Graduate Education: Economic Voodoo with Silver Lining?

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William Deresiewicz, the literary critic and former professor of English at Yale, has an essay out in The Nation – Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education.

His basic argument is three-fold:

-Right now it doesn’t make sense to go to graduate school, since it’s an exploitative economic system with a tremendous failure rate in terms of providing employment

-The roots of this crisis are both in the university system and in the larger economy

-The solution is more funding for education, to up the quality of higher education through hiring more full-time faculty

Faulty Towers is both a provocative read and a comprehensive take on all the recent books tackling the problems of higher education. One of my favorite bits was:

When politicians, from Barack Obama all the way down, talk about higher education, they talk almost exclusively about math and science. Indeed, technology creates the future. But it is not enough to create the future. We also need to organize it, as the social sciences enable us to do. We need to make sense of it, as the humanities enable us to do. A system of higher education that ignores the liberal arts, as Jonathan Cole points out in The Great American University (2009), is what they have in China, where they don’t want people to think about other ways to arrange society or other meanings than the authorized ones. A scientific education creates technologists. A liberal arts education creates citizens: people who can think broadly and critically about themselves and the world.

Yet of course it is precisely China—and Singapore, another great democracy—that the Obama administration holds up as the model to emulate in our new Sputnik moment. It’s funny; after the original Sputnik, we didn’t decide to become more like the Soviet Union. But we don’t possess that kind of confidence anymore.

But the part that really caught my eye, because of its vision and then the subsequent lack of using that to become a full-force essay, is where he discusses the problem of students pursuing their Phds, only to find themselves underemployed or unemployed after many years of education:

Well, but so what? A bunch of spoiled kids are having trouble finding jobs—so is everybody else. Here’s so what. First of all, they’re not spoiled. They’re doing exactly what we always complain our brightest students don’t do: eschewing the easy bucks of Wall Street, consulting or corporate law to pursue their ideals and be of service to society. Academia may once have been a cushy gig, but now we’re talking about highly talented young people who are willing to spend their 20s living on subsistence wages when they could be getting rich (and their friends are getting rich), simply because they believe in knowledge, ideas, inquiry; in teaching, in following their passion. To leave more than half of them holding the bag at the end of it all, over 30 and having to scrounge for a new career, is a human tragedy.

Sure, lots of people have it worse. But here’s another reason to care: it’s also a social tragedy, and not just because it represents a colossal waste of human capital. If we don’t make things better for the people entering academia, no one’s going to want to do it anymore. And then it won’t just be the students who are suffering. Scholarship will suffer, which means the whole country will. Knowledge, as we’re constantly told, is a nation’s most important resource, and the great majority of knowledge is created in the academy—now more than ever, in fact, since industry is increasingly outsourcing research to universities where, precisely because graduate students cost less than someone who gets a real salary, it can be conducted on the cheap.

That passage resonates with me, as I was precisely one of those graduate students, pursuing graduate education for passion, and with a hope to make a difference in the world rather than simply making money in the world. But I want to dwell on his larger point, about the lost potential of all these people – bright people, full of knowledge, full of ability, and then not having the employment options, or even the means, to make the most of that potential.

Deresiewicz’s solution is simply to hire more of them into the university system, replacing temporary jobs with permanent ones – basically, more tenured faculty. This will increase the quality of undergraduate education, he argues, as well as maintaining the US at the forefront of knowledge creation.

If we’re going to make college an intellectually rigorous experience for the students who already go—still more, for all the ones we want to go if we’re going to reach the oft-repeated goal of universal postsecondary education, an objective that would double enrollments—we’re going to need a lot more teachers: well paid, institutionally supported, socially valued. As of 2003 there were about 400,000 tenure-track professors in the United States (as compared with about 6 million primary- and secondary-school teachers). Between reducing class sizes, reversing the shift to contingent labor and beefing up our college-completion rates, we’re going to need at least five times as many.

So where’s the money supposed to come from? It’s the same question we ask about the federal budget, and the answer is the same. We’re still a very wealthy country. There’s plenty of money, if we spend it on the right things. Just as we need to wrestle with the $700 billion gorilla of defense, so do universities need to take on administrative edema and extracurricular spending. We can start with presidential salaries. Universities, like corporations, claim they need to pay the going rate for top talent. The argument is not only dubious—whom exactly are they competing with for the services of these managerial titans, aside from one another?—it is beside the point. Academia is not supposed to be a place to get rich. If your ego can’t survive on less than $200,000 a year (on top of the prestige of a university presidency), you need to find another line of work.

It’s a very traditional, and rather idealistic, solution for someone who left the academy to pursue other options. And upping the amount of money flowing to higher education while cutting the enormous rise in bureaucracy in the university does sound like a great idea. I hope it happens. But I’m not holding out for a five-fold increase in permanent hiring by colleges and universities. And this proposal doesn’t solve the knowledge problem – all that underused potential – that Deresiewicz eloquently outlines.

That is a much bigger fish to fry.

I would very much like to see Deresiewicz and others like him provide a vision of how to harness that knowledge. To assume that the university is the only place that can happen is naive, and also limiting. Many people make medical, law, engineering, and business degrees at universities, but they don’t stick around hoping to add to knowledge production. The broader question of how to create jobs for graduating PhDs, a vision of how to make that human capital generative, still needs to be answered.

One of the exciting things that joining a department that has long had an applied focus in its graduate training is to discover all the Florida people who’ve gone through this USF anthropology program and now have successful careers outside academia. It’s actually an incredible resource for us as professors, to have a local “knowledge base” that is not located solely in the university. And these people are making a difference through anthropology, though often times not in the specialized ways so valued within the university – very narrow forms of scholarly knowledge – but rather in ways rather like what professors do in their teaching.

These graduates apply their skills and knowledge more generally, just as I teach more generally. We can do generalization, we do it all the time in teaching. And that same approach can be applied more broadly, drawing on our expertise and applying it to societal and economic problems and even to new domains of work and life. It doesn’t all have to be as narrow as our favorite research.

Professors do mentor and teach our graduate students on how to teach, and often provide them experience doing so. But we don’t do the same towards other domains of engagement or work. And that’s not the fault of the economy or of university administrators. It’s a fault of vision and of practice, of how we approach our masters and doctoral programs.

At the same time, I see a need for a societal vision, a political and economic vision, to help us harness that incredible human capital. I do think that with technology, new forms of organization and capital flow are being created, and that offers job opportunities that weren’t there before. An example I’m familiar with is the explosion online of science exploration and explanation. No longer is it just journalists writing general stories and scientists doing specialized research. The science blogging revolution has changed many things – and hopefully economic benefits will flow in greater amounts to this new generative arena.

I also think that if graduate students leave with skills and experience in how to do more than be a tenure-track college professor, then they will take on the challenge of creating invigorating and economically valuable work. Just throwing more money at institutions of higher education won’t create the sort of innovation needed to make the most of all that human capital. Within anthropology, I am seeing lots of new companies that are doing exactly this sort of thing. Kate Barrett, a friend of mine from graduate school, now works with the Olson ad agency – and gets interviewed about it. Another friend, Eric Lindland, became senior researcher last year at FrameWorks Institute, which uses anthropology for “changing the public conversation about social problems.” We need more of this.

We also need the corresponding vision to say that this human capital matters, and we can do much more with it than just temp jobs within academia. That’s what I want to see the visionaries write about, and also take on as a practical problem that can be solved.

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