From Great Universities to "Knowledge Factories": Another American Institution in Decline
[I first posted this on the Academe blog in December.]
Thomas Frank, perhaps best known for What’s the Matter with Kansas?, an examination of America’s new conservatism, has an article in Salon, “The New Republic, the torture report, and the TED talks geniuses who gutted journalism.” Toward the end, he writes this:
The new press lord’s deeds are all made possible by the shrinking significance of everyone else. Compared to the patois of power, the language of journalism is but meaningless babble. Compared to once having been a friend of Zuckerberg, no form of literary genius matters any more. Compared to the puissance and majesty of the CIA, we amount to nothing. We are playthings of the powerful, churned out by the millions every year from the nation’s knowledge factories. We are zeroes to their ones, ready to rationalize monopoly or rectal hydration at a moment’s notice.
We’ve been through all of this before, though Frank doesn’t write about that. The late 19th century press barons such as William Randolph Hearst also reduced almost everyone and everything else to insignificance (that’s the rationale for his San Simeon estate–its grandeur reduced even Hollywood stars to bit players). What’s different today is that, after a century of progress toward providing real and substantial security for the majority of Americans we are returning to an age of insecurity, not moving farther from it. After building the possibilities of careers with stability in all sorts of fields (including journalism and academia, the two I want to talk about here), we are moving toward emphasis on the freelance, the contingent, the (to put it the way corporations like to) consultant. Today, we are both those who are churned out and those who do the churning–all without resistance. All of us, in the eyes of the new elite, are quickly and easily replaceable.
Frank, in applauding the mass resignation of the staff of The New Republic recently in response to changes being made by a new, rich owner with no background in journalism (Hearst, to give him his due, at least learned the business he bought rather than just “managing” it from the stratosphere–though he, too, completely revamped his first newspaper for a new age), also calls the act “’Hopeless’ because, as The New York Times noted in a story about the changes at TNR, ‘freelance writers are in abundant supply’ these days.” This, Frank goes on to say, is the real story, writing that “It has been obvious for some time that the great age of magazine journalism is coming to an end.” For there to be great writers, there needs to be at least the possibility of stability of place and of income (see Virginia Woolf on this, in “A Room of One’s Own” and “The Three Guineas”).
But Frank is too narrow. It is not only the age of great magazine journalism that is ending, so is the age of great American universities (among other things)–and for somewhat the same reason. When the factory model is imposed, articles and graduates are but widgets and the workers are much the same, identical and easily replaceable. If part of the problem with magazines today is reliance on freelance writers, the same holds true for universities–where up to three-quarters of undergraduate courses are taught by contingent (basically freelance) instructors. As Frank writes, to understand this:
we would do well to take our rapidly polarizing class system into account—the insane arrangements that allow tycoons to buy presidential campaigns while journalists and intellectuals become glorified temps.
He leaves out universities, but they are being bought and sold today, too (look at the outsized influence of the Koch brothers, who increasingly have a say in who is hired in academic programs they fund). The professors have less and less influence, to the point where the former Chancellor of the City University of New York could write that “governance of the University on all matters rests with the Board of Trustees.” The owners, to the members of the new American elite, are the only ones who count.
As Frank writes, “they are geniuses—everyone tells them so.”