By Leigh Smith
What I have to share with you is both intensely personal and urgently political. The private tragedy that probably awaits me is, I believe, a single manifestation of a public disaster that we–meaning people in our profession–are the only ones who can avert. At first, I noticed only signs and portents that led me to suspect that I am becoming a crank and a relic much earlier than I intended. I am only 44, which is not nearly old enough to be a relic: I have far too many working years before me. Nor did I deliberately set out to be a relic. I have a flat-screen TV, a cell phone, a laptop, and a Facebook account. On the other hand, I don’t have a Kindle, a smart phone, an iPod, an iPad, or a Twitter account. I like to think I have made conscious decisions about the many options the modern world offers. Until recently, I was very much at peace with the acerbic old cronehood that awaited me. I thought of it as the natural conclusion of the nerdiness that made me prefer old books to videogames when I was still young enough to care whether I was cool or not. While it didn’t exactly make me the most popular girl in class, I’ve been more than satisfied with the outcome. Right after college, I married a historian and plunged into graduate school, where I discovered my love of medieval literature, and after a few years in adjunct Purgatory, I was fortunate enough to make a career studying and teaching the works I love. Like you, I do both rather well. To use the current buzzword, my retention is very good: my upper-level classes are filled with students I met in my lower-division surveys who did not find my old-fashioned Socratic lecture-discussions the least bit boring. Still, medievalists are expected to be a little dusty, and I’ve cheerfully regaled my near and dear with images of my probable future, sitting in a rocking chair on the porch, stirring my cauldron, a crumbling book in my lap and cats around my feet.
It’s hard to explain what happened, and I can tell you nothing you don’t know. First, public investment in higher education began to evaporate at the same time as college administrations ballooned. Tuition went up accordingly, and graduates entered a competitive workforce with college debts hanging like albatrosses around their necks. Public reaction took us all by surprise. As full-time faculty were increasingly replaced by adjunct professors with no health coverage, no security, and a paycheck that wouldn’t keep a rat alive, and even tenured professors’ raises ceased to keep pace with inflation, we were shocked to hear that “overpaid professors” were the problem. System administrations, accrediting agencies, and newspapers began to demand greater “accountability,” which turned out to mean proof that we were teaching skills that would lead to a solid paycheck, the kind of paycheck that would enable our graduates to get the albatrosses off their necks. Over the next few years, as enrollment dropped, retiring faculty were not replaced, and classes got bigger. Adjunct faculty, once a small pool of instructors without terminal degrees on whom departments could call to fill temporary vacancies, became 75% of the academic workforce. When our colleagues retired, they were replaced with adjuncts, many of whom now held PhDs but could not get tenure-track jobs because there were none. Those of us who were left were encouraged, then pushed, to teach more online because, we were told, online delivery was what the customers wanted. The retrenchments that followed, making tenure meaningless, were only half the story. As departments that were once regarded as necessary to provide a comprehensive higher education (philosophy, music, languages) were cut, programs that provided vocational skills (computer design, business management) were expanded. University presidents were echoing the rants on the editorial pages: a university must be run like a business and provide what the customer will buy. It slowly dawned on me that many educated people really saw me as overpaid and my work–the glorious, fulfilling, exhilarating work I trained all my life to perform–as useless.
Because we were taken by surprise and perhaps because most professors are a modest, unassuming lot, uncomfortable with statements that even sound like bragging, we failed to make the obvious points. We never complained about making less than comparably educated professionals because we enjoyed our work and felt ourselves compensated by the job satisfaction we gained from helping our students learn, grow, and develop intellectually. I don’t know when I first realized that the general public had no idea what it took to get a PhD or why having one might give me any special insight into what the customers needed. I was puzzled that I was regarded as arrogant for thinking I knew better what an 18-year-old needed than he knew himself. I thought I was supposed to know. It was my job to know. My students, for their part, were astonished when I mentioned that I had written a book-length work of original research and that I continue to produce substantial, original scholarship. All professors do that, and I thought everybody knew it.
We didn’t explain, because we thought it was obvious, the difference between a vocational/technical school and a comprehensive university. One teaches job skills; the other produces educated people. We thought everyone understood that American democracy depended upon educated people, capable of evaluating arguments and making logical judgments in the interest of the country as well as themselves. Of course, my undergraduates often did not understand why they needed courses unrelated to their chosen careers, but they were my students, and I was their teacher, and explaining why they needed to know that “other stuff” was solidly within my purview. In my usual dramatic, literary way, I would ask them to picture themselves the heir to the throne of a monarchy, being groomed and educated to rule. What ought they to study? The answers were predictable: the history and institutions of their country and others, i.e. how they worked, what had been tried, what worked, what didn’t, and why. They also thought they should know enough economics (and the math that underlies it) to manage the economy and enough of the natural sciences to make reasoned policy decisions about them. To rule effectively, especially in a global society, they knew they would need to study public speaking and foreign languages and cultures, especially those of regions where their country had the strongest national interests. They supposed they would need psychology and sociology sufficient to understand what people want, need, and fear and how they are likely to behave. With a little more thought, they noted that literature and philosophy would enable them to distinguish the important from the shallow and make reasonable decisions involving right and wrong. They thought they should make a special study of ethics, so they would have an idea (albeit a flexible one) about what constitutes the good and how to move toward it and negotiate among competing goods. Above all, though they didn’t always use the term, they knew they must learn critical thinking, so they could determine whether a speaker has proven his case or is merely appealing to their emotions. Doubtless, if you’ve stuck with me this long, you’ve figured out where this discussion was going. Once they came up with the General Education curriculum, I would shift to our own society and ask them where the power is supposed to reside, from whom Americans believe governments derive their authority. They were, I think surprised by the news that Thomas Jefferson was prouder of his founding the University of Virginia than of his presidency because he believed that ordinary people could, through education, become capable of using power responsibly.
All of this was in a day’s work. Like my colleagues, I assumed that college-educated adults understood the purpose of their own education–why democracy doesn’t have to be mob rule, why the making of public policy requires that we listen to one another, evaluate each other’s arguments, and use history as well as ethics and logic to make judgments. Then, a series of seemingly unrelated events forced me to question all my assumptions about what educated people understood. A group of Wall Street millionaires robbed the nation in broad daylight and didn’t even get arrested. The national government ground to a halt as our elected representatives screamed at each other and called each other names while their constituents, in their preferred televised or online echo chambers, did the same. And my colleagues in the animal-welfare movement were called “obviously nutty” in the mainstream press for holding a vigil in which they demanded justice for a helpless dog who was tortured to death. The reader responses employed every logical fallacy in my freshman textbook, declaring that we who fight for animal welfare are not only nutty but wicked because we choose to help abused pit bulls rather than neglected children, battered women, victims of human trafficking, fetuses, or disabled veterans, the unspoken premise being that we could not possibly care about both. Nor, apparently, could we have a sound reason for questioning the popular view of pit bulls, a view fully substantiated by the popular view. Once again, I found myself a nut, an oddball, an outlier. As my husband recently reminded me, the word “fringe” always has the word “lunatic” before it.
What have any of these events to do with each other or with the slashing of public funding for higher education, retrenchment, or the business model for higher education? Surely it’s a coincidence that the US government shut down at almost at the same moment ESU’s president was saying that a public university is a business, and if our customers aren’t buying a product–history, political science, philosophy–we must get rid of it and use the shelf space for something they will buy. I have seen this market metaphor used so many times that I must ask myself what kind of overeducated snob I must be not to believe in it. And yet the words of Jefferson come back to me: “Cherish therefore the spirit of our people, and keep alive their attention. Do not be too severe upon their errors, but reclaim them by enlightening them. If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you & I, & Congress & Assemblies, judges & governors shall all become wolves. It seems to be the law of our general nature, in spite of individual exceptions; and experience declares that man is the only animal which devours his own kind, for I can apply no milder term to the governments of Europe, and to the general prey of the rich on the poor.” Does it take a dusty old relic or an elitist to ask what our country is becoming, what we are becoming, and whether we might, by deliberate action, become something else?
Colleagues, I share these musings with you because what looked at first like a labor-management dispute is beginning to look to me like an advanced step in the direction of a national disaster. I do not know how to stop it, but I sense that we are the only people who can, and we must figure out how. If this country loses the concept of the public comprehensive university, i.e. higher education for the third estate, the collapse of our careers will only be a microcosm for the collapse of American democracy. Relic that I am, I have a higher opinion of my students than many of the innovators do. I do not believe that they need only job skills, so they can labor at a trade while the wealthy, who go to the private universities, accumulate still more money and power. I believe my students should have access to the kind of education that will make them worthy heirs to the throne they are supposed to inherit. As yet, of course, I am preaching to the choir, and that seems to be all we ever do. We have to start defending our profession and our value as scholars and educators, and that means defending the value of knowledge and ideas themselves. They matter and we matter because our students matter. But where and how do we begin?
Dr. Leigh Smith teaches in the Department of English at East Stroudsburg University.