When I was 18, I was living in a shelter for runaway and abandoned youth. My employment opportunities were pretty much limited to re-stocking groceries, loading delivery trucks, and working assembly lines. Naturally, I wasn’t very content with the situation. The future appeared bleak and hopeless, and I was desolately aware that I was lacking the education to change it.
Two years earlier, I had dropped out of school. At first, it hadn’t seemed like much of a loss. I had split most of my hours in school between the principal’s office, killing time in the restroom, and daydreaming in class. Also, I had resented the disciplinary structure of school and couldn’t wait to leave it behind. But after some time out of school, I’d begun to miss the good old days. My new prospects were dead end jobs, the new authority figures were social workers and sadistic supervisors, and my new peers were engaged in constant narcotization, petty (or not so petty) crime and even occasional prostitution. But most importantly, I was ignorant, uneducated, and painfully aware of it. I was unable to grasp the world and my place in it. Lacking the concepts to order and communicate my thoughts, I was overwhelmed by feelings of anger, inadequacy, and shame.
The way I saw it, there was not much of a choice. I had to educate myself. It was not to earn a degree, as a means to earn a promotion, get a raise, or obtain an office with a view. Education was a life buoy, an indispensable tool to gain control. And so, I went to work. After obtaining a studio apartment in a housing project, I began a regimen of intense autodidacticism. For three years, I studied, studied, and studied some more. I read everything I could get my hands on, regardless of academic field or target audience. Of course, I ran into some of the same dead ends, the same difficulties and frustrations that had caused me to give up the first time around. But this time I would return to the books on the very next day. Too threatening was the alternative, too tempting the reward. Wealth, success, and respect would surely be waiting for me, if only I would summon the will to go on. And go on I did.
After three years of this monkish existence, I had finally earned the right to attend college. And something else had happened. The challenge of the past had turned into a passion. I was excited about studying, and eager to learn about new topics. An infinite world of knowledge was only waiting to be conquered. So deep was my love for education that I decided to turn it into a profession. I would engage in the noble and heroic task of groundbreaking research. I would generate knowledge, contribute to the heritage of mankind, and teach others. Many years later, I had gone as far as I could in my formal education and earned the right to add those esteemed three letters “Ph.D.” to my name. But what should have been an enormous triumph felt flat, overrated, and insignificant. I still went on, a little longer. I sent out applications, pouted my lips and kissed the voluminous asses of established academics—all in a desperate hope to obtain some powerful letter of recommendation, some string-pulling, or some other miracle that would grant me a shot. I still failed to understand how far removed I was from the minuscule population for whom academia is a worthwhile endeavor. Eventually, I admitted to myself that I was chasing something that I, in fact, no longer desired.
No doubt, my pursuit of education has come with great rewards. It has completely altered who I was and who I could hope to be. It has enriched my life in unforeseeable ways. My love for knowledge, my conviction of its supreme importance, and my commitment to lifelong learning remain undiminished. However, my belief in academia has not endured. It has been replaced by deep disillusionment, and the insight that social upward mobility through higher education is largely a myth. After multiple degrees, after various competitive scholarships and academic awards, and after considerable student loans, I was still working long hours with little or no pay, no appreciation, and virtually no chance of ever obtaining one of those desired tenure-track positions. After having become a father myself, I was still being infantilized by senior researchers, mostly the same old, white men that have ruled academia since its inception. And after years of assisting and following orders, I was not one step closer to truly independent research. I could not change the realities of academia. But I could certainly change my willingness to put up with them. At last, I walked away.
I had approached academia with exceptional idealism or, more accurately, with exceptional naiveté. One might say that my disappointment was, therefore, idiosyncratic and of little general relevance. However, my experience is not limited to myself. In fact, it is not even confined to the relatively small population seeking access to the exclusive academic ivory tower. It is symptomatic of a crisis in higher education, which has far-reaching social consequences. The decision to go to college is no longer an obvious choice for high school graduates. And academia, as a career option, has become so unattractive that it will appeal to less and less, much needed, talent. As a result, not only the research output but the quality of higher education in
general will decline. Colleges and universities will continue to degenerate into self-preserving bureaucracies, which generate their main product, knowledge, at a rapidly diminishing rate.
The reasons for these developments are complex and manifold. But a few deficiencies are obvious. First and foremost, the world of higher education is nothing like a meritocracy—contrary to popular belief. It begins with unequal chances to even obtain access to quality education. Applicants’ social background and the ability to pay continue to be decisive factors. It is an open secret that admissions committees, especially at top institutions, are far from blind to someone’s family origin or social standing. Once the privileged offspring has made it into one of those illustrious schools, they have secured a decisive head start over the vast majority of competitors. Financing higher education through loans could only level the playing field as long as these loans could easily be repaid after graduating. It is obvious that, in the current age of lifelong student debt payments and highly qualified unemployed, this is no longer the case. Even among those who make it into college, the chances for success are far from equally distributed. Socioeconomic factors, as well as racial and gender biases, continue to matter. In fact, retention rates among minority students are much lower than among their Caucasian peers. Moreover, grade quotas, A-inflation, overwhelmed teaching assistants, and disengaged professors ensure that performances, as they appear on official transcripts, are often less than accurate indicators of actual merit and abilities. In addition, there is a busy and growing market, in which financially affluent students can pay for the A-papers they need to secure their prestigious degrees (I should know—I have written plenty of them).
And things don’t look better at the level of advanced degree students and junior researchers. True mentorship is rare, and most Ph.D. advisors are, naturally, much too important to dedicate significant time to prepare their protegees for the realities of the academic job market. While the idealistic notion persists that only the best and most competitive students can secure a career in academia, reality looks different. Nepotism and department politics influence access to research funds, co-authorships, and various other advantages. In the end, only a minuscule number of graduates will obtain tenure: this antiquated and counterproductive abomination of an institution, which secures lifelong employment, independent of continuous merit and performance.
The remaining lot will enter the purgatory of temporary positions (adjunct faculty, visiting professorship, or whatever they are called) without any realistic chance of ever finding the time or funding that would allow them to produce any research of significance. Even those who eventually land one of increasingly rare tenure track position must agree to travel far and frequently, domestically or even internationally, to wherever the next position becomes available. This nomadic, and poorly compensated, existence usually continues for several years, during which they remain the doormats of self-absorbed permanent faculty members. One must move far down the professional food chain to find comparably unattractive work conditions.
To summarize, higher education is in the midst of a deep crisis. It produces low-quality teaching and sub-optimal research. It provides poor incentives to recruit new talent. And it has lost its function as the main catalyst of social upward mobility. The consequences are severe. As higher education becomes more expensive, as its future benefits become less self-evident, and as it becomes a less attractive field to work in, less high school graduates will decide to go to college, less college graduates will seek advanced degrees, and less junior researchers will seek a career in academia.
Economists speak of externalities when the decision of one person affects the welfare of others not involved in the decision. The desire to acquire and generate knowledge comes with
significant positive externalities. The education level of the population rises, which has profound benefits. People become more competent, more knowledgeable, less prone to expect easy answers and to accept simple solutions to complex problems.
Quite the opposite occurs when the attractiveness of education decreases, and less young people decide to attend college. The main negative externality is the growth of ignorance, the same ignorance I found so debilitating in my youth. The result is incompetence, devastation, and the inability to grasp the complexity of the world and its problems. Many pressing social and political issues are closely associated with poor education. An increasingly divided population, the rise of resentment, populist politics, and widespread anti-intellectualism, which poses as anti-elitism, are just some of the most prominent consequences.
Academics are among their most vocal critics of these developments—and they deserve credit for it. However, they are far less prepared to clean up their own mess and to acknowledge their role in the ongoing dumbification. As long as higher education continues to be defunct, ignorance will continue to gain ground. And such ignorance makes the world an ugly and very dangerous place to live in.
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