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  • "All That Is Solid Melts into Air":Frank Donoghue, The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities
  • D. R. Koukal (bio)

Every year or two, a promising major approaches me about going to graduate school in philosophy, and I invite the student to my office for what I call "the talk." I tell my potential wisdom-seeker that I count myself as fortunate to be a teacher of young minds, that I find my research gratifying, that I savor the intellectual stimulation of my colleagues, and that, on balance, I wouldn't trade jobs with anyone. But then I somberly caution that though her studies have filled her with love of wisdom, she should think very carefully before making the serious commitment to pursue an advanced degree in any humanistic discipline. I tell her that securing a tenure-track position is unlikely, because today well over half of those teaching college-level classes in the United States are part-time instructors, with no prospect of tenure. These positions provide an abundance of teaching, but come with low wages, no benefits, no job security, and,more often than not, no office space in which to meet students. Furthermore, adjuncts are typically deprived of any meaningful relationship with colleagues, they are provided no funding for conferences, and they are robbed of the time needed for research or any other kind of professional development. "You will in all likelihood be denigrated, exploited, impoverished, worked like a dog, and exiled," I say sternly. "If you insist on doing this, adopt the attitude of a saint to be martyred and do it out of the blind faith of love, because there are no rational reasons to pursue an advanced degree in the humanities."

Frank Donoghue makes the same grim point and more in The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008, pp. xix+180, $65). Donoghue, an associate professor of English at Ohio State University, focuses on the daunting challenges facing new humanities Ph.D.s in an increasingly corporatized academy. The Last Professors is only one of the more recent contributions to the [End Page 227] growing literature on the crisis of the humanities in our universities, but Donoghue's book is unique in three respects. The first is its focus on the figure of the professor as presently conceived—as an autonomous, tenured, accredited scholar afforded the time to research and write as well as teach—and how the dynamics of the corporate university is undermining this image. Second,Donoghue explicitly eschews the rhetoric of "crisis" because he contends that professors in the humanities—as defined above—have already lost the power to save themselves and are irreversibly on the road to extinction; hence, the "fate of the humanities" of his subtitle. And third, he documents the degree to which the humanities have been complicit in their own demise. These last two points make The Last Professors an especially sobering read.

Donoghue's argument starts on familiar ground, where he traces out the history of capitalism's ambivalent and at times openly hostile attitude toward the humanities' place in higher education, starting with industrial giants like Andrew Carnegie, who denigrated the humanities as useless, and coming down to the Reagan era, when corporate America viewed the university as a vexing labor problem to be solved in the face of increasing college enrollments. In Donoghue's account, the "casualization" of academic labor started at this point, which marks the beginning of the dismantling of the American professoriate. But Donoghue's main focus in this history is on the constancy with which the techniques and vocabulary of business have been deployed to undermine the humanities, from the Gilded Age to the 1980s and beyond. Donoghue argues that the Tayloristic ideology of efficiency, productivity, and utility has come to figure prominently in academe and has driven the humanities into a permanently defensive stance. Relentlessly judged by a standard of "usefulness" defined in strictly economic terms,Donoghue claims that humanists have no ready answer to the question of, say, how the study of philosophy or literature could be considered "market-smart" in this...


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pp. 227-231
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