Higher education stamp from 1962. (Wikimedia Commons)
On August 21 I published an essay in which I offered several anecdotes in the service of the argument that with the rise of a class of permanently under-employed college instructors, alongside a class of “tenured professors…hardly aware that they’re aristocrats and that they oversee an army of of intellectual serfs,” American society has reproduced the era of the “gentleman scholar”—because the only people who can afford the soul-satisfying profession of adding to the world’s store of knowledge, and passing it on to the next generation of college students, are the independently wealthy.
I also made a broader social argument: First, that the historic expansion of liberal arts education “made America more decent, more lovely, more cultured, more critical, even—ask anyone who went to college in the 1960s or ’70s—more fun. It made America richer too, both spiritually and materially; though in an important sense the first condition fed the second, as the liberation of intellectual imaginations midwifed a thousand productive careers in every field, careers that were productive precisely because they were inspired by a ‘liberal arts’ attitude, not merely pinched Babbit-like commercial aspirations.” And that therefore, atrophying this professoriate was one way “a healthy capitalist society eats its seed corn.”
The piece received a staggering amount of attention among the sort of people I was writing about—graduate students, and adjunct and tenured professors. So I invited people to write me with stories of their experience within this rapidly transforming space.
Before I turn to those, let me address a criticism. I called the post “On the Death of Democratic Higher Education.” Some asked what I meant by “democratic higher education”—after all, a professoriate, any professoriate, is not exactly a democratic institution. And indeed one of the practices I criticized, and will be criticizing more in the future—the rise of “MOOCs,” or massive open online courses—lets people take courses from excellent professors, often star professors, for free. Which is pretty damned democratic. For another thing, I’m not really talking about the democratic failings of the present higher education system that harm undergraduates the most, excellently covered by others at The Nation and elsewhere: exploitative for-profit education; crushing student debt; the death grip an amoral class of professional administrators enjoy over governance prerogatives once enjoyed by more public-spirited faculty.
No, I’m focusing on what I know best: the world of professional intellectualism, whose attenuation makes for more subtle harms to the health of a democratic society—but, I’ll be arguing, may make for equally tragic harms in the end.