Lost Professors

In front of my desk at home sits a chair.  That chair came to me when Gorgias Press was subleasing some of its office space and was necessarily divesting itself of unnecessary furnishings. Gorgias Press came to inherit the chair with the closing of the for-profit Katherine Gibbs School of Business, a branch of which leased half of the building.  I sit in that chair, contemplating the future of education.  I have just finished reading Frank Donoghue’s The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities (as recommended by my friend Marvin).  Despite the fact that it is the first academic book I can recall leaving me in tears, it is a book every Ph.D. and potential Ph.D. in the Humanities should read and/or be forced to read.  Buck the trend!  Buy a book!  Donoghue is a rare individual who actually takes time to research what is going on in higher education and who has the courage to report it directly.  My regular readers will know that for nearly two decades I worked in higher education, spending every one of those years hoping that the next year things would get better.  Thank you, Dr. Donoghue, for speaking the truth.

I didn’t enter higher education as a child of privilege.  My career ambitions in high school were to be a janitor.  Encouraged along the way by well-meaning teachers and professors, I eventually found a job (lackluster as it was) in higher education.  What I didn’t realize is that the game had been rigged.  I recall being told with crystalline clarity that college and university positions were headed for a vast turn-over in the 1990s and jobs would be abundant.  Donoghue heard that story too.  His research shows that the writing had been inscribed on the wall as early as the 1970’s (before I reached high school) that this would not happen.  This is not hindsight either; studies were already indicating that higher education was going after the vaunted business model of the glitzy for-profit world.  Shiny baubles.  Worse yet, the roots of this inevitable transformation reached back to the Civil War and the nation that emerged from it—replace the dead on the battlefield with the dead in the factory.  Only only method of judging value existed: money.

The most disturbing aspect of all of this is the irreversibility of this trend: in today’s world only one value system is admitted, and it is purely material. No other way in higher education is capable of assessing worth. Rather, the alternate ways are being ruthlessly silenced by the transformation of university to corporation. That transformation was well underway long before the 1970’s, of course.  I had recognized at a young age that capitalism is a cancer that eats away the soul of people, convincing them that financial success is the only goal worth pursuing. I protested.  I spent years earning a doctorate in the Humanities to show that other values still throbbed away in the hearts of those who weren’t taken in by shiny baubles.  If you have any interest in resuscitating the human spirit, read Donoghue and weep with me.  The only consolation that I have is that I am sitting on a chair of a for-profit school that fell victim to the value system it once supported.  Capital and cannibal are too close for comfort.

12 thoughts on “Lost Professors

  1. Erika W.

    Maybe Donoghue presents conflicting info in the book, but it seems like the high-end private liberal arts schools are sticking with their program and the public schools are trending toward tech and business. I am wondering if a solid liberal arts background is going to become a class distinction in the future- kind of like basic literacy in the 18th century. At any rate, I plan to read the book this summer.


    • Steve Wiggins

      I have no doubt you’ll succeed, Wulfila. I do hope there’s a job waiting for you at the end. We have to do what we have to do!


  2. Too much of anything is just that – too much. We need business, but we need the humanities, too. I returned to school later in life to complete the degree I wanted, rather than the one my parents tried to force down my throat in my early years. Hence I have a BA in Arts & Performance. The Humanities certainly are the step-children of higher education. Lip service, sure! They’ll take my money, but I got little in return. I was also deeply offended by the desire to promote political correctness over truth. Just drink the kool-aid and say what we tell you – then you’ll be fine. That probably works with teenagers and twenty-somethings. Those of us with a half-century under our belts don’t buy it. Ans some of us had to make do with a magna cum laude rather than summa cum laude, because we wouldn’t drink the preferred beverage.


    • Steve Wiggins

      Yes, Jane, there is still a need for the humanities. Although we don’t always agree, I think it is because education often confronts us with ideas we don’t accept. We do it because it is so human!


  3. “…education often confronts us with ideas we don’t accept.” That makes education sound more like indoctrination. Education should teach us to explore the world and express our observations – especially in the humanities. Math and science may have exact answers, but replacing a search for true expression with the accepted vocabulary choices stinks.


  4. I think the education system is out-dated. No longer do we need professors who teach the same thing all over the country (or the world, for that matter). Lectures can be recorded, transmitted and shared — even outside of the cold warehouse walls of academia. If you are interested in Humanities — learn it outside of college. Sure, we need some, but we don’t need armies of people teaching it — and the beauty of a free market is that it will show us that.

    I love the humanities. I am constantly disappointed by students choices to major in them. Worse is majoring in a foreign (living) language — that is a waste of an education. People need to plan for a life and plan intelligently. They need to examine what opportunities exist, the probabilities and stay flexible.

    My daughter wants to study art because it is fun — I am trying to teach her that after high school she has to start working or go to school to learn skills for a job. And in today’s market it is clear that the world has no plans to cuddle your desires.

    During my 12 years in Higher Education I was amazed at the scam the teachers union did to secure salaries, easy jobs and permanent jobs. It was a racket — full of politics. I was naive. I hope the internet destroys these institutions more quickly. (and as you know Steve, I speak with many academic letters behind my name — what a waste!)


    • Steve Wiggins

      I always enjoy your insights, Sabio. I’m not ready to call “allie allie in free” on Humanities in higher education just yet. Sure, they won’t get you a job, but they plant the idea that maybe there’s more to life than that. Of course, I’m not a great example, so consider the source!


      • Yes, they can plant that idea or the idea that life is meaningless or the idea that the only person who matters is yourself. It all depends on the author. Humanities is not virtuous — though, like religion and philosophy (may Ph.D. studies – ABD), people often teach them to because they want to make their favorite points. All fine and good, but if they can write books and we can choose to read them or not.

        Another point: I don’t think the Government should make any student loans. Instead, let the University make the loans and then if their customers fail to get what is promised and can’t pay back the loans, the Universities lose — not taxpayers. That will make University get smarter and the education will self-improve. They will actually start to make courses that give people jobs — cause if they don’t they will go bankrupt. As it is, Education is far from running in a free-market. No skin in the game, and everyone suffers.

        Sorry, I was on a roll tonight.

        Like you, I love humanities, philosophy and the like — I love reading and thinking about these things — I have rarely liked sitting in a class. My best education has happened out of schools. I think we can get it in ways that most academics don’t want to imagine. Sort of like all the waste in NGOs — students, for instance, go into Public Health so they can make 80-120K while helping the poor. And the policies they suggest require people just like them — surprise, surprise.


  5. In an interesting twist of synchronicity, I finished reading “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” by John Fowles just as “The Last Professors” arrived at my house in the mail.
    What struck me about “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” was that it was in part about the demise of The Gentleman in the wake of the industrial revolution. The main character, Charles, is repulsed by his future father-in-law’s suggestions that he take over the family business and go into commerce. Charles is a gentleman paleontologist- a revolutionary among the upper class because of his admiration for Darwin. He cannot stomach the idea of becoming a businessman even though he realizes that The Gentleman is becoming obsolete as The Businessman is quickly replacing him. What he knows for sure is that he won’t find happiness in the world of commerce. The future father-in-law even uses a Darwinist argument that a species must change to survive- meaning that The Gentleman must adapt or become extinct.
    It’s interesting because The Professor is like a 21st century reincarnation of The Gentleman. It is a person who is provided with the right life circumstances to be able to devote a lot of time to purely academic pursuits. It even seems to me that The Professor, being a person who not only learns but also teaches, is a more evolved species that The Gentleman. So the question I am hoping to find answered somewhere within the pages of “The Last Professors” is what will be the next incarnation? Personally, I am hoping for an archetype with a female face this time around. At least in the journey from Gentleman to Professor we got the “man” part out of the name. And while we’re at it, it seems like The Businessman is due for a trade-in as well. Bring on the new model!


    • Steve Wiggins

      Excellent, Erika! I agree, it is time for a new paradigm that reflects a more satisfying evolution. Time for me to order The French Lieutenant’s Woman.


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