Q&A with Professor X

  • May 31, 2011

The author of "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower" talks to the Independent about what he learned as an adjunct professor teaching introductory literature and composition.

Does Everyone Need A College Degree?

“Professor X” interviewed by Erin Elliott.

Saddled with an unaffordable mortgage, “Professor X” took two adjunct teaching positions in English literature and composition;  one in a small private college and the other at a local community college.  His new book, “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower”, documents his frustrations with the college system and the sympathy he has for his unprepared students.  He argues that the same unbridled optimism that created the housing bubble has fed the idea that everyone should go to college, regardless of whether they can afford it or whether their profession really needs it.  Below, Professor X talks to the Independent about the questionable value of higher education for all.


Q.  Are there currently any practical curbs on the amount of tuition that a college can charge its students?

A.  No indeed. Colleges charge what the market will bear, and there’s no need to cut prices as long as demand is high—and it is. When we’re not guiding our children through their college entrance essays, we’re enrolling in our own extension courses. Does the phrase “lifelong learning” ring a bell?

In general the annual cost of attendance (tuition, room and board, fees) has outpaced inflation, and has crept over $50,000 at a score or more of schools. That’s steep. Community colleges and state schools offer cheaper alternatives, but their students tend to be those of lesser means, and even nominal costs can be crippling. Community colleges are the greatest bargain of all, but the growing perception of them as centers for remedial education can make them unattractive.

Q.  In the last chapter of your book, “Nobody Move”, you describe a standoff:  colleges want a profit,  students believe that they must go to college to get good jobs, and most industries believe that they need college-educated employees.  What are some possible solutions to the standoff?

A.  Wasn’t pointing out of the problem enough, now you’re looking for solutions?  I have to do everything?

Seriously, this is a toughie.  The colleges want enrollments, and industry loves the idea of a post-secondary credential for all—it saves them the trouble of actually evaluating the skills of job applicants in a meaningful way.

I can’t help thinking that the first step is for Americans to adjust their view of college, and perhaps develop a healthy sense of outrage. We’ve got to start asking basic, sensible questions. Why do aspiring police officers need 60 college credits?  Municipalities doing the hiring like the applicant pool to be run through an initial filter, that’s why. Colleges routinely say that they are turning out well rounded applicants who will perform better at any sort of job. Is that really true? We’ve been so in awe of colleges that we’ve given these sorts of assertions a pass.  We’ve chosen to see them not as businesses but as bastions of benevolence with our best interests at heart. We who are so smart and shrewd, so conspiracy-savvy, we who worry about whether Google is taking over the world, never question the colleges’ motivation for the push to enroll.

As of right now the colleges are in the driver’s seat. Employers won’t even look at you without that sheepskin. And so, as the Rolling Stones once sang, “Everybody got to go.” Unless you’ve got an alternate strategy to make money, unless you’re the plumber I seem to keep on retainer or the genius who invented the Snuggie or unless you’re fortunate enough to manufacture wraparound desks, thirty of which go in every college classroom, college attendance is non-negotiable.

Q.  In your view, colleges have “ended up expanding in ways that industry always expands: by jacking up prices, putting money into public relations, and broadening the customer base by marketing even to customers dubiously served by the product.”  Do you think that the college system requires regulation by an external body to prevent the admission of students that take on debt even though they’re destined to fail?

A.  Even though a case can be made that colleges are colluding—check out, for example, the eerie similarities in tuition prices among the top tier schools—I don’t think the United States can tolerate one more regulatory agency.

Q.  Four-year colleges are traditionally designed, at least to some extent, to produce an educated person who knows a little bit about everything.  But our society has become highly specialized and humanity’s total body of knowledge is now enormous.  To produce students that can be successful in the modern workplace, do colleges need to become more specialized?  Is there a place for the “renaissance education” in the modern world?

A four-year course of study comprises lots of different classes, approximately a dozen of which are in one’s major. Everything else is a hodgepodge of tradition, superstition, inertia, and somebody’s vague idea of what might be good for the students.  Some colleges require phys ed, some a foreign language. Some require a distribution of courses among the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Some require diversity training. I suppose that when all is said and done, nothing outside the core classes matters all that much. 120 credits are 120 credits.

“The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” “Shooting an Elephant,”  “Coming of Age in Samoa,” “Hope is the Thing with Feathers,” “The Interpretation of Dreams,” ”The Second Sex”—the warhorse texts of college study make fine reading for those who are interested, but are ultimately relevant to very few of us. Let’s stop making the American workforce pay for the privilege of experiencing them.

Q.  You argued that many of your students were in professions that probably shouldn’t really require a college degree.  But you teach introductory writing and composition.  Don’t all professions require the ability to communicate in writing?  Isn’t it appropriate to require that nurses and cops, for example, to be able to convey their thoughts (or at least their actions) on paper?

A.  Of course. But solid high school competencies are more than sufficient for a great many professions.  Clarity, organization, spelling, the use of appropriate vocabulary—it’s not the business of college to teach this stuff, and it’s fruitless to expect high level synthesis of argument from students who haven’t mastered i-before-e-except-after-c.

This is where I get in trouble with some Rhetoric and Composition professors, those who have an economic interest in large college enrollments and maintain that even poor students can be brought up to college speed in one 15-week semester . They think that I am a poor instructor and a fascist to boot, unwilling to see the potential greatness of student work that happens to be a bit raw. They think that I let a few infelicities of prose blind me to the brilliant arguments my students are making.  Because of a few misspellings, a few grammatical glitches, I’m missing the insights of the next Tony Judt.  All I can say is: isn’t it pretty to think so?

I keep hearing that everyone in America has to attend college so that we can compete globally in the 21st Century. I am told that a college education will be necessary to perform the jobs of the future. I’m not sure all this talk stands up to scrutiny. The business publications love to print lists of emerging occupations. Gene screener. Cyber security specialist. Sustainability officer. Organic food farmer. Quarantine enforcer—that’s basically a FutureCop. Drowned city specialist—because of global warming, naturally; let’s call this one a FutureContractor. Social media manager. Robot technician/mechanic—robots, Toyotas, what’s the difference? Animal guardian—a lawyer for our four-legged friends. Holographer. Hydrogen fuel station manager.

Granted, cancer research and rocket science will always require advanced degrees. But it’s not clear to me why many of these other speculative occupations should require college. I don’t see Psych 101 and Intro Poly Sci and College Literature (requiring an MLA-format research paper comparing Great Expectations and Huckleberry Finn) as being all that helpful to the rank-and-file sustainability officer. Science fiction aside, a good many of tomorrow’s jobs will be shockingly similar to today’s jobs, or even yesterday’s. We may no longer have a use for lamplighters or ice-persons or newspaper columnists, but we will surely need probation officers and bond traders and office managers and fire fighters and human resource specialists and retail buyers and television cameramen and a host of other professions that could be ably filled by good people who haven’t attended college.

Q.  Is there a single definition of “college level” work.  Who defines it?  Do you feel that it’s unacceptable to have an informal system in place in which students from community colleges aren’t held to the same standard as students of ivy-league colleges?

A.  I’ll adopt the old definition of pornography: I can’t define college level work, but I sure know it when I see it.

The distinctions I speak of aren’t subtle ones. When students can’t write a summary of a newspaper article from USA Today, when their essays are jumbled to the point of incoherence, when they choose to ignore basic formatting conventions for Modern Language Association-style research papers—they are not operating at a college level. I’m less concerned with distinctions between community college and the Ivy League than I am with classwork at all colleges adhering to a base level of post-secondary complexity.

“You’ve got to meet the students where they are.” I’ve heard this over and over, as though the entire problem were that my standards are impossibly high. I can teach students at every level, but if I’m meeting them in high school or junior high, I can’t very well give them college credit for it.

p>Q.  You state that your students “are suffering from some manner of despair.  Unsuccessful students grow up thinking not just that their work has no value, but that it never can have any value, and thus they cannot put in the wholehearted effort that college demands.”  Do you think that the damage of feeling unsuccessful in high school could be repaired by success in a vocational school or an apprenticeship?

A.  As I say in the book, I share many biases with my fellow Americans, and I am not quite comfortable with the idea of limiting people’s options so decisively. What is this, Dickensian England?  Words like “apprenticeship” leave a foul taste in the mouth, and the concept of “vocational school”—that one is nearly unspeakable.  Am I consigning the middling students to being colliers and laborers?

That said, we are–rather cruelly, I think–inflicting college on a great many students who perhaps would be better served elsewhere. We pack them off to two- and four-year stints in academe without the necessary skills, and they are bound, to use a phrase from Dickensian England, to come a cropper. Some would be happier on a vocational track, and would ultimately make more money; nothing mitigates feelings of being unsuccessful in high school like an impressive income.

Q.  Many nations use standardized test scores to determine which students will go on to universities and which will be routed to vocational tracks.  Do you think that the United States would be better off with such a system?

A.  I think it might be worth a try. Even better: let’s remove the yoke of a mandatory college credential from a host of professions. Honestly, though, I don’t see a system of tracking or sorting at the point of 12th grade ever happening.  The United States remains tangled in a skein of race and class consciousness and sensitivity, and we don’t have the stomach to set up such rigid boundaries—nor the faith that any system we enact would remain free of corruption.

Q.  You were sold a house that you couldn’t really afford and probably don’t need; your students have been sold educations that they can’t really afford and probably don’t need.  Did your plight make you more sympathetic to theirs?

I felt an enormous sense of kinship. That’s really one of the major thrusts of In the Basement of the Ivory Tower. The same sense of unbridled optimism (to put a positive spin on it) that brought about the housing bubble–that feeling that everyone, regardless of circumstances, deserves the chance to be a homeowner–prompts us to label everyone as a potential collegian, even those who, ah, need a great deal of remedial help.

Here’s a remediation factoid: on average, 59% of incoming community college students need to take remedial, non-credit courses to get up to speed. And of course, the need for remedial courses indicates that more is needed than just remedial courses. Remedial courses aren’t like driver’s safety classes—three hours on Saturday and 10% comes off the insurance. Anyone who claims that a need for remediation can be eliminated with one, two, or even three courses is deluded.

Many of my students struggle with the work. They have been sold a bill of higher education goods, but I can’t just pass them along to make it all better.

I want this book: Politics & Prose OR

comments powered by Disqus