Agonies of Academe

The current issue of the Atlantic is  good, with nice articles on Obama, Easterbrook on space catastrophe, and a looong piece by James Fallows on China. But the most interesting one was “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” by “Professor X”, an English instructor at some D-list community college in in the US.

It’s a deftly written piece. Prof X lays out some unpleasant realities of higher education and the modern economy, the most pressing one being that there are lots of people going to university who should not be there. Semester after semester, he deals with students who either need or want an English 1010 credit, but who have no real interest in the material, lack the necessary smarts and intellectual curiosity, and — worst of all -are functionally illiterate and should never have passed high school.

It’s a sad state of affairs, and one that is not unfamiliar to anyone who has taught in the university system in the US or Canada for any length of time.

Prof X blames the usual suspects. The high schools, which churn out illiterates. The colleges, which have become businesses and so have every interest in taking tuition money from anyone who wants to sign up. And if those students fail? Well, the school will take their money again. Then there is the economy as a whole, which has decided that everyone from the bank teller to the federal marshall should be college educated.

Indeed, Professor X blames everyone except himself. Toward the end of the piece, he laments the fact that he’s academia’s messenger of doom, the pointy end of the stick, the “man who has to lower the hammer.” He even gives it a literary flourish: “We may look mild-mannered, we adjunct instructors, but we are academic button men. I roam the halls of academe like a modern Coriolanus bearing sword and grade book, ‘a thing of blood, whose every motion / Was timed with dying cries.'”

Very pretty. But a load of BS.

Prof. X’s problem is that he actually believes that English lit actually matters, offering the preposterous justification that having read Hardy or Joyce is good for you, and that America is better off if its cops and child-welfare workers and hospital billings staff are acquainted with boring old novels. “Although I may be biased,” says Prof. X, “I can’t shake the sense that reading literature is informative and ultimately good for you.”

The special pleading at work here is nauseating. Here’s the thing: Cops and nurses and bank tellers are required to have Lit 101 not because anyone cares whether they understand the theme of Animal Farm. Lit 101 is a credential, a proxy that indicates that the person who passed the course has other abilities (committment, dedication, basic reasoning skills) that employers value. That’s it.

The failure of academia, and of the humanities in particular, to recognize that they are in the business not of providing moral education but credentials is a scandal. It does not seems to have occurred to Prof X that when his or her students start fidgeting and their eyes glaze over when they talk about “Araby”, that the problem is with the teacher and the curriculum and not with the students. Prof X seems to think that lowering the hammer on these people is a necessary but unpleasant part of the job, but it isn’t. What he is doing is immoral — something he doesn’t appear to realize, despite a lifetime spent reading the classics.

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