From Michael Yates (on academia)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
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 colleges–leadership. 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:

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