Friday, February 28, 2020
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Taking Stock of College As Graduation Nears

As another school year comes to an end, another cohort of students must take stock of their relationship to “the real world.” This is experienced differently for different groups, of course. If you’re still a year or more from graduation, “the real world” is on Wednesday nights at 10. If you’re a year from graduation, “the real world” is painfully close and you’re already planning your transition.

Finally, if you’re on the cusp of graduation, you’re getting ready to move back in with your family and, maybe, kicking yourself for anxiously pretending for the past year that you’d never have to deal with the world outside of college.

This is glib, of course, and it sets aside folks who cannot afford to imagine that the world of selling yourself for your survival (i.e., the world of employment) is a distant reality. Nonetheless, there is an extensive ongoing debate over how students ought to transition from school to career, and it is especially hairy in the humanities. In particular, there is a debate over how wise it is to pursue graduate study in the humanities.

There is, on one side, those who believe that graduate study is essentially good because it produces small armies of scholars who can appreciate the importance of everything from medieval tapestries to Michel Foucault to the gender politics of Walt Whitman’s beard.

On the other side, we find a vocal subsection of humanities scholars who are concerned that too many young people are being led toward graduate school with a reckless disregard for what will happen to them on the other side of a Ph.D. After all, half of humanities doctorates will never get a tenure-track position in the academy, even after sacrificing decades to the pursuit.

Which side is right? Is it the doe-eyed idealists or the curmudgeonly buzzkills? As with most conflicts of this nature, the truth is somewhere to the left of the entire debate.

The academy is having an identity crisis (among numerous other crises), and it’s getting harder to reconcile what the academy imagines itself to be and the work that the academy does. Too often, universities are understood by both students and the institution as providing a service. We pay our fees and we get something — education, a gym, quality Aramark dining locations — in return. In reality, universities are much more like factories, particularly in the humanities.

The school takes in raw materials (students) and the factory workers (professors, graduate instructors, lecturers) make those raw materials into a product. In this case, that product is a compliant, complacent workforce. As students, we receive instruction in arriving — on time! — to places we don’t want to be, and completing a set number of tasks because somebody whose authority we don’t question has told us to.

Sure, some people learn “critical thinking skills,” but a recent op-ed in the New York Times by sociology Professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa notes that over one-third of American college students show no improvement in critical thinking and writing skills at the end of four years of schooling.

This is all to say that college, for all intents and purposes, is four to five years of either adult day-care or behavior training. We learn how many Four Lokos is too many for a Wednesday morning and how little work we can complete without getting in trouble. And what does this portend for graduate studies in the humanities?

Unsurprisingly, much of graduate education is dedicated to ensuring allegiance to the institution of the university, to regimenting the bright-eyed and bushy-bearded into loyal workers who will create a new generation of middle management. Then, when most of those newly-minted Ph.D.’s go to waste, the folks who haven’t been destroyed by the experience are even more loyal to the institution.

The real kicker, of course, is that, in the end, college isn’t really so different from “the real world.” A university and a law firm aren’t different at a structural level; the only difference is the relative number of hacky-sacks in each location. When it comes time to enter “the real world,” it’s all a choice of how long you’ll be selling your labor, and how much the labor will destroy your body as you do it.

Even after four years of college, most of us still can’t imagine anything different.

James Bliss is a fifth-year political science, women’s studies and African-American studies triple major. He can be reached at