Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Last Professors

Inside Higher Ed has an interview with Frank Donoghue on his new book The Last Professors. It's a must-read for academics; it makes a number of points worth a bit of rumination. (I think that the problems identified are especially acute in philosophy.) And he makes a point that I've tried to make before to my colleagues and have not been able to get through to them: academia as we know it -- namely, academia focused on departments of tenured faculty -- is for all practical purposes dead. Tenured professors themselves could have prevented this, but they failed to do so; indeed, were heavily complicitous in it. And the system has been collapsing for too long to make reversal likely:

The tenure-track professoriate will never be restored. Two factors seal its fate. First, the hiring of adjuncts continues to outpace the hiring of tenure-track professors by a rate of three to one. It’s silly to think we can reverse the trend toward casualization when, despite a great deal of attention and effort, we can’t even slow it down. Second, the demographics of American higher education don’t help us either. For 40 years, students have been moving away from the humanities toward vocationalism. This trend has been accompanied by an equally pronounced shift in enrollments from four-year schools (with English and History majors) to community colleges, where the humanities have never had a strong presence. Tenure-track professors don’t have a place in this new higher education universe. Much as it pains me to say it, I never considered putting a question mark at the end of my title, The Last Professors.

Nostalgia aside, I think it needs to be pointed out that this need not be a bad thing, or, at least, a wholly bad thing. The form of academia we know is not sacrosanct and writ in stone; it itself is the result of a long series of reforms of, and revolutions in, previous academic systems. It is in principle possible to build an excellent academic system that is grounded in adjunct faculty, one where such faculty have adequate support and resources, adequate pay, adequate benefits, adequate protection, and adequate flexibility to compensate for the lack of tenured faculty. It could be an excellent system. We are, of course, not building it. Instead we are grafting, ad hoc, an adjunct-dependent system on academia as we have known it, leaving us with a hybrid system that manages, with remarkable ingenuity, to combine most of the disadvantages of both. Nonetheless, it could turn out OK in the end. It's what happens between now and then that gives reason to worry.

The following passage touches on an even more essential issue:

For a hundred years, humanists claimed to follow Matthew Arnold’s exhortation to promulgate the best that has been thought and said. As universities have more and more come to function as occupational training centers, places where students come for vocational credentials, this charge has been emptied of any real meaning. It’s no longer relevant to the mission of most universities. And at those institutions where the liberal arts still flourish, prestige has taken the place of the Arnoldian mottoes. That is, the best universities now steer prospective students away from the content of the curriculum (literature, philosophy, history) and toward the signaling power of the institution itself.

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