Suffice it to say that American higher education, as a general proposition, is embracing the values of the New Gilded Age. A growing number of American colleges and universities are degenerating into career training centers, touting unpaid internships while charging sky-high tuition, neglecting the liberal arts, and loading up on well-paid administrators and exploited adjunct faculty while shedding full-time professors.
These trends are disturbing in and of themselves. Moreover, they raise a challenging question: If universities are heading in this direction, what institutions, structures, and networks will help us to blend research, theory, and service toward creating a better society? And how do we create decent, paying, sustainable jobs to support this work?
Of course, the fate of the public intellectual in higher education has been a subject of debate for some time now, especially since the 1987 appearance of Russell Jacoby’s important book, The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe. Among other things, Jacoby posited that sharp trends toward narrow specialization in academic scholarship were creating a professoriate that is less relevant to the major public issues of the day.
Yup, one could argue that part-time college teaching jobs, unpaid internships, “non-stipendiary” fellowships, and assorted volunteer gigs offer outlets for expression and creativity. And between individual blogs, sites like The Huffington Post, and free websites, there’s no shortage of online venues for publishing or sharing one’s work.
The problem is that most people have this weird need for food, shelter, and clothing. “Exposure” and “contacts” don’t pay for those basic necessities. A little bit of job security wouldn’t hurt either.
During the coming months, I will devote some space to exploring this and related questions, incorporating a variety of new and emerging voices on public intellectual life in this plutocratic, New Gilded Age. In doing so, I’ll be talking about educators, researchers, activists, practitioners, writers, artists, and others who share a common, understandable concern that our society has no place for them.
As a central part of this inquiry, we need to consider strategies for change. Is it possible to reverse the bad course taken by so many standard-brand universities? Or do we have to think about creating new, sustainable entities that embrace a different, better set of values? If so, how do we go about this?
To the many readers who follow this blog because of its focus on issues such as workplace bullying, employee well-being, workers’ rights, and the like, stick with me on this one. Research and ideas matter, including within the realm of dignity at work. However, mainstream academe has not been a major driving force in calling for a more humane workplace, which means that we have to identify, support, build, and create the institutions that are eager to do so.