Sunday, April 28, 2019

The Decline of the University Humanities as a Metaphor for America

A prophecy from the dawn of neoliberalism

During the twelve years I spent in academia as a grad student and professor in history there was a constant feeling of crisis, one that has only heightened since I jumped ship back in 2011. First came the cutbacks to salary increases and research. Library budgets bit the dust while retired professors meant the elimination of tenure lines and their replacement with adjuncts and "visitors." Then came the 2008 crisis, with furloughs, salary cuts, and soon the absolute destruction of entire departments and programs. The languages, once considered a cornerstone of higher education, got eviscerated. In recent years philosophy and even history have followed. We are now living in a country where so-called "universities" have football teams that mash their student athletes' brains into mush but where a student can't major in philosophy. 

All the while, precarity has become the norm. More and more classes are taught by adjuncts paid by the course who do not get basic benefits and protections. If you want to see American capitalism at its most exploitative you won't just find it in the strawberry fields and slaughterhouses, you will also find it on tree-lined campuses. 

The future is going to look a lot like the past. Higher education in the humanities is going back to being a luxury good reserved for the affluent. In the meantime, careers and lives are being destroyed. Those of use who were on the front lines in this as grads, adjuncts, and even tenure-track profs at regional universities in red states saw this coming. The people who ran our professional organizations, who were supposed to be looking out for the interests of their members, didn't lift a finger. Why? Because they really represented scholars at the most prestigious universities, whose precious advisees would always be in demand on the job "market." Now, at long last, some of them seem aware that action should be taken. (Probably because their star grad student had to stoop to take a job at a regional state university somewhere in the South. Eww!) Of course, it's too late now. The die has been cast.

I feel like this is a metaphor for America at large. Just as neoliberalism has gutted universities, it has gutted the nation as a whole. The rot has been setting in for decades. I first came of political age in the late 1980s. Back then, over THIRTY YEARS AGO the discourse was full of concern that inequality was rising, that poor communities were being pushed down harder, and that deindustrialization was wrecking whole regions of the country. Thirty years later we still have the same issues, and they have only gotten worse and worse. For example, in the 1980s my home region of rural Nebraska was ravaged by the farm crisis. Back then people express alarm over the spike in farm foreclosures. Since then family farms have kept disappearing and the small towns have been more and more emptied out. Nowadays the only thriving retail in my hometown is dollar stores. 

This entire time, the elites of the country could see what was happening. Like a lot of tenured professors at R1 universities, they didn't like it, but they also weren't directly hurt by what was happening to others. They could watch those drowning around them, turn their backs, say "That's a shame" and get on with their lives. This of course only goes for the sympathetic elites. The others just laughed and counted their money. 

Since the election of Trump it has dawned on the more sympathetic elites that something truly wrong has happened in the country and they need to respond to it. Of course, like those tenured professors they aren't equipped to see the severity of the problem. They somehow think that our institutions alone can solve the problem, that it can be combatted with "civility" and "norms." Again, those at the front lines know that something more is necessary, but they are kept away from having any kind of voice in the halls of power. 

In any case, it's already too late. While the elites were ignoring the problem it was quietly overwhelming them. The Sex Pistols, singing in the late 70s at the first dawn of neoliberalism, were prophets. "No future for you."

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