Thomas Benton has published another one of his thought-provoking columns in the Chronicle of Higher Ed. This time it’s about “The Big Lie About the ‘Life of the Mind.'”
He’s writing, as he often does, about the cruel bait-and-switch that happens when professors encourage people to go to graduate school because it’s the embodiment of a fabled dream.
[Professors who still bleat on about “the life of mind”] absolve themselves of responsibility for what happens to graduate students by saying, distantly, “there are no guarantees.” But that phrase suggests there’s only a chance you won’t get a tenure-track job, not an overwhelming improbability that you will.
Some professors tell students to go to graduate school “only if you can’t imagine doing anything else.” But they usually are saying that to students who have been inside an educational institution for their entire lives. They simply do not know what else is out there. They know how to navigate school, and they think they know what it is like to be a professor. …
Graduate school may be about the “disinterested pursuit of learning” for some privileged people. But for most of us, graduate school in the humanities is about the implicit promise of the life of a middle-class professional, about being respected, about not hating your job and wasting your life. That dream is long gone in academe for almost everyone entering it now.
I think he’s right that the myth of the life of the mind is held up as a Good to which the best and brightest are called, while they stand little real chance of gaining entry to the profession as, well, professionals.
I don’t agree, however, that professors and departments and disciplines are, as a whole, being duplicitous and self-serving. I think many professors and departments and disciplines are, in fact, trying to communicate clearly with their students about their very real chances. But it’s not working. Why? Here are just a few reasons
Location, location, location
Benton makes the point that professors are talking to people who have spent their whole lives in school, so asking them to imagine something else is pretty difficult. But, by and large, professors and administrators have spent their whole lives, their whole careers, and their whole identities in school and academia. They’ve got very little experience, if any, outside the confines of academe, so asking them to give students a real, balanced, contextual sense of their chances is kind of crazy. How would they know how it compares? Why should we expect them to?
It really was different in their day.
In his review of Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas, DeanDad highlights some salient facts:
From 1945 to 1975, the number of undergraduate students in the US went up 500 percent, but the number of graduate students went up 900 percent. Since then, growth of undergrads has slowed dramatically, but graduate students just keep increasing. Menand pointed out that from 1989 to 1996, the number of graduate students in most liberal arts disciplines increased steadily, even as the number of undergrads nationally declined every year. As he correctly put it, by the 90’s “the supply curve had completely lost touch with the demand curve in American academic life.”
They’ve largely been inside this phenomenon, and their perspective is focused on a very small handful of students, maybe one or two of whom defend in any given year and go out on the job market. They’re wrapped up in these students as individuals — as they should be — and that means any explanations they have of why people do or don’t get jobs is going to be wrapped up in their students as individuals — not as individuals confronting a system.
Personal appeals to logic don’t work.
When there’s something you really want to do, when it’s held up as a Good, and when the person telling you not to do it is in fact embodying the thing itself, how likely are you to heed the “do as I say not as I do?”
My graduate director spent half of our PhD acceptance letters telling us in no uncertain terms what the reality of the job market was — and not a one of us listened. Because we would be different. Because she was just being mean and raining on our parade. Because we were special. We’d gotten this far, hadn’t we?
There’s a fundamental mismatch.
Whether or not it’s encouraged as such, people go to graduate school because they believe in the life of the mind — it was what they encountered in undergrad, it’s what they fell in love with, all that reading and thinking and talking and talking and talking. Graduate school largely continues that fable — and then we spit people out onto the cold shores of The Profession, only the very edges of which they would have — could have — seen from graduate school. (And let’s leave the professionalization discussion for another day.)
Telling young people applying to graduate school how bad the profession is — how hard to get into, how different from their dreams — is the equivalent of suddenly talking about purple pigeons. It’s just not the same conversation, because the reality of that is the better part of a decade away for people for whom five years is a full quarter of their lives.
Higher ed is not just torturing people for the sake of torturing people.
We can argue the merits of any individual member of the academy until the cows come home, but I continue to believe that most people are good-hearted and doing their best. I don’t think anyone is trying to exploit anyone.
However, the financial realities of higher education have changed, and those financial realities have meant it needs lots of cheap teachers in order to get butts in seats and therefore income into the school. Yes, that means adjuncts, but it also means graduate students, who are both cheap teachers AND butts in seats. Two birds, one stone.
It’s not that universities are trying to exploit people (although they are, in fact, exploiting people). They’re trying to survive. Badly, yes. With a lot of whistling past the graveyard. But trying.
My point, and I do have one
In short, I don’t think individual professors talking to individual students is the answer. The problem is structural, and the answer, too, needs to be structural — but the structures are in crisis, and the solutions only make them more so.
I don’t have an answer, but I don’t think it’s as simple as “just tell them it sucks!” So let me ask you: What would have dissuaded you? What would have changed your mind about going to graduate school — not “knowing then what you know now,” but then, in all of your youth and hunger?