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Why Would We Want A Less Educated Nation? Defending the PhD

June 13, 2012, 3:45 pm

Clark Kent wouldn't really give up. He would DO something.

You who are beginning doctoral programs in the humanities and social sciences in the fall: listen up.

In September, you may have an experience similar to the one Nate Kreuter, now an assistant professor of English at Western Carolina State University, described last fall at Inside Higher Ed (November 21 2011.)

Kreuter’s “cohort was led into an auditorium….After the typical messages of welcome and run-downs of various logistical need-to-know, the graduate director delivered a very somber warning.” Of the cohort of more than thirty, “only perhaps 40 percent of us would complete our degrees and secure academic appointments. That 40 percent, he warned, would be lucky to find any sort of academic job, even off the tenure track, and even fewer of us would be fortunate enough to secure tenure-track appointments. And nobody, he practically promised, would get their dream job.”

Kreuter describes this, and numerous other messages of doom he received over the years, as evidence of the ethical approach to graduate education that his program had adopted in the face of a job market that was going from bad to worse. Did these warnings matter? Not really. The point of his essay is that none of the graduate students who were informed every step of the way that they were steering their careers into a brick wall really took the warnings seriously anyway. They just forged on, hoped to be the exception to the rule, and tried to believe in themselves, despite all those Debbie Downers on the faculty.

Of course other people in higher ed might say, given that Kreuter’s cohort was already enrolled, the warning came a little late. Of course they forged on! They were already there! Other programs send the caveat emptor much earlier. Over twenty years ago, a friend told me that she had received a letter from her Ivy League department in the acceptance packet telling her that she would probably never be employed in an English department (which was untrue: I have never known someone who attended this particular university in history, American Studies or English who has not gotten an academic job. Even the ones who, in the scheme of things, have really screwed up or are in obscure fields, get jobs.)

But why not start earlier and just kill your program so that no one is tempted to apply to it? Many critics of the Ph.D. would say that admitting a cohort of 30 at all when you know there will not be tenure-track jobs for them is an act of fraud or malpractice. I know one prestigious program in history that admitted no students last year. I know another that admitted a cohort of four, which isn’t even a cohort if you ask me.  On a panel I was on last April, when someone from the audience challenged restricting the admission of qualified applicants to grad programs simply because the job market was dismal, a co-panelist barked at him that it would be “irresponsible!!!” to do otherwise.

The logic of this seems impeccable: after all, you wouldn’t suggest to a young person that training to be a telephone operator is a good idea. But intellectuals aren’t telephone operators. So what’s the problem? When did we decide that higher education was as dead as Ma Bell? And why can’t we make something positive of this intense desire to succeed that graduate students exhibit as they transform themselves into intellectuals? I would like to propose that the “problem” is not the job market, or graduate students entering doctoral programs with blinders on.

The problem is a colossal failure of imagination on the part of senior scholars.

Furthermore, many fine intellectuals who teach in the best, the almost best, and run-of-the-mill doctoral programs are suffering from a collective amnesia.  What happened to most of the people in their cohorts who did not get academic jobs? They made careers doing other things. If today’s PhDs cannot understand how to do this, it is because we are not making it a priority to teach them how.

Because of senior scholars’ resistance to change, we seek answers everywhere but in the acts of transformation that could make people with Ph.D.s more broadly employable. Instead, despite this year’s little job recovery, many of us who are already employed seem to feel that it is incumbent upon us to steer younger people away from doctoral programs.  Senior profs kvetch and moan about the world, as we know it, being over (actually, that world has been gone since the late 1970s.) Graduate students and the anxious unemployed, who have been trained up in the ancient view that all scholars without tenure are failures, leave fearful, and sometimes bitter, comments on blog posts about how they have been snookered.  We do little or nothing to correct them except to say that we never should have educated them in the first place.

This is wrong, and we need to fight back.  I propose that we need more Ph.D.s, not fewer; we need smarter and better educated citizens, not more ignorant ones.

Responding to the current employment crisis in higher ed by withdrawing education is a huge mistake, and demonstrates only one thing. In an effort to prove how truthful and responsible we are, and to reduce our complicity in the unemployment problem, senior scholars are failing miserably at our primary responsibility, which is to redefine what can be done with the Ph.D. and what a doctoral education for the 21st century should look like. Instead of agreeing with graduate students that what they learn in seven years of intense study is of no earthly use outside of academia (do we really think that what we do is so useless?), we need to articulate forcefully that doctoral education serves social purposes beyond university walls.

Senior scholars are currently exhibiting an unnerving tendency to crumple up every time a frustrated graduate student or unemployed Ph.D. is at a career impasse. This too has kept us from clearly, and collectively, thinking through the problem. Instead of asking younger people to defer gratification, or be satisfied with a less materialistic life in exchange for study, we tacitly support their position (one nobody over the age of 50 actually believes) that if you are not well on the road to prosperity and a full-blown adult life by the age of 30, you are a failure.

Most of all, university scholars who want to bail on Ph.D. programs need to ask themselves this question: why are so many resources and so much planning going into educating Americans up to the level of an Associate’s degree while simultaneously, support for the traditional four-year liberal arts degree and graduate education seem to have evaporated? Why are MFA writing programs — surely one of the most difficult degrees to convert into monetary success — proliferating while doctoral programs are being asked to, as we used to say on the playground, assume the position?

It is simply unproven that a nation of autodidacts is just as smart and capable as a nation of people with advanced degrees in the arts, sciences, humanities and social sciences who have been carefully mentored and taught by people who know what they are doing. As the scholar who was shot down by my copanelist argued, what does it say about us as scholars when we decide to make education less available to students?

I agree. I don’t think there is anything ethical or responsible about not fighting for a more educated nation, and one in which we educate people in their twenties as deliberately as we educate those who are preparing to go to kindergarten or the ninth grade.

Would you tell a group of ninth graders that only fifty percent of them were likely to graduate from high school (which happens to be true in some districts.) So why would we tell a group of people just admitted to graduate school, who have come before us because they are excited about books and ideas, that they are simply in the waiting room of failure? Why do we define employment in the higher education industry as the only useful outcome for Ph.D. candidates when we know perfectly well that lots of people turn the Ph.D. to another purpose entirely? Why do we not look around us at the many uses a Ph.D. in any social science or humanities discipline has and re-think our curricula to support those choices?

I’m not just talking about creating programs in museums, archives and public history here.  I’m talking about making the Ph.D. a route to public service and publicly engaged intellectual work.  Even as journalism is contracting, web publications are expanding.  There seem to be no shortage of policy jobs, think tanks, politicians who need advisors, non-profit organizations and internet startups.  And you know what? People with Ph.D.s can teach high school too: historically, quite a few have done so.  What would be wrong with a group of high schoolers having a history teacher who wasn’t moonlighting from his real job as assistant lacrosse coach? Or better yet, had credentials and experience in the field (as we might demand of someone teaching automobile repair)?

So let’s open the floor for discussion, and crowd source a way to bring Ph.D. programs into the 21st century that we are actually living in.  If we take it off the table that doctoral education is a waste of time unless there is a tenure track job waiting with your name on it, what future can we imagine?

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