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Dissing Academia: From Casuistry to Common Sense

From: The Missouri Review
Volume 36, Number 3, 2013
pp. 173-184 | 10.1353/mis.2013.0071

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.

William Butler Yeats

On my first day of freshman comp in fall 1982, my professor, a man who eventually became a lifelong friend but at the time scared the hell out of me, assigned an in-class essay. The question: “What do you hope to gain from a college education?” The class put pencil to paper and scratched out the same answer: a job and, by virtue of lots of money, the good life.

My professor, dressed in the requisite herringbone jacket and polished loafers, perched on the edge of his desk, crossed his arms and efficiently took apart our notion of college as vocational training. He reminded us that we were attending a liberal arts college, and if we were in pursuit of marketable skills, we had come to the wrong place. College was about more than a paycheck after graduation. He hoped that we would leave with an education, not just a job.

We looked at him blankly; this was news to us.

As we writhed in our plastic chairs, he continued to speak of “spaciousness of mind,” “intellectual curiosity” and “joy of discovery.”

Where I got the faith and confidence to follow his suggestions and trust in the places college would take me, I’ll never know. I was paying for my own education, so I suppose I had the luxury of doing exactly what I wanted. Also, no one seemed to expect much of me. I’d spent my high school years in the Ozarks, where education wasn’t a priority. Less than 10 percent of my graduating class went to college. Many were thrown into the challenges of adulthood—keeping a job, maintaining a marriage, raising children—before they had discovered who they were and what they wanted from life.

I made the hazy decision to major in English, while most of my peers jumped on the computer science or business bandwagons, hoping after college to lock in management jobs with Wal-Mart, Dillard’s or Tyson, major recruiters on campus. And while it took me longer than my more practical-minded classmates to find my way, I eventually became a professor of English and creative writing at a small liberal arts college.

Like my former composition professor, I was what some today would derogatively call an “educationist,” a person who sees higher education as a means to creative growth and individual potential. It was an intellectual position that each year became harder and harder to maintain as the tectonic plates of higher education were shifting under my feet. Each year my college added more “career-ready” degrees and certificates at the expense of its liberal arts mission. My fellow humanities professors slowly disappeared from the corridors of the general classroom building. Faded world maps, chipped busts of great thinkers and reproductions of iconic artworks went into storage. And my college is not unique. For some time now, there’s been a dramatic flight from the arts and sciences to occupational and vocational areas.

Higher education is under siege, attacked on all sides by economic uncertainty, the pressures of globalization, a revolution in technologies, the breakdown of faculty tenure, the extended state of adolescence in young people and the challenges confronted by K–12 teachers to instill basic skills and knowledge. Media reports are full of apocalyptic prophesies of the future collapse of academia as we know it. Newspapers, magazines and the blogosphere swing widely from realism and cynicism to outright delusion as they question the value of a college degree. Public anxiety is at an all-time high over rising costs of colleges and universities. Suddenly everyone is an economist, offering cost-benefit analyses and an evaluation of what they abstractly call “the market.”

The media throws around statistics that confuse the argument. Yes, college is expensive and tuition and fees have grown three times faster than inflation, while salaries have remained flat. But the media would have us think that graduates are drowning in debt that they’ll never manage to repay. Students from the class of 2011 left college with an average debt of $26,000, while their...

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