The End of Academia?

Check out this book review/article on yesterday’s New York Times Opinion blog by the famous professor Stanley Fish (famous for his work on interpretive communities and reader response theory): it’s called The Last Professor.

According to the book“The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities,” by Frank Donoghue, reviewed by Prof. Fish, academic life as we know it is on its last legs. Universities are being run more like corporations, and the old style academics (who, apparently, are pretty damn useless with all their knowledge of dead languages) are soon going to be a thing of the past. What do we have instead? More lower-priced but highly skilled adjunct professors.

I have to say, this does look like the universities around us. Adjuncts are often excellent teachers, and they get paid a fraction what we full-time, research-active (and often research-inactive, ouch!) tenured faculty get paid.

The review seems to even hold up as some sort of an ideal the University of Phoenix, which makes no bones about the fact that it is all about getting people trained and on the job market, not educated in a broad-thinking sort of way.

I just have to wonder, along with many of those who commented eloquently and somewhat sadly (as if this was the first stage of mourning for this lost institution of learning), what is lost. The ability to think broadly and critically, to synthesize and draw connections, is not going to come from job training. And whither the Ph.D. in this brave new world of adjunct faculty?

Interesting questions for interesting times.

The thing I think Donoghue’s book misses is that these events tend not to progress in such a linear fashion. Perhaps on an individual level Universities can decline and fall, but on an institutional level I think we see a historical rise and fall. To me, that means we have feedback mechanisms. And in this case, I think that we need to look at the role and rise of the rating systems. Now that university quality is being rated, and full-time faculty, research productivity, inspired students, and turned-on recruiters are part of a university and a departments’ allure, then I think we’re going to continue to see famous departments and star professors playing a big part in the future of academia. And of business. And of society.

We’ve just seen one such instance in the way that Henry Jenkins was wooed away from MIT to USC’s Annenberg School. That’s not the rise of the adjunct system. That’s concrete evidence that high-level academic thinkers have more value than ever.

Don’t count the big thinkers out yet. We need them now, more than ever.

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