Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Tenure in Hired Education

I speculate about the contradictions of American Hired Education from the third floor of a villa in Weimar, Germany. Motivated by Christopher Shea’s excellent essay, "The End of Tenure,” New York Times, 9/5/10.) For the past decade (I’m 83.) I’ve savoured my creeping senility at Seifengasse 10. (Goethe lived at Seifengasse 1 two centuries ago: the place encourages perspective.)

My academic career of 30 years was atypical. It began in 1952 as I finished my Ph.D. in American Studies by teaching at East Lansing High School. (The most motivated students I ever had: professors’ and GM executives’ children, with a few blue collars to do the dirtier work!) My first “publication” was “Everyman in Saddle Shoes”in Scholastic Teacher, a plea to high school English teachers to assign their tenth grade students so that the new TV playwrights like Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling would be encouraged by a maturing audience.

It won me a Ford Foundation grant in New York City in 1955-6 to follow up these ideas in the then TV Center of America. I was also asked to become the radio TV editor of Scholastic Teacher to expand my ideas’ influence. I served for six years, until an appointment in 1961 as director of the new Institute for American Studies at the East West Center of the University of Hawaii made timely delivery of weekly “Variety” impractical. A serendipitous encounter at a UN Conference on Education in D.C. with Ralph Bunche and Roy Larson, publisher of Time, led to the offer of an office at Time,Inc. to facilitate my maneuvers. That led to an interview with NBC chairman Pat Weaver. His elegant motto to make every American a media Athenian (“Enlightenment Through Exposure”) could have been my program in a nutshell.

Add a new friendship with Marshall McLuhan, visiting professor at TC, Columbia, and I was off to the races. Marshall had been my unofficial mentor at the Jesuit University of Detroit where I had become a “Commonweal Catholic”. McLuhan’s book,”Mechanical Bride:The Folklore of Industrial Man”(1951), which had appeared as essays in “Commonweal” became my bible.

At a national conference in 1956, my speech on “Liberace and the Future of Cultural Criticism” beguiled three English professors from Trenton State into offering me a job. In 1957 I finished my Ph.D. and was awarded a Carnegie Postdoctoral grant to create a new course on The Mass Society at Penn. In 1958 Walter Annenberg gave Penn $2 million to start a graduate school of communication, where faut de mieux, I became the U’s gofer to the J Schools and media businesses.

I wangled Gilbert Seldes the dean’s job, poetic justice since his book, "The Seven Lively Arts” (1924) had turned me on in graduate school from a Jesuit philosophy major to mass culture critic. And I gofered for him. David Riesman promoted me for the Hawaii job based on my critique of his book on education. It, after gofering for Gilbert, was the best academic job I ever had, except I discovered that my #2 had been in the CIA for ten years. His secret job was to police US and the Asian students politically.

No thanks. We had left a new Louie Kahn house in Philly, and based on my monthly English Journal column, Carnegie Mellon’s Erwin Steinberg recommended me for English chairman at Beaver College. A heady rise. Assistant Professor, Ivy 1959. Associate Professor, Director, State U, 1961. Chairman,Full Professor, Small College, 1962. Tenure, 1964. A cynical buddy teased me: "You have just turned Horatio Alger on his head: From Ivy to Nowhere in three years!!" I recapitulate, not to brag, but to emphasize I never fretted about tenure. I was too busy trying out new ideas. I quit in 1982, after my mother died, to be a freelance critic.

But this was also a prolegomenon to what I observed in those thirty years that formed what I think about American Hired Education. First of all, the crisis in our educational system is at the bottom not the top. You can’t build a strong top on a wobbly bottom. The egalitarian scandal of million dollar U presidents and mega thousand tenured professors living off the sweat of their peonized adjuncts replicates the rottenness of how we differentially serve our lower orders. Money for suburban schools, peonage for the city’s poor. Starting long ago, but accelerating crudely and cruelly since the 1970’s, Higher Ed became more and more Hired.

Ph.D. mills proliferated. Willy, nilly. Beaver College (now magically renamed Arcadia U) now offers doctorates! While I was there, they had to strain to give decent B.A.’s. Education inflation is the worst kind of Bubble. It corrupts the entire purpose of education. Which is not escalating salaries but enlightening human beings. It is not burgeoning one’s sports complexes (for graduate loyalty and donations) but building one’s library and expanding aid for poorer students.

I watched in horror at Annenberg how faculty cowed itself before the billionaire donor whose office desk had the sign. I WILL SO LIVE MY LIFE AS TO HONOR THE MEMORY OF MY FATHER. But his father Moe was a thug who ended up in federal prison for income tax evasion. When I publicly tangled with Walter over the Inquirer’s censoring the Black Clergy’s TasteeKake boycott, Penn's President and tenured professors quivered in their boots.

My neighbor at Greenbelt Knoll, the Rev. Leon Sullivan--the leader of the Boycott--had mocked me for Annenberg’s donating millions for raising media standards yet censoring his boycott. Annenberg students, with the ink on their M.A.s still fresh, asked me why Walter had such a bad rep as an employer. He was the worst publisher the Inky ever had in my fifty years in Philly. Academics are the biggest cowards I’ve ever encountered! They don’t deserve tenure which is supposed to give them courage in their search for truth. Give me an I.F.Stone (who dropped out of Penn!) or Nat Hentoff any day.

Or give me Dan Rottenberg or Derek Davis, my editors for ten years at the “Welcomat”, where I wrote about weekly what I saw in “Hazard-At-Large” even if it upset the gays or the Jews if I revealed some details they’d rather ignore than deal with. Tenured professors are for the most part pussies. There are too many of them to begin with. Our media shed essential investigative reporters at a debilitating rate, and the tenured poke around “harmlessly”, especially in the humanities and social sciences (always excluding rare exceptions like Daniel Bell, Herbert Gans, Eric Foner and Paul Lauter).

But those few brave ones don’t hide, shivering behind tenure laws, anyway. The first thing we can do to improve Hired Education is to reduce the useless crowds on top and deal with equably at the bottom where we have abandoned the poor masses. Hired Education is, alas, a farce, debilitating US, perhaps terminally. In Casino Capitalism, where the greedy zillionaires make almost 500 times what their workers do, you can depend on Hired Education remaining the pretentious shambles it has become. Anyway, that’s what it looks like from Weimar, where executives don’t make more and more and their workers less and less. Their unions won’t allow it.

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