From Michael Yates (on academia)
lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Nov 8 07:35:40 MST 2003
As some members of this list know, I "retired" from college teaching in
2001 at the age of 55 and after 32 years of toiling in the groves of
academe. Since then, my wife and I have lived, for varying lengths of time,
in Yellowstone National Park, Ford City, PA (my hometown), Manhattan, Miami
Beach, Amherst, and Portland, Oregon. I have worked part-time as a teacher
in labor studies programs around the country, as Associate Editor of
Monthly Review magazine, and as a consultant.
Right before I left teaching, I posted some rather scathing remarks about
college teaching and college students. These elicited comments from around
the world, and I still sometimes meet people who remind me of them.
Recently I went back to Pennsylvania to give some lectures in connection
with my new book, "Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global
Economy." I lectured at both the college where I taught and at my alma
mater. I was curious to see whether I would feel any regret about leaving
college and about the comments I had made upon departing..
I gave three lectures at my old workplace. I got to school in mid-morning,
and as soon as I started walking down the hall toward my old office, I felt
a sense of dread. I looked at the students sitting and walking in the
halls, and I shuddered. They didn't look like eager young scholars. But
appearances can be deceiving. My first stop was in a geography class, where
I discussed some of the impacts of capital accumulation I though might be
interesting to geography students. I could tell right away that not much
had changed since I left. No on seemed to know anything. I was most taken
aback when no one appeared not to know the location of Bolivia. Finally,
when I implored them that this was, after all, a geography class, someone
asked if Bolivia was in South America.
Next I went to a communications class to talk about some basic media
political economy. This went a little better, though the class didn't seem
to know the difference between liberal and conservative (Of course, it is
possible that they did not believe there is any difference).
Finally I gave a public lecture on inequality in the global economy. This
was well-attended and went well. However, I was saddened to see quite a few
of my old (in two senses) colleagues. I cannot for the life of me
understand why they continue to work when they do not have to. I cannot
believe that they have much to say anymore to the students, just more or
less the same things they have been saying to inattentive kids for years.
They seem not to know what else to do with their lives; they seem to think
that without their position as professors they would have no identity. So
they delude themselves into thinking that they are having a good influence
on at least a few students. Maybe they are right, but why not let younger
teachers have a try at this. At elite schools, I suppose that aged
professors might sometimes be sages, whose lifetime of learning is
invaluable and can be an inspiration to students. But at schools such as
the one at which I taught, with teaching loads of four per term, three or
four preparations, and overloads common, getting older just means finding
shortcuts and getting duller. I think teachers slog on because the money is
ok, the prestige is fine, and they cannot imagine any other life. Perhaps
they believe that they might as well keep teaching since the school might
not replace them or might replace them with business faculty, experts on
what seems to be a new buzzword in collegesleadership. So they convince
themselves that they are performing a kind of public service by hanging on.
The next day I went to my alma mater, a small Catholic college in western
Pennsylvania. Before I spoke I met with the chairman of the economics
department. The college has been given a ton of money by a right-wing
business foundation and has moved far to the right. Every right-wing
luminary you can think of has given lectures there. The chairman has
benefited greatly from this and has assembled a small empire. You name the
right-wing economist and he or she has been to my old college, quite a
turnaround from the Keynesian focus of my days there. The college has had a
remarkable success getting economics majors into grad school. Right now,
the department has 13 graduates in (good) graduate programs, this with a
major base of fewer than 30 and a total college enrollment of about 1,000.
The department's method is mainly to get math majors to switch to economics
and then make sure that they get as much math and statistics as possible.
Not many students who take up economics to start with can cut all the math,
so they drop out. The economics majors who survive get a steady diet of
hardcore neoclassical economics. A friend of mine who teaches economics
there (he is an alumnus and taught at Bowling Green before becoming a dean
at my alma mater. He tired of administration and moved into the economics
department. He had been a math major before switching to economics,
although he at least a bit of a liberal) told me that the students at my
talk were in for a shock, as the department had not had even a liberal
speaker in many years.
It struck me in observing what was going on at my alma mater that the
situation in economics is much worse than I thought. What chance would a
radical student have to survive in an undergraduate economics program? Not
much of one. The way my old college is doing it must mean that this
approach is the road to success and must be being employed in lots of other
schools. Would a school like this hire a radical economist? No. Would an
economics major get any idea that there were other ways to look at the
material world? No. All of this got me to thinking what a horrible state
radical economics must be in in this country. I suspect that radical
economists are increasingly rare on our campuses and those who are there
are pretty damned old. Is there any hope at all?
I came away from my trip mainly depressed. One part of me still loves
colleges. It was in college that I first learned that it was ok to be
smart, that there was a world of ideas out there that I knew little of but
which was exciting beyond words. I still love to read "college" novels
(novels set in colleges and about academe). It is still thrilling to have
students say they loved my course or to see a student have that "a ha!, now
I see" experience. And I know and have written about good things happening
on campuses, such as anti-sweatshop campaigns. But I cannot help but think
that the colleges are rotten at their foundations. Business money and
values rule as never before. The colleges need to be changed root and
branch. As Peter Finley Dunne says: "Do you think the colleges have done
much good in the world?" And Dooley answers, "Do you think it is the wheel
that makes the water turn?" Sometimes I think that the colleges should be
closed for awhile and we should all go into the countryside to work.
Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org
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