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Elephants on the Rampage: Inside (and Outside) of Academia

Stephen Metcalf on the Harvard experience:

As Harvard can afford to staff its faculty almost exclusively with superstars, and as superstars are loath to teach, the gap between the global power of the brand and the actual quality of the education delivered is quite large. If you want to impress a shopkeeper in Yemen, by all means go to Harvard. If you want the best education for the money, you might want to consider Swarthmore or Williams. But for many of its students, Harvard is not so much an experience as an entre. For them, the Harvard name doesn’t represent Veritas, but the current education mania on steroids, whereby the hyper-deserving earn the chance to enter the ranks of the hyper-rich. These days the importance attached to a specifically liberal and humanistic education has hit an all-time low. Economics is now the default major at Harvard; and so overspecialized are traditional humanities departments, they seem unlikely to produce the kind of synoptic visionary, a thinker on the order of Northrop Frye or John Rawls or Richard Rorty, that once helped define a campus as an academic community. Against careerism and scholarly make-work, what pushes back? Even the “idea of the idea of a university,” to borrow a phrase from the historian Sheldon Rothblatt, feels a little played out.

My reaction: Well, actually, Metcalf didn’t go far enough. Community colleges can also be excellent learning experiences, as well as informal learning institutions. And honestly, Harvard more than anybody is aware of class differences and tries to attract financially needy superstars (A literary friend of mine from a rather working class background, Julie Checkoway, won a scholarship there, so occasionally the right people get help). Unfortunately, application costs are very expensive, and many talented people just don’t feel they have a shot. I remember coaching several superior students from overseas not to apply to Harvard unless they could find someone to pay their application fees.

From an interview with Elaine Showalter, author of Faculty Towers:

IDEAS: Since the late ’60s, fictional professors have grown more and more grotesque, and their departmental squabbles more petty. Why?

SHOWALTER: In the early ’70s, the job market for new Ph.D.’s in literature tanked-so untenured professors who write novels have become even more disillusioned. And since 1968 the academy has no longer been a sanctuary-the simplest questions of curriculum or faculty recruitment have been politicized…. Also, by the 1990s English departments had lost confidence in their mission-yet another reason the genre of academic fiction has become so nihilistic.

Elaine Showalter on the academic fad of critical theory in literature departments.

Joseph Epstein writes a delightful review of this work:

Where the accoutrements of culture count for most are in the humanities departments, where truth, as the physical scientists understand it, simply isn’t part of the deal. “What do you guys in the English Department do,” a scientist at Northwestern once asked me, quite in earnest, “just keep reading Shakespeare over and over, like Talmud?”

“Nothing that grand,” I found myself replying.

Professor Showalter does not go in much for discussing the sex that is at the center of so many academic novels. Which reminds me that the first time I met Edward Shils, he asked me what I was reading. When I said The War Between the Tates by Alison Lurie, he replied, “Academic screwing, I presume.” He presumed rightly. How could it be otherwise with academic novels? Apart from the rather pathetic power struggles over department chairmanships, or professorial appointments, love affairs, usually adulterous or officially outlawed ones, provide the only thing resembling drama on offer on the contemporary university campus.

Aside from writing a first class review, Epstein (and probably Showalter too; it is after all her book) alert me to several delightful-sounding novels: CP Snow’s The Masters (hmmm, maybe not; a used copy is on sale for $149!), Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim. Oh, one more wonderful quote from Epstein’s review, one of my favorite from this year:

the preponderance of academic novels are set in English departments. The reason for this can be found in universities choosing to ignore a remark made by the linguist Roman Jakobson, who, when it was proposed to the Harvard faculty to hire Vladimir Nabokov, said that the zoology department does not hire an elephant, one of the objects of its study, so why should an English department hire a contemporary writer, also best left as an object of study? Jakobson is usually mocked for having made that remark, but he was probably correct: better to study writers than hire them. To hire a novelist for a university teaching job is turning the fox loose in the hen house. The result–no surprise here–has been feathers everywhere.

On a slightly more committed note, Annalee Newitz on what alienated PhD’s can do in the workworld:

we should not remain academics under unfair conditions. No form of labor is worth the sacrifices many of us have had to make. Instead, let’s say screw the cultural capitalists. We probably won’t become classy lawyers and managers if we leave academia. But we can pursue jobs in the “real world” where we still work for the kind of justice we’ve sought for ourselves as professors in the education industry. Why not organize for more regulation in other corporate industries or service sector jobs? Why not attempt to engage in mental labor that could be socially useful rather than a product we create just to survive the tenure review? Why scorn non-academic jobs as if being an unemployed PhD is somehow “better” than being an employed high school teacher, office manager, technical writer, or retail worker? (I list these generally well-paid jobs because most of us never need to worry about losing our positions in the middle-class, just losing the cultural capital and prestige that academia offers along with our salaries.)

Every industry has its equivalent of the tenure-track dream job, and every industry has what Barbara Ehrenreich has called an internalized underclass. The point is to figure out whose side you’re on, and use your knowledge to ameliorate the lives and social conditions of your colleagues. It’s clear whose side Showalter is on if we consider the kinds of jobs she recommends that we pursue outside academia: lawyer, Hollywood writer, corporate manager. I’m still waiting to hear people speak out for the other side and act on their convictions. After all, what could be more dangerous than a highly-educated and politicized teacher outside academia, unleashed on the world?

(More incendiaries by Newitz on Alter.net. Her personal site is blocked by the content filters at my work, making me curious. I’ve actually responded in part to Newitz’s complaint, although it is ironic that my corporation filters prevent me from hunting out Newitz’s other writings.

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