There's good news and bad news in higher education today. The good news is that a university education can provide a pass, open to all, to the incredible bounties of the information age economy. The bad news is that the price of the pass can be the equivalent of a Ferrari, putting the average student into hock for a good chunk of his or her working life.
As the price tag of a degree has gone up, moreover, the quality of the product has gone down. Professors of literature, eschewing the classics, have taken to teaching courses on racism and imperialism, while sociologists discourse on the "social construction" of scientific truths in which they are equally unlettered.
The discredited doctrines of Karl Marx abound in the midst of real-world economic forces that are decidedly non-Marxist.
There is also a sense of irrelevance in much of academia. Liberal arts programs are in decline, while new technical schools have become an educational growth industry. Tenured professors become increasingly inaccessible to students, while low-paid graduate assistants assume the heavy burden of actually teaching.
The current issue of the academic journal Social Text offers a particularly illuminating example of the process. Couched as a personal memoir and written by one of the magazine's editors, "The Last Good Job in America" provides a portrait of today's liberal arts professor as slacker-in-residence. Its author, Stanley Aronowitz, was a labor organizer in the '60s who got his Ph.D. from an Antioch extension program and was recruited to the Graduate Center of City University by a '60s comrade already on the faculty.
City University is New York's publicly funded higher education opportunity for children of the working classes. Like other financially overburdened educational institutions, it is "downsizing," replacing full professors like Aronowitz with less qualified and lower paid teaching assistants.
Twenty years ago, City University had hired Aronowitz "because they believed I was a labor sociologist." In fact, as he admits in Social Text, this was just a scam: "First and foremost I'm a political intellectual ... [I] don't follow the methodological rules of the discipline." Following his own looser rules, Aronowitz created the "Center for Cultural Studies," a broad umbrella under which he could teach Marxist politics at his leisure.
From such a base, Aronowitz became an academic star, with a six-figure salary and a publishing vita to match. In today's faddish academic climate, it is totally in keeping that Aronowitz's chef d'oeuvre is a book called "Science As Power," which endorses the old Stalinist proposition that science is an instrument of the ruling class. A reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement was moved to remark: "If the author knows much about the content or enterprise of science, he keeps the knowledge well hidden." Connoisseurs of Aronowitz were hardly surprised last year when he and his fellow editors at Social Text published Alan Sokal's hoax essay, designed to demonstrate the magazine would publish pure gobbledygook, so long as it sounded postmodern and politically correct.
But Aronowitz is accurate enough in his most recent article. He does have the last good job in America. "What I enjoy most is the ability to procrastinate and control my own worktime, especially its pace: taking a walk in the middle of the day, reading between the writing, listening to a CD or tape anytime I want, calling up a friend for a chat."
Easy to do when you teach just one two-hour course a week, a seminar in -- you guessed it -- Marxism. On Mondays and Wednesdays, Aronowitz doesn't even bother to leave his house. These are days devoted to writing such things as "The Future of the Left" for the Nation. And the pay isn't too shabby, either. Of course, Aronowitz discloses this coyly, identifying himself, naturally, with the working class. "I earn more by some $5,000 a year than an auto worker who puts in a sixty-hour week." The last time I checked, an auto worker can make up to $40 an hour, which factors out to $2,400 a week (not including overtime) or over $120,000 a year. Then again, your average auto worker doesn't attend the assembly line just two hours a week, for only nine months per year.
Neither do they, like Aronowitz and his armchair comrades, tilt at the windmills of a capitalist patriarchy from whose teat they feed, trampling on academic standards and abusing the educational aspirations of their young charges.
But such contradictions -- a favorite term of failed revolutionaries -- seem to escape Aronowitz. He concludes his memoir with a call to arms, reproving to his comrades for not advancing their struggle militantly enough: "We have not celebrated the idea of thinking as a full-time activity and the importance of producing what the system terms 'useless' knowledge. Most of all, we have not conducted a struggle for universalizing the self-managed time some of us still enjoy."
Loafers of the world unite!