post-grad career brings in a better life?

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