How to fix higher education.

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July 27 2011 7:21 AM

Overeducated, Underemployed

How to fix humanities grad school.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

The journalist and writer Anya Kamenetz once said that graduate students are "really smart suckers," and I—as a Ph.D. who teaches at a liberal arts college—couldn't agree more. It's my view that higher education in the humanities exists mainly to provide cheap, inexperienced teachers for undergraduates so that a shrinking percentage of tenured faculty members can meet an ever-escalating demand for specialized research. Most programs are unconcerned about what happens to students after they graduate, and it's not pretty. In all likelihood, a humanities Ph.D. will place you at a disadvantage competing against 22-year-olds for entry-level jobs that barely require a high-school diploma. A doctorate in English that probably took you 10 years to earn is something you will need to hide like a prison term while you pay off about $40,000 to $100,000 in loans. Your consolation: deep thoughts about critical theory.

I can only recommend graduate school in the humanities—and, increasingly, the social sciences and sciences—if you are independently wealthy, well-connected in the field you plan to enter (e.g., your mom is the president of an Ivy League university), or earning a credential to advance in a position you already hold, such as a high-school teacher, and even then, a master's degree is enough. But this is not the place to remind undergraduates that most of them are out of their freaking minds if they are considering graduate school. I've done that elsewhere, and so have several others in the last few years. Now I'd like to suggest a plan for reforming higher education in the humanities that could, someday, make graduate education a responsible, ethical option for the students I advise, and students everywhere.

The first step seems reasonably straightforward:

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1. Get organized, or get crushed. Higher education in the humanities lacks centralized leadership. There is no equivalent of the American Medical Association capable of coordinated action in its own interest. We should therefore assemble a group of representatives from a range of universities, colleges, foundations, and national organizations such as the American Association of University Professors. Together they can developstrategies for addressing problems such as unsustainably escalating costs for students and their families, the lack of learning among undergraduates, the declining respect accorded the humanities, a viciously exploitative academic employment system, and an unconscionable waste of talent (comparable to allowing 90 percent of neurosurgeons to work as bartenders).

The academy is unlikely to respond to directives—in fact, it's likely to shrug them off. However, it's vulnerable to the collective choices made by students and their families. That's why a leadership organization should strive to better inform the public. Honest, potentially effective recommendations for reform would likely include some combination of the following:

2. Expose who's really teaching undergraduates. Reliable, up-to-date information should be available about the employment practices of individual universities. Prospective undergraduates and their parents should be able to choose institutions on the basis of who is actually doing the teaching: tenured faculty with a long-term relationship to the institution and the protections of academic freedom (necessary for honest grading), or an army of transient, ill-paid, hired-at-the-last-minute adjuncts and graduate students without terminal degrees who are retained primarily on the basis of high evaluation scores from students (traded for high grades and low expectations). This information should have an impact on institutional rankings and the standing of graduates. Eventually, that might begin to reverse the trend toward gutting undergraduate teaching (now about 80 percent off the tenure track). If parents come to know how their children are being shortchanged—at such great expense—they might support reforms aimed at reallocating resources toward teaching.

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