Thursday, July 12, 2007

the glooms

It’s worth checking out the comments box of a recent post on Incertus, a collective blog run by four of my colleagues at Our University. The prompt was a post by Brian noting the recent eco-turn of Our Governor, Charlie Crist (not to be confused with Christ, tho many of his newspaper-comments-posting supporters in the last election seemed to regularly do so). As you can see, the comments rapidly shifted from a discussion of Our Governor’s greenishness to a reminder of his expressed stance against academic freedom ("Academic freedom is the final refuge in which professors hide when confronted with the absurdity and arrogance of their decisions....It is a wasteland entirely unmoored from standards, where any activity can be justified…") & tenure for academics.

It’s on my mind, among other reasons, because Our University, along with all the other state university system units, has just entered (for maybe the 3rd or 4th time since I’ve been here) fiscal crisis mode: across-the-board cuts, freezes on hiring, travel, etc. But that’s far from being big news around here – there seems to be a budget cut or hiring freeze every time one turns around.

Now it seems that state revenue shortfalls are primarily to blame here, tho Our Governor has done his bit recently by vetoing a tuition increase. But I’m interested in how Crist – admittedly, some years ago, when he was not yet OG, but merely the State Commissioner of Education – bought in so enthusiastically to the anti-higher education rhetoric so popular in conservative circles over the past decade or so. You know what I mean: the David Horowitz-talk, which in its most vulgar form (but without the humorous exaggeration I & the Incerti indulged in) goes something like this:
The academy, & the humanities & social science sectors thereof especially, are largely dominated by a professoriate deeply out of step with the moderate-to-conservative mainstream of American political, social, & cultural thought. These professors tend to be on Left; many of them are outright Marxists. They express scorn for the capitalist foundations of American society; many of them harbor ideological sympathies for America’s enemies, sympathies that border upon treason. However, that professoriate is allowed to exert an undue influence on impressionable youth, & is protected in so doing by a set of archaic firewalls – “academic freedom,” the ability to say pretty much what they please in the classroom, & tenure, iron-clad job security of a sort that workers in no other industry enjoy – that are wholly anachronistic in an era of global capitalism.
(Phew! You have no idea how hard it was to write that without sliding into snarky professorial irony & outright sarcasm, which I’m confident Brian, William, Emily, & Amy will be happy to supply in the comments.) Of course, this portrait of the political leanings of professors, & of what they aim to do in the classroom, is to some degree accurate. No, I’ve never sodomized a chicken in class (or anywhere else), but I have begun a course on modernist fiction by reading long passages from Marx’s Preface to the Critique of Political Economy, & I’ve made no secret of the fact that I adhere more to Adorno than Keynes, more to Lenin than Lennon. My favorite Marx brother is the guy with the big beard (tho Groucho comes in a close second). I’ve taught fiction that presents same-sex relationships in a polemically positive manner; I’ve taught books that are by most person-on-the-street measures outrightly pornographic. And while I have colleagues who probably answer the description of “mainstream moderate” or “thoughtful conservative,” I suspect the majority of my department & my college is closer to me than to Hilary Clinton.

It makes perfect sense to me: no-one with a highly developed entrepreneurial spirit & a real desire to make the big bucks goes into university teaching – the financial rewards simply aren’t there. In their place, there are other rewards: a flexible work schedule, the always renewing experience of working with interested younger people, & most importantly the sheer fact of doing what one loves the most – manipulating and exploring ideas & texts, thinking about language & writing, pondering the social, aesthetic, & political issues embodied in culture itself. (With a few changes of terminology, I think the same holds true for teacher/scholars in other humanities & social sciences fields.)

The problem lies in justifying what we do to the people who pay the bills – the students & their families, who pay tuition, and the taxpayers, who fork up the lion’s share of the university’s operating expenses. The students are the easy ones: no-one’s forcing them to take classes in the arts & letters (aside from the core requirements), but with the fairly sure instincts of the young a certain number of them gravitate to our courses because they enjoy them, because they’re learning something that’s inherently interesting, even if it doesn’t directly translate into a post-graduation paycheck.

The taxpayers – well, let’s be frank – or the legislators in Tallahassee, who are playing up to whatever voting bloc they think is most numerous at the moment, & who are inevitably inclined to simplify things past the point of stupidity, are somewhat harder to convince. They read society in the simplest capitalistic market terms, and most of them see the universities as serving a very few utilitarian functions within the state’s economy: training people in various needful vocations – nurses, teachers, physicians, architects, administrators, businesspeople; and generating discoveries in the applied and hard sciences that can serve to advance the economy.

What’s missing here? You got it – the humanities and the social sciences. Frankly, if the state legislature had its way, I suspect all the tenured & tenure-track faculty in these departments would be phased out and replaced with multi-year instructors, teaching heavy course loads – many of them thru “distance” learning, taped & repeatable – & utterly free of any expectations of scholarship or research. After all, the ability to write clearly and a smattering of knowledge of Western history & culture have proven beneficial to business, but anything beyond that is unnecessary ornamentation.

We find ourselves, then, in an uneviable position, at best an ornament to the university’s real structure, more often a kind of foreign body within an organization that more and more seeks to recast itself on a corporate model. English departments’ valiant attempts to justify themselves on the basis of “critical thinking” skills – folks who can “think outside of the box” are useful to IBM – are to my mind misguided. Capital only wants so much critical thinking: once you begin to analyze & critique the bases upon which societal norms are founded – as you’re forced to do in any comprehensive examination of literature or culture – you’ve been ruined as a potential productive element in the machinery.

We are here on suffrance of our lords & masters, my friends – & here I address my colleagues at other 3rd- & 4th-tier state institutions – & we’re condemned for the rest of our careers to scramble for the crumbs that get overlooked when they bus the tables of the truly-profit making enterprises within the academy. And when one’s seat is at the back banquette in a state whose fiscal house is in as deep disorder as that of Florida, the prospect is grim indeed.
Oh, but that was a sunny post, no? Surprisingly enough, I'm in a kind of grimly happy mood. We're off to points northeast in a couple of days, where it's just as hot but there's reliable public transportation and lots of bookstores.


Amy said...

Can I attempt to uncouple myself from the teat of Marx (she's my lesbian border-collie lover) long enough to reply and find if perhaps we disagree somewhere in here (not that I want to exactly, but it will keep things interesting...)

The problem is using any kind of capitalist yardstick to measure worth: taken to its extreme, personal relationships, even marriage, make no sense outside of exchanges of property, money, work, and sex. While I've seen such arguments made, they are certainly not mainstream.

Most people, even if they've been brainwashed by their TVs to fear such *words* as "liberal" or "socialized medicine" or "welfare," respond to the concepts behind this phrases positively in polls (so long as the vilified words and phrases are left out of it). And Americans overall do not see every human encounter as a power struggle. Nor do they see everything unconnected to profit as worthless. (Look at how many donate their money and time to charity without even bothering about the tax benes!) The reality is, America is far more progressive / liberal than it even realizes itself. It is socialist even as it rejects the *word* socialism.

I think it's interesting that even in your quote you had to say "moderate to conservative mainstream" -- yes, academics are far outside of that. And that phrase well defines the political spectrum of the media class, who are the opinion-shapers in this society. (Who suckle at the moneyed corporate teat.) But no matter how deftly the media class turns a positive like liberalism into a dirty word, or makes people want, want, want things they don't need -- or even pulls off manuevers like convincing people the estate tax has something to do with them -- they still have a lot of trouble convincing people as a whole that we should not, as a society, do things like help the poor, or that things are more important than people, or that Dick Cheney's tax rate is more important than the people in West Virginia being poisoned by their toxic groundwater.

In other words, the argument that we are "out of the mainstream" is more like an attempt to cow us out of the conversation, so that our influence (which is great and rightly so) will wane and yield power to the TV -- where they can continue trying to reshape the American mind into something that consumes heartlessly, works thanklessly, hopes irrationally, and feels powerless to change anything.

Have I run out of space yet?

Amy said...

I guess not. :-)

My second thought has more to do with our "usefulness."

Obviously, I reject capitalistic assessments of value. Money cannot quantify my life or its joys, its desires, its failures, its lovliness, its virtues...

Cicero wrote that he who does not learn history remains always a child. This is an excellent argument for learning history, but says nothing to the capitalist. Why not remain always a child? What is the fiscal value of "growing up"? Simply, it doesn't exist.

What is the value of a dance?

What is the value of a poem?

What is the value of a flat canvas screened with Britney Spears' face overlaying a giant yellow Wal*Mart smiley?

I heard our colleague DrDanM say once that our college does not prepare students to be employees, but to be citizens, and so much more: under the most ideal circumstances, we help them to be as human as they can be, to be "actualized" to whatever extent that is possible, to give them the tools and the background to regard the world more meaningfully, drawing not just on multiple areas of study, but on multiple traditions within each area of study, and exposing them to multiple approaches, etc., etc. We give them the full weight and depth and height of human experience with which to play and upon which to grow, and to build... And even if it's not the "ideal" situation, we give every student a taste of this.

In this way, our nearest "competitors" are, to my mind, not the college of business or science, but outside the university: religions.

And that's what, in my opinion, the righties are really scared of. We give people a way to love the world that does not mean subjecting themselves to some intermediary priest or to God or Mammon -- at least not absolutely. I can commit to Zeus or Professor Pangloss or Moby Dick for the duration of a story if I choose, but I do not have to pretend to think those things are literal. We give people a way to experience the most vital things in human experience through words, sounds, colors, movement, logic, aesthetics, symmetry... it's as true as can be even if it's not always factual -- and that has value and real as my red beating heart.

And if capital must be used to measure the worth of things, then let me point out that the students are willing to pay for this, and that they love what they receive for their money, trouble, and time.

zimdog said...

You make a fine rant. Really. But you lost this supporter the moment you referred to students as "interested younger people."

Dear God. What's age got to do with it? Can't students be something other than excited children waiting for Happy Fun Time? When you can grow to meet your own age, then maybe you'll come to see us for what we are: fragile, and delicate, like petite ceramic figurines with rosy cheeks.

And if you can't see us this way, you silly old man, then I'll poop on you!

Bradley said...

Excellent post, Mark. I commend you for resisting the urge to caricature the anti-academia right's objections to higher education (which, as we all know, I usually find quite fun); I think you've pretty much nailed their argument. And Amy, your reference to Dan's distinction about preparing our students to become citizens rather than employees was really insightful, as was the comparison between creative intellectual thought and traditional religion.

When I was in college, I took a workshop with Joe David Bellamy, the former director of literature at the National Endowment for the Arts during the first George Bush's administration, when everyone was terrified of the Maplethorpes and Serranos taking money from the taxpayers to subsidize their "filth." In his book Literary Luxuries, Bellamy writes about how difficult it was to convince the general public that the arts needed government support not because they were vital to civil defense, or could result in a more productive workforce, but just because... hey, it's the arts. The arts, Bellamy tried to argue to any who would listen, are inherently worthy. That was a hard sell, apparently.

I think higher education is in a similar crisis now. The American taxpaper-- and many of our students-- wants to know, "How will scholarship and creativity benefit me?" And our answer-- "They will make you a better person, and better people will lead to a better society," somehow doesn't seem sufficient. How do you quantify that, after all? It won't show up on a standardized test.