Sunday, February 23, 2014

Nick Kristof Pops A Boil

It is ironic that I only now got around to reading the fallout from Nick Kristof's op-ed in last week's New York Times.  Ironic because his complaint is there are just not enough "public intellectuals" out there, yet I am only now to digging in a bit in part because of all the really good writing I have had to read.

For all that Kristof is King of Wrongdom - and Corey Robin's piece at Crooked Timber does marvelous justice to Kristof - the discussion at the linked piece demonstrates how being wrong can lead to a necessary discussion of real matters of importance.  Some of those matters are included by Robin in his article: the near-criminal neglect of excellent writers by the mainstream; the economic pressures on so many young faculty that limit their ability to devote time to engage more (yet so many continue to do so); Kristof's cliched insistence that academia favors bad writing, filled with jargon and arcana, over general accessibility.  It is in the comments thread - and here is where I think Crooked Timber stands out against the general rule, to whit, "Do not read comments thread" - that talking about Kristof gives voice to the real issues, issues about which Kristof does not write: the crisis in academia.

It is not the fever-dreams of the right about Leftist Academics indoctrinating our children.  It isn't the equally fevered nightmares of the Left (a much smaller group, to be sure) of the capturing of our institutions of higher learning by corporate power, inhibiting academic freedom in order to pursue a well-funded corporate-state agenda.  The real crisis of academia is the collapse of any sense of what, precisely, higher education is supposed to be.

As a society, we no longer value the most important thing a liberal education brings: a well-rounded citizenry capable of critical thought.  Higher education should at the very least give us the tools to be able both to understand and discuss important topics of public interest, as well as provide independent, critical insight on these same debates.  While these are ideals, to be sure, their pursuit is important to keeping the American project alive and kicking.  Their collapse has brought us to the point where we can't even talk with any clarity about what higher education is.

As tuition skyrockets away from affordability, along with the expansion of a criminal student loan system that is well on its way to impoverishing an entire generation, as many commenters note at CT 70% of faculty are not tenure track.  Adjuncts and instructors hired often to teach three, four, even five courses at a time while saving cash-starved departments from paying full-time tenured faculty, these young men and women scramble to teach, research, and publish with no institutional support at all.  That so many do despite the immense barriers in their way demonstrates their dedication to the ideal of scholarship.  Far too many in positions of public authority hold higher learning in contempt, seeking all sorts of ways to undermine the university, from threatening the removal of whole divisions, such as the humanities, to the recent push for STEM not as a public good in and for itself but as an economic and financial good for those who pursue it.

We need to have a discussion about higher education that recognizes the current reality of underpaid, overworked PhDs without any support from an institutional base.  We need to talk about what the university should be in America now and the coming decades.  We need to ignore stupid things people at The New York Times write, even if they do the public service of lancing a particular boil.

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