Mittwoch, September 23, 2009

Academia and Economics...

In this case, not academic economics, but rather a comment to an article online here.

I chose not to go into academia because I knew I could earn more directly by going into commercial economics, where we produce products that non-economists use in order to avoid hiring their own in-house economists. In other words, I decided to work for a living and earn my salary honestly.

Back when I first started my undergraduate studies (BA in Philosophy with a large minor in Psychology, Duquesne University) I started off as an English literature student, as I enjoyed doing textual/philological analysis of texts. It's what got me into phenomenological hermeneutics as well.

The link takes you to a heart-felt and earnest dismay of the decline of academic disciplines that have no direct bottom line, such as English literature, but the same can be said for philosophy, broadly considered (by those with little imagination) to be one of the penultimate worthless degrees in the history of the planet. As Q says: Au contraire, mon capitáin!  A philosophy degree, used properly, gives you unparalleled argumentation skills and can give you quite an edge up over the "ordinary" number-crunching economist.

But is the same true of English literature? The few that I know who have successfully completed such a degree make a living from writing, and largely writing well, albeit not literature, but press releases, journalistic pieces and, yes, industrial analysis.

But let's get back to the fundamental issue: the economics of academia, as it were, and the reason for the decline in English literature majors.

Professor Chace looks at it this way:

What are the causes for this decline? There are several, but at the root is the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself. What departments have done instead is dismember the curriculum, drift away from the notion that historical chronology is important, and substitute for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations (identity studies, abstruse theory, sexuality, film and popular culture). In so doing, they have distanced themselves from the young people interested in good books.

This is in and of itself a good critique, that instead of teaching literature, departments have frittered themselves into oblivion by becoming extraordinarily self-indulgent and, most damagingly, by becoming dominated by politics. Why are young people interested in good books (besides the tactile enjoyment, obviously)?

Because literature studies, at their best, are ways of understanding that most mysterious of beasts, our fellow man.

At their worst, they obfuscate and deny our natures, and as Prof. Chace clearly points out, they are doing that quite nicely.


In an educational collapse of this magnitude, other forces must also be at play. The first of these is the surging growth of public higher education and the relatively slower growth of private colleges and universities.

Here Prof. Chace laments the obsession of public students with coarse mammon: he does, however, fail to consider how things are to be paid for. Public institutions are so ... practically oriented, aiming at enabling kids to leave with marketable skills, rather than becoming...

Well, what exactly, outside of additional academics?

Studying English taught us how to write and think better, and to make articulate many of the inchoate impulses and confusions of our post-adolescent minds. We began to see, as we had not before, how such books could shape and refine our thinking. We began to understand why generations of people coming before us had kept them in libraries and bookstores and in classes such as ours. There was, we got to know, a tradition, a historical culture, that had been assembled around these books. Shakespeare had indeed made a difference—to people before us, now to us, and forever to the language of English-speaking people.

Finding pleasure in such reading, and indeed in majoring in English, was a declaration at the time that education was not at all about getting a job or securing one's future. In comparison with the pre-professional ambitions that dominate the lives of American undergraduates today, the psychological condition of students of the time was defined by self-reflection, innocence, and a casual irresponsibility about what was coming next.

We must remember that Prof. Chace belongs to that generation "lost in space", as it were, that privileged and indulgent generation, born in the late 1940s and early 1950s, who could, due to prosperity, do whatever they largely damn well pleased and yet survive, more often than not rather comfortably.

That's right, the Baby Boomers: the generation that had "a casual irresponsibility about what was coming next." That, Ladies and Gentlemen, could possibly be the best explanation of modern America ever written.

...there are additional reasons for the drop in numbers of students concentrating in English and other subjects in the literary humanities. History, geography, and demography do not explain it all. Other forces, both external and internal, have been at work. The literary humanities and, in particular, English are in trouble for reasons beyond their control and for reasons of their own making. First, an obvious external cause: money. With the cost of a college degree surging upward during the last quarter century—tuition itself increasing far beyond any measure of inflation—and with consequent growth in loan debt after graduation, parents have become anxious about the relative earning power of a humanities degree. Their college-age children doubtless share such anxiety. When college costs were lower, anxiety could be kept at bay. (Berkeley in the early '60s cost me about $100 a year, about $700 in today's dollars.) Alexander W. Astin's research tells us that in the mid-1960s, more than 80 percent of entering college freshmen reported that nothing was more important than "developing a meaningful philosophy of life." Astin, director of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, reports that "being very well off financially" was only an afterthought, one that fewer than 45 percent of those freshmen thought to be an essential goal. As the years went on, however, and as tuition shot up, the two traded places; by 1977, financial goals had surged past philosophical ones, and by the year 2001 more than 70 percent of undergraduate students had their eyes trained on financial realities, while only 40 percent were still wrestling with meaningful philosophies.

Here we have the core problem: university costs have exploded such that no one outside of financial elites can afford the life of luxury that an English lit major appears to require. If you can indulge yourself for a modest fee, then there are plenty who will do so; if it costs serious money, we should be surprised that the field then becomes the realm of the wealthy dissolute?

And it's their own damn fault. Those are his words, not mine.

But the key reason why universities have priced themselves into the stratosphere is simple: because costs have exploded, with those departments that produce decent income via external research and the like covering the costs of other departments who pay their professors salaries that have no relationship to the value thus provided. Such salaries have exploded in order to make it attractive to graduate students to study, say, feminist-marxist sociology; the utility of such departments is, at best, rather marginal, and more normally are an indulgence of the academic world. Let me be particularly blunt: a humanities professor, tenured, should be not paid anywhere near what an economics professor, what a business administration professor, what a hard sciences professor earns: to do so is to give such people the idea that their self-indulgent studies are actually worth something (otherwise, why would I be paid so much?), effectively blocking a desperately needed critical assessment of one's own value to society.

Off-campus, the consumer's point of view about future earnings and economic security was a mirror image of on-campus thinking in the offices of deans, provosts, and presidents. I was in those offices, day in and day out, for 20 years, and can report that such officials are forever considering how to exploit available resources against ever-growing operating costs. As those costs grow, they create a paradox: the only way to bring in more money, over and above tuition income, is to employ more and more people to attract philanthropic donors and to assure the continuing flow of research dollars from governmental and other sources. Every administrator is complicit in the expanding number of necessary non-faculty employees—development officers, technical support staff, research assistants, lawyers attuned to federal regulations—and human resource personnel to handle the ever-growing numbers of just such new employees. I agree with historian Lynn Hunt's description of the situation: "The university staff as a whole is getting bigger, but the relative presence of faculty, secretaries, and janitors is actually declining." The faculty decline is, in particular, in the humanities, which bring in almost no outside income. Economists, chemists, biologists, psychologists, computer scientists, and almost everyone in the medical sciences win sponsored research, grants, and federal dollars. By and large, humanists don't, and so they find themselves as direct employees of the institution, consuming money in salaries, pensions, and operating needs—not external money but institutional money.

This just makes my point. Humanists do not, strictly speaking, generate income: but then, if so, are they then paid so well?

The English department has one sturdy lifeline, however: it is responsible for teaching composition. While this duty is always advertised as an activity central to higher education, it is one devoid of dignity. Its instructors are among the lowest paid of any who hold forth in a classroom; most, though possessing doctoral degrees, are ineligible for tenure or promotion; their offices are often small and crowded; their scholarship is rarely considered worthy of comparison with "literary" scholarship. Their work, while crucial, is demeaned.

This is the perversion of the field: you will have more prestige and most likely more money if you teach feminist deconstructionist literature of the 17th century than if you are the one who can teach what most academics despair of (an average middle-class kid entering college) how to write not only grammatically correct sentences, but rather the ability to clearly communicate complex ideas. It's hard work: that's why English literature academics don't like it.

What prodded me to write this is what Prof. Chace points out:

These, then, are some of the external causes of the decline of English: the rise of public education; the relative youth and instability (despite its apparent mature solidity) of English as a discipline; the impact of money; and the pressures upon departments within the modern university to attract financial resources rather than simply use them up. On all these scores, English has suffered. But the deeper explanation resides not in something that has happened to it, but in what it has done to itself.

Bingo: this is a self-inflicted wound. Is it fatal?

Perhaps so:

These older students reveal to them a desolate scene of high career hopes soon withered, much study, little money, and heavy indebtedness. In English, the average number of years spent earning a doctoral degree is almost 11. After passing that milestone, only half of new Ph.D.'s find teaching jobs, the number of new positions having declined over the last year by more than 20 percent; many of those jobs are part-time or come with no possibility of tenure. News like that, moving through student networks, can be matched against, at least until recently, the reputed earning power of recent graduates of business schools, law schools, and medical schools. The comparison is akin to what young people growing up in Rust Belt cities are forced to see: the work isn't here anymore; our technology is obsolete.

It all boils down to market demand and the adequacy of supply to meet that demand. I am firmly of the belief that market demand is there: in this case, it is a supply-side failure to understand the market and meets its needs. Eleven years to get a doctorate? Ye gods.

Prof. Chace has several ways that the profession - such that it can even now be called such - can be restored:

First, several of my colleagues around the country have called for a return to the aesthetic wellsprings of literature, the rock-solid fact, often neglected, that it can indeed amuse, delight, and educate. They urge the teaching of English, or French, or Russian literature, and the like, in terms of the intrinsic value of the works themselves, in all their range and multiplicity, as well-crafted and appealing artifacts of human wisdom. Second, we should redefine our own standards for granting tenure, placing more emphasis on the classroom and less on published research, and we should prepare to contest our decisions with administrators whose science-based model is not an appropriate means of evaluation. Released from the obligation to deliver research results in the form of little-read monographs and articles, humanists could then resolve to spend their time teaching what they love to students glad to learn. If they wanted to publish, they could do so—at almost no cost—on the Internet, and like-minded colleagues could rapidly share the results of such research and speculation. Most important, the luxury of reading could be welcomed back. I want to believe in what they say.
They can teach their students to write well, to use rhetoric. They should place their courses in composition and rhetoric at the forefront of their activities. They should announce that the teaching of composition is a skill their instructors have mastered and that students majoring in English will be certified, upon graduation, as possessing rigorously tested competence in prose expression. Those students will thus carry with them, into employment interviews or into further educational training, a proficiency everywhere respected but too often lacking among college graduates.

So, let us reiterate what the problems are, from an economics perspective.

First: demand exists, albeit largely unknown (as are many markets). Go ask successful engineers and scientists, and you will find that one of the key to their success is the ability to clearly and succinctly communicate what they are doing. The greatest failures are those who have the ideas and the work, but fail to communicate. Demand exists in all aspects of the student body: my beginnings in English literature, leading me to philosophy and phenomenological hermeneutics, gave me the skills I now have of editing texts written by non-English speaking professionals to communicate what they are actually trying to say and of writing my own work (I write around 60 pages a month for clients, also largely non-English language speaking). Without those skills, I'd be just another number-cruncher (albeit a good one...).

Second: this article underscores that the problem in the market is a failure of the supply side to understand their markets and meet their needs. If anything, Prof. Chace points out how the supply side almost actively denies that there even is the real existing demand, instead demanding that subsidies be paid simply because it's what the "specialists" demand. The failure has been that subsidies are indeed paid. Without these subsidies - which Prof. Chace clearly points out are now clearly in danger of being eliminated - the supply side collapses. Demand is not being met now: when the supply side collapses, effectively going bankrupt, then the market will go unserviced. Prof. Chace's recommendations are first-rate: turn unqualified labor into skilled labor in order to meet the demands of the market place. Why the supply side fails to meet these demands is, to pardon the expression, an academic exercise.

Third, nothing is exempt from economics. Nothing. Somewhere, somehow, somebody has to pay the bills. Someone has to balance the books and make the payroll. Ignoring this fundamental truth is the reason for the abysmal state of the academy.

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