Today, Rebecca Schuman wrote a worthwhile piece in Slate, “The End of Research in Wisconsin,” covering the academic outcry against Gov. Walker’s $250-million budget cuts and subsequent demolition of tenure at state universities. It’s mildly sensational Slate fare, which is to say, it’s well-written, informative, and disturbing. I think one of the main reasons we’re seeing upsetting stories like this about the “worth” of a college education relative to the poisonous fallout that attends it is because anti-intellectualism is a theme in American culture that has never gone away; though it’s never seemed this poisonous.
Consider: higher education has always been a battleground in WI (and just about everywhere else). We know that the collision of opposing values (and the economic landscapes created by those values) that emerges when government and academia vie for power is as old as the United States. Or we would know that if history was actually considered as valuable as STEM. The current STEM-fetish in the States is likely the invisible elephant in the room. But Shuman’s piece doesn’t get into that. Instead, she talks about how angry the University of Wisconsin faculty are at Gov. Walker’s maneuvering, citing the exploits of sociology professor, Sara Goldrick-Rab, who tried to strike back by warning incoming freshmen about the situation. Well, that’s interesting and dramatic, isn’t it?
Gov. Walker is probably interested in (1) consolidating power; (2) controlling high-profile programs (STEM–ever see an English department with a research budget in the millions?) that will be directly and indirectly lucrative; and (3) silencing all opposition. What else is new? He’s a politician. Do we expect him to have humanistic values? His entire worldview is based around trying to eat the appendages of his opponents without letting his opponents eat his. He is not interested in φιλόσοφος.
This is the same struggle going on in most state-funded universities throughout the country. This is the same collision of values we’re seeing (in a far more complex and apocalyptic sense) in the current presidential campaign. Sure, we should care about it; we should debate and discuss. Our policies should reflect our deepest beliefs. But college is not going away and neither are state governors.
The usual doomsaying is well represented in the media; though, many Americans still believe and will still believe in going to college, in tenure, and even in the humanities–despite the fact that self-help celebrity James Altuscher makes a pretty good argument to the contrary: don’t go to college because it costs too much. If all we cared about was ROI, yeah, I could agree. I guess that’s all many, if not most, people care about in the West: job skills, earning potential, stability. And who could blame them? They’re nervous wrecks, mostly because they’re in debt and jobs are scarce.
Still, I don’t buy the entire argument. You can’t commodify learning; you can only try to commodify what a particular degree is “worth” according to what the economy seems to be doing. For example, student loan debt in the States is ridiculously exploitative. Few disagree with this. And so when Altuscher says college is a horrible investment, he is more or less right. But sometimes an investment is horrible on one level and profitable on another.
How much would you pay to stay out of the rat race for 4 years, talking about ideas while learning how to communicate, lead others, and discover what really makes you tick? Sounds priceless to me. But maybe “priceless” doesn’t mean you want to go into debt for the rest of your life. When the anti-intellectuals use ROI as an argument against the Academy, what they’re really talking about is student debt vs. the state of the economy. And they’re conflating these things in an argument against all “useless college degrees” because humanistic inquiry runs contrary to the business values congruent with STEM.
But then, of course, there’s Penelope Trunk, a writer who often seems as damaged as she is imbalanced. She comes across mostly as an internet troll masquerading as a career advice guru. I’d like to present an impartial façade when I talk about her, but she’s good at what she does. Ten minutes on her blog and I feel horrible about the world because she does; she’s making a living off of it; and she is a strong writer. Sadly, all that learning she did in college has been aimed at destroying what made her. She is the vanilla Ann Coulter. And her perspective is where the University of Wisconsin controversy is destined to end.
Trunk has argued vociferously that graduate school, especially in the humanities, is now a frivolous pastime for the idle rich. She intensifies and extends Altuscher’s argument by saying that “non-science degrees are not necessary for a job” (the STEM fetish raises its head once again) and adds that “If you’re looking for a life changing, spiritually moving experience, how about therapy? It’s a more honest way of self-examination—no papers and tests. And it’s cheaper.” This, my friends, is the fine art of trolling.
She loves it: “I do tons of radio call-in shows where I say that graduate degrees in the humanities are so useless that they actually set you back in your career in many cases. And then 400 callers dial-in and start screaming at me about how great a graduate degree is.” And so I bring her up because this is the answer to what my friend, Al Cabal, has called “the end of America.” It’s not the end of higher education. It’s deeper than that. It’s the final termination point of our self-inquiry. As a country, at least in the media, we cannot bring ourselves to think past the trolling. Cabal puts it like this:
New York City just shut down the subways because of snow for the first time in the 101 years that system has existed. Twitter trolls are grounding aircraft. A drunken federal employee landed a drone on the White House lawn. The entire American police state has been built on panic driven by bullshit with low production values. Never underestimate the taste of the American public. If you doubt that, just turn on a radio to any contemporary music station. Watch the most popular TV shows. Tell me who the Kardashians are and why I should care. Google “Operation Mockingbird.”
Bullshit, indeed. In “The Great American Delusion,” Cabal writes, “When I think of the incredible hubris of this country and its anencephalic and heartless citizenry, I think of the Greek goddess Nemesis, and an old Elvis Costello lyric: ‘She’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake.’”
Today, in Wisconsin, academics are screaming because their privileges are being abrogated by a power-hungry state government. Today, in the United States, this dynamic is in flux on every level and all we hear are the trolls arguing an anti-intellectual bottom line so utilitarian that it would make George F. Babbitt blush.