Friday, May 3, 2013

The Great Academic Chain of Being

Thomas Herndon is one of my new heroes.  In case you don't know who he is, Herndon is the UMass grad student who exposed key errors in the study by Harvard economists Reinhart and Rogoff that has been used to justify austerity regimes around the world.  I find his efforts doubly sweet.  In the first place, he has exposed to the world that the emperor of austerity has no clothes.  Second, he has highlighted the ridiculousness of a frame of thought I like to call The Great Academic Chain of Being.

Just as ancient and medieval thinkers theorized a divinely-ordered, hierarchical universe with almighty God at the top and lowly plants and grasses at the bottom, many academics view the profession in a similar fashion.  Ivy League full professors sit at the top, community college adjuncts at the bottom, and everyone else in between is in their appointed rank and place based purely on their merit and ability.  Whenever anyone dares to complain about the unfairness and cruelty of the academic system, the true believers wield the Academic Chain of Being as a cudgel, and dismiss critics by saying they deserved no better than to be on the bottom rungs of the hierarchy.  Their legitimate complaints about an unjust system are then depicted as the sour grapes of losers.

As a mere grad student at a state university,Thomas Herndon does not rank anywhere near Reinhart and Rogoff, but his exposure of their sloppy methods trumps the academic table of ranks.  The Great Academic Chain of Being is not only completely false, it is used to justify a multitude of sins.  Worst of all, it encourages contingent laborers and others taken advantage of by the system to internalize their oppression.  They are without permanent jobs and adjunct for years, and just end up blaming themselves for their situation when they fail to get the coveted slot on the tenure track.  This state of affairs is wonderful for the powers that be, who get to profit from a grossly inequitable system while preventing a peasant revolt by those worst abused by that very system.  Those in the better positions rarely if ever lift a finger to help their contingent colleagues.  After all, if they were truly deserving, they wouldn't be adjuncting!

That pernicious attitude, and the conceptual framework of the Great Academic Chain of Being that upholds it ought to be eradicated as a first step on the road to equity in the profession.


Tim Lacy said...

Agreed on the emperor having no clothes in relation to Thomas Herndon. It's a great moment. Though let's not forget that he was mentored by tough-minded, well-trained, left-oriented, critical economists at Amherst---no slouch of a state school. So his findings are part of the academy working properly, yes? That's encouraging, and shows something relatively positive that still exists in American higher edu. ...Maybe I'm just feeling a bit more hopeful today. ;) - TL

Tim Lacy said...

No slouch of a state school in economics, that is.