THREE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN AN ACADEMIC AND AN INTELLECTUAL: WHAT HAPPENS TO THE LIBERAL ARTS WHEN THEY ARE KICKED OFF CAMPUS?

Source: Cross Currents

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As more and more colleges and universities adopt the market model, providing students not what tradition says they need but what the students themselves say they want, the liberal arts are being squeezed out of the curriculum. A recent article in Harvard magazine contains the following instructive paragraph:

Between 1970 and 1994, the number of B.A.s conferred in the United States rose 39 percent. Among all bachelor’s degrees in higher education, three majors increased five- to tenfold: computer and information sciences, protective services, and transportation and material moving. Two majors, already large, tripled: health professions and public administration. Already popular, business management doubled. In 1971, 78 percent more degrees were granted in business than English. By 1994, business enjoyed a fourfold advantage over English and remained the largest major. English, foreign languages, philosophy, and religion all declined. History fell, too. . . On the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, only 9 percent of students now indicate interest in humanities. . .(1)

The liberal arts are not gone yet, but they seem on their way out of an American higher education establishment increasingly defined by the narrower needs of the American economy. The authors of this article, English professors both, offer their statistics as a call to educational reform, to a revival of the liberal arts. But their own evidence suggests that such a revival is most unlikely and that, if the liberal tradition is not to die, American culture may need to find another carrier for it.

The Academic Labor Question

Distinct from but related to the decline of the liberal arts on campus is the deprofessionalization or proletarianization of college teaching. In the academic labor market as elsewhere in the American labor market, the goal of management is, increasingly, to keep the number of permanent, salaried employees as small as possible by transferring as much of the aggregate workload as possible to temporary employees who are paid on a fee-for-service basis and receive few if any of the costly benefits provided their salaried colleagues. Writing in New The Republic, Michael Walzer has noted that a recent, notably successful United Parcel Service strike was not a conventional strike for higher wages but rather collective resistance to the planned transformation of the UPS work force from one of full-time workers with salaries, job security, and benefits into one of part-time workers with no one of the three. Walzer goes on to note, however, that this very transformation is far along in academe, where

an increasing proportion of undergraduate teaching is done by adjuncts and assistants of various kinds, who work on short-term contracts and cannot expect to have normal academic careers. It is now possible to imagine an economy in which the American workforce will be divided into a full-time elite and a large number of harried, unhappy and exploited workers rushing from one part-time or temporary job to another, always insecure, barely able to make ends meet. . . Maximum efficiency requires, so the world was told in 1840 and again in 1997, though not in so many words, disposable workers — men and women who will work long hours or short, “as necessary,” and disappear without complaint when the necessities change.(2)

How large a phenomenon is Walzer talking about? Barry Munitz — former chancellor of the California State University, now CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust — estimates that more than fifty percent of all class hours in higher education in California, private as well as public, are taught by such disposable academic workers.(3) A statistical case can be made that if all classroom hours now taught by fee-for-service adjunct faculty were taught by salaried permanent faculty, the Ph.D. glut would suddenly become a shortage. Thus, Mark R. Kelley and William Pannapacker, president and vice-president of the Graduate Student Caucus of the Modern Language Association, assert:

We cannot emphasize strongly enough that, were it not for the radical increase in part-time faculty positions, there would be no oversupply of Ph.D.’s. Indeed, if all college and university teaching were performed by full-time faculty members who held doctoral degrees, we would be facing the undersupply of Ph.D.’s predicted in 1989 by William G. Bowen and Julie Ann Sosa in Prospects for Faculty in the Arts and Sciences: A Study of Factors Affecting Demand and Supply, 1987 to 2012. Ironically, it was their predictions, widely disseminated in the popular media, that led so many current graduate students and new Ph.D.’s to abandon other careers and pursue doctoral study.(4)

Whatever the exact proportions of the tradeoff, it is clear that as the proportion of classroom hours taught by adjuncts grows, the likelihood of salaried employment for new Ph.D.s will shrink and that it will do so even if graduating classes of new Ph.D.’s also shrink somewhat.

Read More: THREE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN AN ACADEMIC AND AN INTELLECTUAL: WHAT HAPPENS TO THE LIBERAL ARTS WHEN THEY ARE KICKED OFF CAMPUS?

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