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.