Tenure is under siege, too. Think of attacks on it as attacks on the supply lines that feed higher education. As anyone with experience in higher education will gladly tell you, without tenure, who in their right mind would choose this line of work? But that, of course, is exactly the point. Without the supply lines, the troops in the field starve. And the hungry easily lose political commitment, or are willing to trade it in for the semi-security of annual contracts. Again, I’m no conspiracy theorist, but isn’t just a bit ironic that the right seems ready to believe that the best way to improve higher education is to remove any incentive for pursuing it as a career?Hmmm.
Universities, havens of the so-called cultural elite, are under siege, too from within and without. The big book of shame published this year, Academically Adrift, argues that students in state universities and colleges aren’t learning anything, which only underscores the dogma of right wing commentators who claim that most professors don’t teach anything, or at least don’t teach anything of value, probably because we are too preoccupied with converting students to communism and atheism. While not part of the vast right wing conspiracy that Hillary Clinton warned us about but I still have trouble believing in, it is still worth asking about these sociologists who don’t take into account larger class sizes and with them the increased need for standardized testing over essays, with friends like these, who needs enemies?
In Texas, Governor Rick Perry has introduced a plan to stop funding for higher education in the traditional way, and replace it with a voucher system that allows each student—heretofore defined as a consumer—to choose which professors to support with their enrollment.
But wait, it gets better: Faculty bonuses are to replace merit raises, and those bonuses will be based entirely on student evaluations.
In Arizona, where I teach, as elsewhere, draconian cuts to higher education budgets—in our case back to a 1960 level, back when we had 20,000 students instead of today’s 74,000 and no real research agenda—means much larger classes, fewer faculty, no new tenure-earning hires, and tuition increases that have almost doubled what it costs to attend our state university, making a college education untenable for a substantial population of our state’s poor, minority, and/or immigrant population.
When universities don’t have money they have to find it. Guess what? The Koch brothers again. I read in the news just last week, oh boy, that two faculty positions in economics at Florida State (and others at Clemson and still others at other places) were funded by the Koch Brothers with the stipulation that they are dedicated to the advocacy of free market capitalism and reading Ayn Rand. The faculty had no real say in who was hired for those positions. As Stanley Fish—no friend to changing the political world in the classroom—wrote just this week, that decision was, in fact, a textbook violation of academic freedom, as well as an insult to any sense of due process in academic hiring. The cultural elite cry foul! But the economic elite is buying the game.
I could go on. We all could go on.
Woke up, fell out of bed,
Ran a comb across my head,
Found my way downstairs and drank a cup,
And looking up I noticed I was late.
Found my coat and grabbed my hat
Made the bus in seconds flat
Found my way upstairs and had a smoke,
And somebody spoke and I went into a dream …
One thing I’ve noticed while dreaming of a brighter future for higher education is that most of us on the left, and particularly those of us in higher education, have lost sight of two important things.
First, we have lost sight of a vital historical and cultural truth about labor: This is class war and our enemy is not ever going to save us or speak up for our rights. They hate us. Literally hate us. And they use, abuse, and eventually discard what they hate. Here is the gist of the rich Republican attack on us, an attack based on a very simple premise:
If we were rich, we would become Republicans. … We would, if we were wealthy, embrace a rich white man’s—or rich white woman’s—Republican values. Which is to say we would understand that there is something wrong with people who don’t translate the freedoms and liberties, the low taxes and lack of government regulation of this great nation into vast personal wealth. We must be either stupid or lazy. It’s really that simple. We only have ourselves to blame.
So why should our enemy support us? Did Caesar free the slaves? Did the bosses take pity on the workers who went on strike? Did our Congress, making claims about the threat posed by the enormity of our national debt, see fit to raise taxes on the rich? Is your college president creating a fund for all the lecturers she or he has laid off?
The second principle we have lost sight of is there are far more of us than there are of them. United we stand, divided we fall. Their strategy—a time-honored first principle of propaganda—is to divide the public from the private, then to subdivide the public into the unionized and the non-unionized, then further divide those who make $41,000 a year as firefighters from those who make $61,000 as assistant professors, and so on. Cast doubt on the patriotism, the loyalty, the honor, and/or the work ethic of those who are in every other way our brothers and sisters in arms, and you slowly but surely divide and conquer.
Finally—and this is critical—we are not the cultural elite. We are working class intellectuals. We don’t come from money and most of us don’t have money. The cultural elite was a rhetorical bon bon created and distributed by Wall Street to dangle before status-starved college professors, knowing that we would grab them. But there is a big difference, as Thomas Frank argued years ago, between a “cultural elite” and an “economic elite.”
While we “satisfice” ourselves on bon bons, the rich get richer, buy elections, cut their own taxes, create subprime mortgages, build hedge funds, manipulate markets, and quietly convince themselves that they are the smart ones as well as the rich ones. Doubt it? Read Karen Ho’s devastating ethnography of Wall Street, Liquidated. And the further removed they are from main street, from university drive, from college avenue, the louder they laugh at our expense. I mean, we make really bad choices. It’s our own fault.
And what has been our response? So what if we make less than a living wage for many years? We are the cultural elite. We are cool. Smart. Proud of our poverty and proud of how distanced we are from mainstream values and habits. What if once we get a job in one of the most competitive arenas on the planet Earth we are paid less and owe more than any of our colleagues in Business, Engineering, or the medical sciences? We are the cultural elite, though. Right?
Oh man, Oh woman, what were you thinking when you swallowed that sweet slice of status covering a much deeper cultural sin? Didn’t we see it coming? Divide and conquer. Create a category that irks the vast majority of citizens who hated high school, flunked the hard courses in college, and couldn’t get into grad school—which is to say about 75% of the voting public—and then get those college professors to parade around in those fancy tenured robes owning that class-based cultural elite rhetoric, I mean, what did we expect? That we would be loved?
Do you love those you don’t understand and whom you feel have oppressed or made fun of you?
Revenge in a capitalist society is best represented in cold hard cash. It’s that Protestant Ethic that makes us this way. And with the evangelical zeal of the new “prosperity gospel” that remakes Jesus into the veritable image of conservative Republican values, we end up with a reverse Kenneth Burke: the rich are no longer “guilty” for being “up” while others are “down”; in fact, it’s the opposite. The rich are saved by their prosperity gospel and everyone else is suspect because, really, we don’t seem to be making the right choices for a capitalist America.
Here are the questions rich Republicans ask of us: How much money do you make? Where do you live? What kind of car do you drive? Where do you vacation? Do you believe in God? And please, they say, don’t tell me you prefer to be relatively poor, or that Jesus is just all right, or that your values prevent you from seeking wealth and influence. In America, my friend, there are only two right answers to any question regarding money: More is better than less, and sooner is better than later. If you don’t know that, then what, really do you know? That is of any value, I mean.
William Deresiewicz, writing in The Nation, puts the crisis in higher education this way:
What we have in academia, in other words, is a microcosm of the American economy as a whole: a self- enriching aristocracy, a swelling and increasingly immiserated proletariat, and a shrinking middle class. The same devil’s bargain stabilizes the system: the middle, or at least the upper middle, the tenured professoriate, is allowed to retain its prerogatives—its comfortable compensation packages, its workplace autonomy and its job security—in return for acquiescing to the exploitation of the bottom by the top, and indirectly, the betrayal of the future of the entire enterprise.
So I wasn’t surprised to learn from reading the news this week that according to a new Pew Center/Chronicle of Higher Education Study, 69% of the college presidents who are supposed to be leading the charge for us are themselves no longer supportive of tenure. More than half say that higher education is heading in the wrong direction. And most of them admit they haven’t a clue what to do about it.
That’s their bottom line, my friends. That’s the business model way of thinking about the crisis in education that opens up a gap large enough to drive the rich Republican narrative all the way from Wall Street to Main Street. It’s a lie, a big lie, but so far what do we have to counter it?
It’s the story that fuels the revolution. And we don’t yet have one.
I read the news today oh boy,
I’d love to turn you on …
(To a story …)