July 21, 2017
In which the great Jacques Berlinerblau fields your questions about American higher ed
by Jacques Berlinerblau
So, a couple weeks ago, we reached out to the goodly and inquisitive people of the internet, with an unrefusable offer: Send us your questions for Jacques Berlinerblau—eminent educator and scholar of education, genial cut-up, erstwhile vibraharpist, and author of Campus Confidential: How College Works, or Doesn’t, for Professors, Parents, and Students—and he’ll answer them. And you did, and he has. So without further ado, here are Jacques’s answers to our favorites of the questions you submitted. Spoiler alert: This is great stuff. Other spoiler alert: The American system of higher education is in something like trouble.
Maybe in a way this has already happened. So many elite students from socioeconomically non-elite families attend a local and relatively inexpensive school. Or forgo college altogether.
Compared to what I, or the typical Professor/Fuddy Duddy (NB I, too, am a Fuddy Duddy), does to write a scholarly book or article, the research was easy. I was basically reading other people’s research, gettin’ my journalist on. I wasn’t camping out overnight in any archives. There was no complex translation from dead languages. No interviews with esteemed experts no one’s ever heard of. I think if people actually knew how much work scholars typically put into their research they’d vomit, a lot. But they would not vomit if they looked at the research I put into this book. No, Campus Confidential wasn’t about research. The hard part of writing this book was, well, writing it. I wanted it to be fun and funny — which required that I endure an ordeal neither fun nor funny.
This isn’t really an area that I know much about. But if I were to investigate, I’d seek out a different set of facts. Given that study after study shows the earning potential of a college graduate outpacing that of a non-college graduate to the tune of as much as a million dollars across a lifetime, I’d like to know how often our financial aid system leaves a person in crippling debt and how often it doesn’t. Just get some economists—these people are everywhere—and let them answer this question: how often does our system of financial aid work overall benefits in lifetime income for college graduates? How often does it system fail? In other words, I wonder if the policies in place work better than is understood.
True, earlier generations of parents used to want their kids to be lawyers or doctors. Nowadays, however, parents want their kids to be consultants, or work in the financial sector, or to learn how to code. I think it’s important to stress, however, that neither generation of parents wanted their kids to major in English Literature or Philosophy! Now, our job, as professors, is not to be mom and dad, but more like your pothead uncle or aunt. We’re basically the last people on earth who can get away with telling a twenty-two-year-old, “Follow your heart, Katelyn. Just follow your heart.” We impart that wisdom to Katie knowing full well, and believing in our own hearts, that that class on Thomas Hardy or Hannah Arendt will make her a more thoughtful person. It’s the thoughtfulness, we believe, that will help all the professional stuff work itself out.
I see what you’re saying. The solution hinges on colleges and universities actually caring about teaching. They’d invest in teaching, train scholars to teach well, help them improve and so forth. They’d also pay their scholar teachers a goddamn decent living wage. That would be expensive, but it would signal that the school knows what it believes to be important when it comes to instruction. Scholars would understand that students could whine all they want, but the institution had their (i.e., the professors’) backs. Under such circumstances, profs would be less willing to acquiesce to all the annoying things that every generation of eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds does.
I want to address the part of your question that asks how people pursuing higher degrees (e.g. doctorates) and not getting employed in their desired fields (i.e., receiving tenure-track jobs) deal with stress. How do they get through it all? Powerful tricyclic anti-depressants. In Campus Confidential I try to make sense of the experience of: 1) being in graduate school, 2) giving up ten (of the best) years of your life for a field that, 3) has no decent jobs, and, 4) no one really cares about anyway. I don’t know why so many of us do it. I wish I could say: because we so value teaching! But we can’t even say that. “Unriddle the mysteries of human nature!” as Kafka once said.
Jacques Berlinerblau teaches at Georgetown University, has written many books, and is an editor for the journal Philip Roth Studies. His newest book, Campus Confidential: How College Works, or Doesn’t, for Professors, Parents, and Students was published by Melville House in June 2017. Follow him on Twitter!