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Collapse of Academia

While writing Issues of Class, I thought a lot about my personal experience and the path that led me here. I once dreamed of being a tenured professor of Biology but saw early on which way the wind was blowing.

When I was a kid, I liked to catch snakes. You could dream of studying herpetology and having a career becoming an expert in the natural history of actual organisms. When I was in third grade, I decided that was what I was going to do.

When I got to be about a junior in college, I started looking at graduate school opportunities and job opportunities. What I found was that essentially all of the future of biology was in cellular and molecular biology. That was where the funding opportunities were and universities were pushing faculty assiduously to pursue external funding. There were a small number of jobs for someone who wanted to study organisms, but I could see that I was unlikely to be the 1-in-a-hundred or 1-in-a-thousand that got one of those jobs. So, in 1985, I turned aside from graduate school.

There have been an abundance of former academics describing their abject despair about moving on after realizing what's happening. In Write like a Motherfucker the author links to this classic flameout

But how did this happen? Colleges and universities have more students than ever—and charge higher tuition than ever—so whither the humanities professorship amid all the resort-like luxury dormitories and gleaming student centers? Is the humanities professorship extinct because at this very second, thousands of parents of wide-eyed college freshmen are discouraging them from taking literature, philosophy, foreign languages or history (the disciplines that comprised a college education in its entirety for thousands of years, but whatever), even though quite unlike humanities Ph.D.s, humanities B.A. degrees are actually among the most hirable? Or is it, as Rosenbaum and others have suggested, that the overproduction of obtuse torrents of jargon has caused my profession to hasten its own irrelevance?

I never became a tenured professor. I eventually went back to school in Science Education, the Internet happened, and I found engaging work at the intersection of Biology, Technology, and Science Education. I ended up in a pretty good place, but it was never really through planning: it was more like falling into a river and clinging to bits of flotsam and jetsam until it fetched up somewhere that seemed comparatively secure. But no place really looks secure these days.

For my entire career, higher education has been slowly collapsing. But it's only recently that people have put together what's actually happening. Since the plutocrats and oligarchs began diverting more and more of the world's wealth into their own coffers, public funding for everything, including infrastructure, science, and higher education, has been increasingly cut.

Universities responded creatively to weather each individual crisis in a slow-motion race to the bottom. They began increasing the amount of teaching done by slave-labor graduate students. Then they began replacing tenure-system with non-tenure-system faculty. They gradually increased class-sizes. In a thousand ways, they economized by cutting and trimming, looking for ways to make the experience cheaper without making it unacceptably bad.

At the same time, they began charging a larger and larger fraction of the cost to parents and students. It's a bitter irony to hear people talk about how higher education is so much more expensive now -- as if somehow the cost of educating students has increased. We actually spend much less now per student than we did 10 or 20 or 30 years ago. But it used to be seen as a public good to enable everyone to rise to their full potential. Those days are long over. Essentially all institutions of public higher education receive the majority of their funding from other sources than the public. Many might as well be private.

The irony that people pay more for less isn't lost on anyone who understands what's happening. Clay Shirky talked about how your massive open offline college is broken. He watched as the forces of globalization swallowed the newspaper industry, in spite of clear warnings of what was going on. Now what on the surface look like the same forces are threatening higher education.

The difference is that what's destroying public higher education is not really competition or globalization -- it's the defunding of the public sphere. At the same time business people talk about lack of skills or the need to bring in educated workers because American workers lack the skills, we've increasingly put education out of the reach of a growing body of people. And made it so bad, you might as well just read wikipedia by yourself in the basement.

My only consolation in watching the rich people, like Bill Gates or Nolan Bushnell, trying to remake education without a clue is being able to see, in advance, that it's doomed to failure.

We already know how to educate people well: our problem is that the only goal these days is trying to do it cheaper without making it unacceptably bad. Get used to it being unacceptably bad.