Sunday, October 18, 2009

Anger at Academe, Part One.

Stanley Fish has yet another provocative blog post at the NYT. I will not address Fish’s post, but I am intrigued by some of the comments posted in response to it.

Now, no one in this country should be surprised that professors and institutions of higher education come in for a great deal of abuse. Professors are all, it seems, politically-correct-leftist oppressors of free thought, invulnerable victimizers of students, and just generally bad, pompous people. Colleges and universities are all money-grubbing, fraudulent, and indifferent to the needs and concerns of students. Did I mention arrogance?

Still, two lines of criticism struck me as worthy of note.

1. The first is common enough, but merits some response. Let’s term this the ‘Why isn’t Higher Ed just like Business’ critique.

Some who play this tune are unable to/unwilling to distinguish between Faculty and Administration. Many assume that academia can and should work like 'business' and fault it for not doing so sufficiently well. But, the most absurd hidden premise in all of this is that 'business' is a bastion of clear rules and rational management.

My spouse, formerly an academic, loves to regale us with tales of the political in-fighting, endured - often rewarded – incompetence, and outright skirting of the laws that he encounters as a consultant. In other words, we are not speaking of one badly managed company. And you know what? Most people victimized by this nonsense do not go to court. It is costly and risky in too many ways. The idea that businesses are run with impeccable attention to the law – far less morality – is absurd.

What I find really surprising about this meme at this point in our nation’s history is that so many people are railing against – yes, you got it – ‘Business.’ The business mentality of profits before everything, the callous treatment of employees not ensconced in upper management, the indifference to social good, the corruption and nepotism, and so on.

Of course, I do not know that those criticizing Academe for not being more like Business are among those criticizing Business for its own ills. Still, it is odd that no one seems to have noted this cultural cognitive dissonance. And this leads me to another point: the hostility of so many [inside and outside of Academe] to the system of tenure. How dare they think they should be able to earn tenure when the rest of us can be dumped on a dime!

But, ought we not to consider that being dumped on a dime is bad? Why are we not clamoring for a system that protects all workers, rather than playing the envy card? I think we should be working for decent treatment and reasonable job-security for everyone. It was not long ago that most Americans believed in this cause.

The situation of academics in higher ed is particular, to be sure. We spend years in graduate education, earning next to nothing and often incurring debt. Jobs are few and we have to go where the job-landed is. This makes family life extremely difficult, and most of us will never earn the money we might have if we had gone into law, medicine, etc.

So, I think an argument can be made that eventual job security is a necessary carrot to attract the best and most dedicated people. Nonetheless, shouldn’t every person be able to expect some degree of security for work well done?

Perhaps our masters have so thoroughly colonized our minds that we are more angry with one another for not all being in exactly the same miserable boat than with those who put us there.

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