Academics cloning themselves – On being critical of everything except the system that grants you prestige (because *that* is the one non-corrupt product of the system)

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/24/2013

The Ph.D. Problem – Louis Menand

IT IS EASY TO SEE how the modern academic discipline reproduces all the salient features of the professionalized occupation. It is a self-governing and largely closed community of practitioners who have an almost absolute power to determine the standards for entry, promotion, and dismissal in their fields. The discipline relies on the principle of disinterestedness, according to which the production of new knowledge is regulated by measuring it against existing scholarship through a process of peer review, rather than by the extent to which it meets the needs of interests external to the field. The history department does not ask the mayor or the alumni or the physics department who is qualified to be a history professor. The academic credential is non-transferable (as every Ph.D. looking for work outside the academy quickly learns). And disciplines encourage—in fact, they more or less require—a high degree of specialization. The return to the disciplines for this method of organizing themselves is social authority: the product is guaranteed by the expertise the system is designed to create. Incompetent practitioners are not admitted to practice, and incompetent scholarship is not disseminated.

Since it is the system that ratifies the product—ipso facto, no one outside the community of experts is qualified to rate the value of the work produced within it—the most important function of the system is not the production of knowledge. It is the reproduction of the system. To put it another way, the most important function of the system, both for purposes of its continued survival and for purposes of controlling the market for its products, is the production of the producers. The academic disciplines effectively monopolize (or attempt to monopolize) the production of knowledge in their fields, and they monopolize the production of knowledge producers as well…

Disciplines are self-regulating in this way for good academic freedom reasons. The system of credentialing and specialization maintains quality and protects people within the field from being interfered with by external forces. The system has enormous benefits, but only for the professionals. The weakest professional, because he or she is backed by the collective authority of the group, has an almost unassailable advantage over the strongest non-professional (the so-called independent scholar) operating alone, since the non-professional must build a reputation by his or her own toil, while the professional’s credibility is given by the institution. That is one of the reasons that people are willing to pay the enormous price in time and income forgone it takes to get the degree: the credential gives them access to the resources of scholarship and to the networks of scholars that circulate their work around the world. The non-academic writer or scholar is largely deprived of those things. This double motive—ensuring quality by restricting access—is reflected in the argument all professions offer as their justification: in order to serve the needs of others properly, professions must be accountable only to themselves.

The hinge whereby things swung into their present alignment, the ledge of the cliff, is located somewhere around 1970. That is when a shift in the nature of the Ph.D. occurred. The shift was the consequence of a bad synchronicity, one of those historical pincer effects where one trend intersects with its opposite, when an upward curve meets a downward curve. One arm of the pincer has to do with the increased professionalization of academic work, the conversion of the professoriate into a group of people who were more likely to identify with their disciplines than with their campuses. This had two, contradictory effects on the Ph.D.: it raised and lowered the value of the degree at the same time. The value was raised because when institutions began prizing research above teaching and service, the dissertation changed from a kind of final term paper into the first draft of a scholarly monograph. The dissertation became more difficult to write because more hung on its success, and the increased pressure to produce an ultimately publishable work increased, in turn, the time to achieving a degree. That was a change from the faculty point of view. It enhanced the selectivity of the profession.

The change from the institutional point of view, though, had the opposite effect. In order to raise the prominence of research in their institutional profile, schools began adding doctoral programs. Between 1945 and 1975, the number of American undergraduates increased 500 percent, but the number of graduate students increased by nearly 900 percent. On the one hand, a doctorate was harder to get; on the other, it became less valuable because the market began to be flooded with Ph.D.s.

…What is clear is that students who spend eight or nine years in graduate school are being seriously over-trained for the jobs that are available. The argument that they need the training to be qualified to teach undergraduates is belied by the fact that they are already teaching undergraduates. Undergraduate teaching is part of doctoral education; at many institutions, graduate students begin teaching classes the year they arrive. And the idea that the doctoral thesis is a rigorous requirement is belied by the quality of most doctoral theses. If every graduate student were required to publish a single peer-reviewed article instead of writing a thesis, the net result would probably be a plus for scholarship.

But the main reason for academics to be concerned about the time it takes to get a degree has to do with the barrier this represents to admission to the profession. The obstacles to entering the academic profession are now so well known that the students who brave them are already self-sorted before they apply to graduate school. A college student who has some interest in further education, but who is unsure whether she wants a career as a professor, is not going to risk investing eight or more years finding out. The result is a narrowing of the intellectual range and diversity of those entering the field, and a widening of the philosophical and attitudinal gap that separates academic from non-academic intellectuals. Students who go to graduate school already talk the talk, and they learn to walk the walk as well. There is less ferment from the bottom than is healthy in a field of intellectual inquiry. Liberalism needs conservatism, and orthodoxy needs heterodoxy, if only in order to keep on its toes.

And the obstacles at the other end of the process, the anxieties over placement and tenure, do not encourage iconoclasm either. The academic profession in some areas is not reproducing itself so much as cloning itself. If it were easier and cheaper to get in and out of the doctoral motel, the disciplines would have a chance to get oxygenated by people who are much less invested in their paradigms. And the gap between inside and outside academia, which is partly created by the self-sorting, increases the hostility of the non-academic world toward what goes on in university departments, especially in the humanities. The hostility makes some disciplines less attractive to college students, and the cycle continues.

…And the academic world would be livelier if it conceived of its purpose as something larger and more various than professional reproduction—and also if it had to deal with students who were not so neurotically invested in the academic intellectual status quo.
If Ph.D. programs were determinate in length—if getting a Ph.D. were like getting a law degree—then graduate education might acquire additional focus and efficiency. It might also attract more of the many students who, after completing college, yearn for deeper immersion in academic inquiry, but who cannot envision spending six years or more struggling through a graduate program and then finding themselves virtually disqualified for anything but a teaching career that they cannot count on having.

It is unlikely that the opinions of the professoriate will ever be a true reflection of the opinions of the public; and, in any case, that would be in itself an unworthy goal. Fostering a greater diversity of views within the professoriate is a worthy goal, however. The evidence suggests that American higher education is going in the opposite direction. Professors tend increasingly to think alike because the profession is increasingly self-selected. The university may not explicitly require conformity on more than scholarly matters, but the existing system implicitly demands and constructs it.


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  1. Jeff said, on 10/28/2013 at 08:27

    I like this extract. There is a slight contradiction: ‘the non-professional must build a reputation by his or her own toil, while the professional’s credibility is given by the institution.’ No explanation is given as to why the professional’s toil is to be discounted. In fact, later on we are reminded of the Herculean toil involved: ‘What is clear is that students who spend eight or nine years in graduate school are being seriously over-trained for the jobs that are available.’
    Despite this minor point, the overall idea that academia clones itself at the expense of fresh ideas sounds somewhat convincing. It’s easy enough to imagine the keen grad students affecting a ‘please pick me, oh please’ aura. But cultural self-referentiality seems to be the basis for the argument, which is a claim that can levelled at any number of professions at any time. What makes this more pertinent to academia and particularly today? What I’m not clear about is why increasing the number of doctoral programs while making them harder to complete is responsible for (or is it increasing the tendency of) cronyism? Is any increase in cronyism (and only assuming there’s evidence to back up the claim that there is an increase) simply down to an increase in numbers? I vaguely remember an aphorism by Nietzsche that accuses academics of surrounding themselves with people who are just like themselves. Isn’t this a qualitative aspect of all work cultures at all times?

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