Back when I was a sophomore at Williams, the sticker price broke twenty thousand dollars for the first time, and some angry person spray-painted the columns of Chapin Hall with the digits: $20,760. I remember a lot of agitated thinkpieces about the unsustainable trajectory of higher education in the US, and predicting that some sort of reckoning would need to be faced in the very near future. Thirty-odd years later, we’re inching up on a sticker price of $80,000, and the system still hasn’t collapsed, but there are still all manner of agitated thinkpieces about the End being Nigh.
And, you know, the thinkpiecers probably aren’t wrong, exactly, in that the status quo really does seem pretty untenable, and there will eventually need to be some sort of a reckoning. On the other hand, I think there’s a pronounced tendency to underestimate the resilience of academia— as Matt Leifer tweeted, the European-derived university system dates to something like 1100 CE, and has weathered an awful lot in that time. The predictions of collapse usually say something more about the political beliefs and goals of the predictor than the underlying reality.
Anyway, the last week or so has brought three things that fall under the general heading of “Imminent Death of the Academy Predicted,” and I’ll group them together here:
— First, there’s the ad for an unpaid adjunct position at UCLA, which was posted on Friday and rapidly attained a high level of infamy. I suspect that there’s a relatively innocent explanation for this— they probably had lined up somebody in a research position to teach a course on a volunteer basis (Bill Phillips used to teach an Atomic Physics course as an adjunct when I was at Maryland, for example, and the year I took it he co-taught with a NIST postdoc, and I doubt either of them were paid the full rate for it), and somebody in HR or the lawyer’s office told them they were still required to post an ad, and this was the result.
While this likely isn’t actually an example of the truly perverse aspects of adjunctification, though, it certainly works as a symbol for one. Thus, the impassioned response online, mostly from people in fields where “unpaid adjunct instructor” is a more plausible offer to an otherwise unemployed scholar than it is in biochemistry. The steady increase in the number of adjuncts being paid starvation wages to teach intro courses is one of the more credible examples of something that could count as a creeping death of the academy.
This is largely a reflection of the fundamental problem of academia, namely that there are way more people who want good faculty jobs than there are jobs for them to take. Even in STEM fields that are relatively flush with cash, it’s not unusual to have dozens upon dozens of applications for an open tenure-track position. This limits the leverage of any individual candidate, which makes conditions worse for everyone.
There’s a depressing degree of self-infliction to this, in that the lucky folks who do have tenure-track jobs have too often tended to focus their efforts on protecting their own perqusites and prerogatives— lighter teaching loads, etc.— at the expense of younger scholars. This is, to my mind, the most plausibly existential of the threats to the system, because it’s the most transparently unsustainable: there’s just no way a system that churns out 10 new Ph.D.’s per tenured faculty career can continue indefinitely without some kind of change. We either need to train fewer Ph.D.’s, or massively expand the number of faculty jobs, and both of those are widely regarded as unthinkable. That seems a recipe for crisis.
— Another strong applicant for the Main Character of Academic Twitter was this thread from Sam Altman, who seems to be a tech/finance person (I was not previously aware of him), boldly predicting the collapse of the system:
The basic claim here is the usual “You can learn what you need to be a successful tech person without all the expensive ancillary nonsense that comes with modern higher education.” And, again, this is true in a narrowly literal sense— it’s absolutely possible for a smart and highly motivated individual to learn the skills they need on their own time, without the formal structure of academia. Many people have done it over the years, and most of them are happy to tell you about it at tedious length.
The fundamental problem here is that the number of people who think they’re the right sort of highly motivated autodidact to bypass academia is at least one and probably more like two orders of magnitude larger than the number of people who really are that sort of highly motivated autodidact. Actually learning a subject, particularly in the technical fields, almost inevitably requires a lot of tedious slogging through basic material, and people who are willing to put in that effort without some formal structure forcing them to are few and far between.
That is, to a large degree, what the university system is for: the whole elaborate edifice of lectures and homework sets and exams and grades is there to provide the extrinsic motivation necessary to get a typical student to put in the work that leads to genuine mastery. You absolutely do not need the assistance of a tenured faculty member to achieve a good undergraduate-level education in most subjects— there are libraries full of books and an Internet full of other resources that can provide all the raw information. The motivation to work out all the end-of-chapter problems in the textbook without peeking at the solutions online is a lot harder to come by. In a lot of ways, the whole system is justified by a slightly different spin on the old academic joke, “I lecture for free; the university pays me to grade.”
— The third item in the “Imminent Death” category is a bit narrower than the others, being just the latest in the “Imminent Death of ‘the Humanities’ Predicted” item rather than a dire forecast for the academy overall. That’s this Inside Higher Ed piece by Mark Bauerlein titled either “Would-be humanities majors want canonical courses” or The Humanities Need Gen Ed,” depending on where you’re seeing it. This one hasn’t gotten as much discussion, probably because a lot of people had the same “Oh, this guy” reaction I did when I clicked through.
The basic argument here is a call for a return to teaching “The Canon,” namely some relatively cohesive set of great works that provide an essential foundation for understanding modern civilization. This is, of course, rooted in the same set of classics of Western literature that somebody of Bauerlein’s generation would’ve taken back in the day. As he describes in the piece, this has been out of fashion for decades, but he’s still fighting the good fight.
This isn’t remotely a new policy recommendation, though he’s framing it in a slightly different way, which is why I flagged it to comment on. That is, I do think there’s a bit of something to the idea that it’s attractive to have a kind of coherent structure that provides a big-picture vision for how everything fits together. That helps make it easier to add on to later, and provides a certain kind of philosophical satisfaction.
One of my two thoughts about this framing is that I suspect that this philosophical satisfaction is an underrated part of the draw of STEM fields— that is, science provides an orderly set of rules that help impose structure on a disorderly universe. That’s part of why, despite the best effort of generations of philosophers of science, STEM majors and working scientists mostly hold to fairly old-fashioned ideas about objective reality and the search for truth. And it’s part of why a lot of people who find STEM disciplines congenial recoil from some aspects of literary academia.
My other thought about this is that the loose collection of ideas derisively shorthanded as “woke-ism” is to some degree doing a similar thing, philosophically. That is, it’s providing a kind of intellectual scaffolding that imposes order on the world by describing a myriad of complex phenomena in terms of a smallish number of vast and impersonal forces—racism, sexism, and their institutional manifestations. It’s a bit of a mirror-universe version of what Bauerlein wants (and what STEM arguably provides), though, in that it’s not celebrating previous traditions, but instead reacting against them. Some of the end effect seems the same, though.
Anyway, I have at least a bit of sympathy for the idea that it would be good to have a big-picture framework for understanding the world that is temperamentally positive if not actively celebratory. That sort of positivity is, to a large extent, why I write the kind of books that I do. I don’t, however, care for the idea that this necessarily has to be “The Canon” of the past, which seems to me to indicate a kind of paucity of imagination. Coming up with something that’s more inclusive but still cohesive seems like a really daunting task, though, and not one that I am remotely qualified to attempt.
So, yeah, that’s a bunch of stuff that I may regret grouping together when I run out of topics I want to write about later in the week. Anyway, here are some buttons:
and as always, the comments will be open.
One thing that struck me about your earlier data post on faculty hiring was that there were roughly twice as many physics faculty, total, at Ph.D. granting institutions than at Bachelor's institutions. Because the system where a tenured professor creates 10 new Ph.D.s is OK if 9 of them go on to get jobs like, well, yours. (Or mine, for that matter.) Although really not so much the prestigious SLACs, but the large Directional States, because isn't that the most common type of institution for undergrads, as in don't-forget-most-people-don't-go-to-SLACs.
It's also interesting to see your suggestion that the job:new PhD ratio is such that we need to train fewer Ph.Ds alongside the recent articles in Science, and elsewhere, about how important the diversification of physics is. If successful, isn't there a risk of these efforts turning into a large bait-and-switch?
obv the university in some form will continue. but the post ww2 system is probably not sustainable as it depended on certain demographics, and its roots are from an earlier period when less than 5% of the population got a college degree
eg we need more technical universities since marketability/skills is really a big deal, and the community college system needs to be emphasized probably more than the R2 system imo. the bottom