The thoughtful comments to this line of thought from a month and a half ago were so good and worthy of further discussion, I have been meaning (for looking at two months now!) to do a post to talk about them. Here we go:
I have long thought that this is why the notion of “overpopulation” is so prevalent among academics. Since we naturally assume that everyone else is like us, what other conclusion can one come to when one makes an appraisal of his life and realizes that the value of what he consumes is vastly greater than the value of what he produces?
I have generalized a parallel idea: that those who think it their jobs to direct the lives of little people think there are too many people once they run out of ideas on tasks to assign to us.
Here’s Woodrow Wilson, often quoted here, summarizing Our Betters’ view of our value, in a speech to a graduating class of – teachers!: “We want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.” Who is the ‘we’ in this picture? Who is deciding which difficult manual tasks are needed?
Wilson, nearly a caricature of the blue-blooded racist pig, is attempting to get the future teachers he is addressing to identify with him and his buddies. He will succeed: everybody wants to be a part of the team, and teacher’s colleges are set up by design to select those least willing to oppose the decisions of their leaders. Further, as Machiavelli pointed out in The Prince, when the time comes for dirty deeds, a prince needn’t worry about finding people to do them – courtesans are legion, and are desperate to find ways of ingratiating themselves to the prince. These are the people Bolt was referring to in A Man For All Seasons: “… those like Master Cromwell who follow me because they are jackals with sharp teeth & I’m their tiger” (Cromwell was just better at it than most; think rather of Richard Rich as portrayed in the movie) Packaging it up as ‘helping the children’ makes the pill go down easier.
In a world such as this, where success is measures in team membership and advancement achieved by the usual activities of courtesans, uneasy sleeps the head that wears the mortar board. On the one hand, you got the professor job, so you are a winner! On the other, nipping at your heels are scads of people who could do your job as well as you can. Since projection is the go-to psychological defence of the well-educated, you conclude, not that your job is not very valuable and your position tenuous, but rather that there are just too many darn people! Delicious.
Hard to find an academic now who honestly believes his role is to maintain the ideals of Western Civilization.
I was thrilled to hear a commencement speaker at TAC spell out exactly that: that the Great Books and Catholic education the students received was to prepare them to defend Western Civilization and Christendom.
The exploding heads and subsequent clean-up at a ‘normal’ college if anyone were to say anything like that is beautiful to contemplate.
Charles Pergiel contributed:
I suspect if we start cutting professors salaries we will soon end up paying nothing at all because there is always some wise guy willing to do it for less. And then colleges will start going the way of newspapers. College’s biggest value is in maintaining the ideals of Western Civilization, and that might require paying professors real money.
I think in some ways the burgeoning opportunities for adjuncts and graduate teaching assistants is running exactly that experiment. In the old days, when 10% or so of people went to college, instead of the 50%+ we have now, and the scions of the rich were overrepresented in that 10%, AND colleges required few expensive labs AND admin was a fraction the size of teaching staff, AND government make-work programs hadn’t yet created professorships in Studies and related fields, THEN not only could the much smaller number of professors be counted on to, for example, know Greek, Latin, History, Logic, etc., but they could receive comparatively fabulous salaries and get tenure. Now? Just as the professors who actually knew something were outnumbered by those who merely parrot the party line starting about 30-40 years ago, professors who need the money will be replaced by those who don’t.
Something I’ve not written much about here is how low salaries can be used to limit jobs to the ‘right’ kind of people. The wrong kind of people need to make a living, because A. they are not independently wealthy; and B. they want to have something approximating a normal life. Low paying/high prestige jobs end up going to people who either A. are independently wealthy, and thus more likely to be on Team Woodrow already; or B. people who have little or no desire to live an approximately normal life.
I first began to understand this feature of modern employment when, around age 30, I attended a talk by a retired US ambassador and State Department lifer at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. Prior to the 1960s, those overseas embassy jobs tended strongly to go to the sons of the wealthy – just the thing to introduce Skippy to politics and broaden his horizons. For the entry-level positions, the salaries were very low, too low for any but the independently wealthy or ascetically fanatical to accept. Thus, normal people, a man who aspired to a wife, home, and family, for example, simply could not take these jobs. They were securely reserved to the rich and their dedicated courtesans. Just as they should be, from the Woodrow Club’s point of view.
Similarly, journalism – a title, like ‘educator,’ that seems to have been made up to provide more gravity to a fundamentally simple and personal occupation – is peopled largely by folks willing to be woefully underpaid, with the same result: a startling uniformity of opinion on just about everything. (That there’s never been much money in telling the truth is hardly a relevant fact for the would-be next Cronkite.) Journalists, appalled that relatively normal people are willing to do their presumed job for them for free, want desperately to recast their role into some sort of public servants, to be subsidized for our own good.
Like professors, say.
Finally, Brandon Watson checks in:
It’s obviously not something talked about a lot with non-academics, but when academics get together and talk, it sometimes comes up explicitly. While there are exceptions, a lot of fields have been glutted for a time right now, and it’s hard to give a reason, other than luck of timing, why they have a tenure-track position and someone else is an adjunct — all the ones who are honest will admit that they know at least one person less well off in position but more talented than they are.
And the whole thing is worse because academia is a reputational field — everything depends on your reputation, and so anything that could possibly threaten that is a threat to your career. But at the same time, there’s really not much you can do to build reputation without being able to get your hands on a lot of money. It’s why science faculty spend endless time writing grant proposals and humanities faculty are always desperate for another conference on a faddish topic (excuse me, thriving topic of research).
Always informative to hear from someone on the inside. Thanks.
I like the term ‘reputational field’ as well as the observation that gaining a good reputation is outside the direct control of the academic himself. All he can do is pitch hard for grant money, write ever more outlandish papers, and perform ever more ‘challenging’ and ‘subversive’ studies. Nobody is gaining a reputation by authoring a paper based on the idea that Shakespeare was really good, or that the use of proper English is an aid to communication, or that progress is intermittent, uncertain and in any event hard to define; nobody is cutting to the front of the line because their study showed hard work and discipline are more important than skin color in success today, or that girls are just different from boys, (those last two, on the contrary, will get you hate-mobbed out of a job). No: to gain the reputation that gets you ahead you must write papers claiming there is no biological difference between the sexes, that 6’5″ 350 lbs left tackles who move like ballerinas and can bench press a Buick are all men because something something oppressive hegemony. Or similar.
A reputational field where gaining a reputation is largely outside the power of the individual will be ruled by intrigue. It is a courtesan environment, where knowing who is in power and what they want is the real key to success. Being merely talented but not playing the game just makes you a road bump on somebody else’s career path.