When the Chinese historians write the story of America’s collapse, one of the most baffling, infuriating chapters will be the one on the dissolution of the Academy.
It’s an easy story to tell. Back in the early Sixties, parents believed in the value of education. They saw it as a sure ticket to a middle class life. Having had some college themselves thanks to the GI Bill, they figured this was the way for their kids to skip the years of dues-paying toil and go right to middle management. The kids went along with it, because it got them out of the house. Then, in the later Sixties, being in school was a good way to dodge the draft, so the undergraduate population boomed.
Say’s Law kicked in. The supply of undergraduates created a massive demand for professors to teach them, with the inevitable massive drop in the quality of the professors crash-trained to fill the vacancies. Real academic work is hard. Yes, even in the “soft” disciplines. In the field I’m most familiar with, History, you need, at minimum, a working knowledge of several modern languages, basic economics, statistics, a bit of military history, a horse-sense grasp of psychology, plus at least some training in pedagogy (how to teach). And the further back your subject goes in time, the longer the list gets. A medievalist, for example, needs at least reading fluency in four or five languages, both the modern tongues and their medieval equivalents, plus of course Latin (Classical, Medieval, and Church, which could be quite different), and then there’s palaeography (how to read old handwriting), epigraphy (how to read inscriptions), at least basic art history, a thorough knowledge of the Bible in all its various versions…
Or, at least, it used to.* Thanks to skyrocketing undergrad populations, universities had no choice — they had to slam half-trained people through. Which might have been survivable, had those half-trained people been anything other than Baby Boomers. A little learning is a dangerous thing, as Jay-Z said, and when you combine that little learning with a burning desire to change the world….
Academic standards went from bad to diverse. If there was no way to maintain quality standards training White kids with decent undergraduate educations (as, at least, the first generation of Boomer professors had), there sure as hell wasn’t any way to do it when the Diversity started flooding in. And so the typical undergraduate Humanities requirements, which back in the days were English, History, and Philosophy, got watered down and transformed — Women’s Studies, African-American Studies, American Studies, Leisure Studies (the latter two, God help us all, are 100% real). So long as you could knock together a thesis that sounded profound while managing not to piss in the punch bowl at faculty mixers, you were in.
Which resulted in “scholarship” that looks like this:
Within quantum mechanics, the science of the body in motion, the intricacies of the interiorities of mnemonic time – no longer an arrow – are being realized in the (traditionally) feminized shape of the body of the matrix.
But there’s hope, my droogs, even at this late hour. The academic bubble is nearer to popping than anyone thinks. There are three ways the Trump administration could burst it, two of them implementable (I think) simply by executive order. They are:
Repeal Griggs v. Duke Power. That might take a Supreme Court decision, but maybe not. Griggs said it’s rayciss to give potential employees IQ tests. It might be possible to set up some kind of nationwide testing scheme — hell, use the SAT — that would satisfy the “or equivalent” portion of “college degree or equivalent” (which is the main dodge employers use to get around Griggs now).
Push for trade schools. Trump has already made some noises on this front, I seem to recall. Electricians, plumbers, machinists, masons, artisans of all stripes… these guys make nice middle class salaries, and they can’t be outsourced. Trump could use the bully pulpit to rail against this totally unfounded idea that only slack-jawed yokels go into the trades. It’s an easy sell — we’ve all been in a situation, I’m willing to wager, where we said “damn, if only we had a mechanic here!” I’d wager an equal amount that no one, anywhere, at any time in history, has said “if only we had someone with a BA in Intersectional Latinx Poetry!”
End student visas. Saving the easiest — and most fun! — for last. Higher ed’s dirtiest little secret is that they now rely almost entirely on foreign students paying full freight. Did you hear the one about the Chinese kids at the University of Iowa getting busted for plagiarism, using ringers to take their exams (including Engrish proficiency exams), etc.? If you didn’t, take a look. I can promise you one thing: Those were not the sharpest knives in the drawer, either in Shandong or in Iowa City, because I guarantee you: that kind of thing happens at every single large-ish university in the nation. How could it be otherwise? I went to college back at the dawn of the Clinton Era, at a third-rate public school in one of America’s least intellectual states, and even we joked that you’d better brush up on your Mandarin if you hoped to pass chem lab. Eliminate student visas, and you’d be down to Harvard, Yale, and maybe Ole Miss (as a bonus, the BCS bowl games would be a lot more interesting).
None of these will ever happen, of course, but keep an eye out for sharp fluctuations in the yuan. Oh, and confidential to the NSA goon assigned to monitor this corner of the Internet: All those Chinese kids who jam around campus in their souped-up rice rockets with weird option packages they don’t sell in North America? Y’all know those are all second sons of ChiCom Party apparatchiks, right? If you’re worried about international tensions on the Pacific Rim, keep an eye on the ping pong tables at the student union. If they’re suddenly deserted, head for the fallout shelters.
*I’m certainly not exempting myself from this. Whatever little bit I know about the items on that list comes largely from my own outside reading. The institution — by no means bad, but far from elite — that awarded me a PhD wouldn’t have admitted me as an undergrad in 1962.