An article by Robin Wilson in the Chronicle of Higher Education describes a trend. Having realized that it’s mathematically impossible for most of their Ph.D. students to land academic jobs, many humanities departments are, shockingly, admitting fewer graduate students.
As someone whose (infrequent) Ph.D.-level teaching occurs in what is effectively one of the humanities, namely political theory, I think that what the article describes is too little—most programs described are trimming their admissions rather than slashing them—and about a generation too late.
Many have compared higher education in the humanities, as well as many social sciences, to a pyramid scheme. That’s because it is a pyramid scheme. Dangling false assurances of future employment—or at the very least, cynically avoiding full disclosure regarding the job market—academic departments every year lure thousands of the country’s brightest college graduates into courses of study that will turn them into bitter, often indebted, thirty-year-olds. These unemployed doctors are commonly less attractive to the non-academic job market than they were right after graduation. For what we’ve taught them amounts, outside our halls, to bad writing; esoteric, counter-intuitive ways of thinking; and a knowledge of useless facts. Except for the writing, such an education was perfectly fine, in fact fully appropriate, when the academic job market was robust. It was no odder than teaching lawyers to think, research, and write like lawyers. But now that the Ph.D. is no longer a professional degree (as a Harvard administrator once nonchalantly told an audience of Ph.D. students at the end of our training—not, of course, at the beginning), nothing can excuse it. For the sake of being able to teach engaging seminars and expand our academic influence via the occasional disciple, we have been deliberately, continuously, and callously ruining young people’s lives. We are, simply, doing evil.
As the Chronicle notes, professors don’t like what the end of the Ponzi scheme entails. One laments that “training graduate students is part of the soul of what we do.” Their souls thus threatened, professors are feeling “a great deal of anxiety.” Some professors are getting to teach graduate seminars only once every year (or two or three)—a trend, by the way, that’s been common at UCLA for some time. Some graduate seminars must be opened to students in other disciplines. A few programs are starting master’s degrees for students who plan to work outside academe.
Finally, many professors find themselves having to teach, unimaginably, more courses for undergraduates. One professor quoted says that only graduate seminars keep him on his toes: in undergraduate lectures, ”you stand up there and talk and you could be saying great stuff, but it just kind of washes over them.” Granting that the professor probably regrets a single sentence quoted out of context, the sentence as quoted—which represents, let’s admit it, a widespread sentiment—displays, put charitably, a certain lack of imagination. Leaving aside that this famous eminence hasn’t bothered to explore the value and the dignity of introductory lecture courses, he also can’t seem to imagine that beyond those freshman courses lie upper-level lectures on more specialized subjects, and specialized junior and senior seminars where the brightest undergraduates can do their own toe-keeping. Nor has it occurred to him that undergraduate students whose tuition is rising all the time might have a claim to some of our time and attention.
As the pyramid scheme unravels, the changes we’ll face will go far beyond converting some of our graduate seminars to undergraduate ones. Many of us may have to teach at least one additional undergraduate course, beyond our current roster, every year or two. This would still be a lot fewer than almost all of us would have taught a few decades ago.
I love research. I understand wanting to have one’s whole academic career maximally resemble it and contribute to it. But you can’t always get what you want. And frankly, beyond a few sublime researchers whom society should rightly subsidize to think at the highest level at all times, we academics mostly don’t deserve to get it. Taxpayers and tuition-payers will inevitably come to demand their money’s worth. That means that we’re going to have to relearn how to communicate more of what we know to people who don’t share our level of scholarly commitment and specialized expertise.
For professors this will represent a compromise, but also a chance to develop our own minds in areas where they’ve atrophied. We’ve come to believe that the life of the mind means the same thing as the standards of our disciplines. It doesn’t. By embracing undergraduate teaching, we will learn things that Socrates knew but we’ve forgotten.