Wednesday, May 14, 2008

From the University Basement

In the June 2008 issue of the Atlantic, there is an interesting article by Professor X, “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower,” capturing some of the continuing problems and challenges besetting the university. Identifying him or herself as an “adjunct instructor of English,” Professor X comments on the process of teaching basic writing skills and the desire by the public to get a professional education (and the desire by the university to make money offering it).

Here are some sample statements. . . .

“Adult education, nontraditional education, education for returning students—whatever you want to call it—is a substantial profit center for many colleges. Like factory owners, school administrators are delighted with this idea of mounting a second shift of learning in their classrooms, in the evenings, when the full-time students are busy with such regular extracurricular pursuits of higher education as reading Facebook and playing beer pong. If colleges could find a way to mount a third, graveyard shift, as Henry Ford’s Willow Run did at the height of the Second World War, I believe that they would.”

“There is a sense that the American workforce needs to be more professional at every level. Many jobs that never before required college now call for at least some post-secondary course work. School custodians, those who run the boilers and spread synthetic sawdust on vomit, may not need college—but the people who supervise them, who decide which brand of synthetic sawdust to procure, probably do. There is a sense that our bank tellers should be college educated, and so should our medical-billing techs, and our child-welfare officers, and our sheriffs and federal marshals.”

“America, ever-idealistic, seems wary of the vocational-education track. We are not comfortable limiting anyone’s options. Telling someone that college is not for him seems harsh and classist and British, as though we were sentencing him to a life in the coal mines. I sympathize with this stance; I subscribe to the American ideal. Unfortunately, it is with me and my red pen that that ideal crashes and burns.”

“Sending everyone under the sun to college is a noble initiative. Academia is all for it, naturally. Industry is all for it; some companies even help with tuition costs. Government is all for it; the truly needy have lots of opportunities for financial aid. The media applauds it—try to imagine someone speaking out against the idea. To oppose such a scheme of inclusion would be positively churlish. But one piece of the puzzle hasn’t been figured into the equation, to use the sort of phrase I encounter in the papers submitted by my English 101 students. The zeitgeist of academic possibility is a great inverted pyramid, and its rather sharp point is poking, uncomfortably, a spot just about midway between my shoulder blades.”

This is an interesting window into the nature of what our universities do. You can read the entire article at

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"To oppose such a scheme of inclusion would be positively churlish.."

Pompous and provincially written, one can't help but also ask why professor X in this article, is in the 'basement' him/herself.

Sounds like Professor X needs to move on and maybe teach in an urban city high school instead. Oh the horror of it, inclusion?

[This is 2008...right?]