Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Regular People and Academics

Last week I was having a conversation with an old friend. It seems like we’re not as close anymore, and I was wondering why that was. It occurred to me though, that he doesn’t really get academics. He understands that we teach college of course, and that we are supposed to be doing research. But, as an entrepreneur himself, he really doesn’t understand the rest of it (Not that I do). For instance, our pay is tied to… what? If we publish an article, we don’t get paid. If we get good teaching evaluations, we don’t get a raise. If we teach a lot of student hours, we don’t get a bonus that semester. The only way to up your pay is to play this horrific game of publish and do well here, so that someone somewhere else might pay me a little more, get an offer, negotiate, move. If you tie your pay directly to your performance, the way a union school might, or write for profit, or teach lots to pay the bills, other academics are likely to think that you’re a sell out, or not serious, or something. The only way to get more money for your department is to play serious hardball politics. Get some of your guys into the administration. Serious stuff. No one’s going to increase your funding just because your student hours per prof are high, or your faculty’s publications for the last couple years look nice.

It’s not surprising that he doesn’t understand that part. But that’s exactly where the public really doesn’t understand. Somewhere between the 4583rd mention of how great it must be to have summer off, or how nice it must be to be able to sit and have coffee Tuesday morning because you aren’t scheduled to teach, you start to get aggravated. This is why academics are sometimes churlish about their work. It is easy to get the impression from general society that their impression of you is that you’re a lazy bastard. “What a great life” they say, and then I think, ‘yeah that’s what I worked for all those years. And it’s still a lot of work. But you’re right, no, I wouldn’t want your job.’ Of course you just smile and bite your tongue.

So predictably, this whole thing started out a couple years ago with me defending tenure to this friend.

It’s senseless. Says he.

Well, it protects speech. Say I.

I wish I could do nothing and not get fired.

It’s hardly nothing, after 6 or 8 years of grad school, a few years on term contracts, and seven years of work, IF you get tenure at your first school, you’re 15 years into your career and damn near 40 years old. And you still get fired if the money runs out, or you sleep with an undergrad. You just can’t get fired for being a Republican.

They should just have renewable one year or five year contracts.

That would be great too, except the good schools are still holding onto tenure. At least the community colleges agree with you.

And so on.

Well this weekend the talk was about gas taxes (a discussion left unfinished and as such, with distinctly the wrong impression), and business.

And this is where the other thing about being an academic strikes me. The right has accused us of having the leftie thought police around, and it’s true that academia is liberal. Sociology has a reputation for being one of the more leftie disciplines within even this environment. But, and this is what bothers me, there is no reason sociology should be liberal, and it shouldn’t be a problem even if it is. The discipline has been used non-liberally in the past, and is just as useful for fascists as for commies. Further, despite the leftie flavor of the liberal arts, the astute observer will note that the fundamental core of the liberal arts is the best of western civilization. Believing in, being committed to, and passing on the best of our western culture, is not necessarily a liberal thing. In fact, some conservative colleges have arisen with exactly this purpose. Thomas Aquinas College is an example. And while the political flavor is definitely conservative Catholic, the education is an excellent grounding in the liberal arts classics.

So here I am, a white male from the Midwest, spending time on the in-laws’ farm, and my friend says to me two related things. Colleges should be turning a profit, dealing with market forces the same way everybody else does, and “while capitalism isn’t perfect, it’s the best we have….”

Let’s look at this. First I don’t really care whether colleges are run for profit or not. The money has to come from somewhere, and the way trustees (and the general public) treat colleges seems to be as some athletic club with a school attached as a fundraiser. (Why did Notre Dame get rid of Willingham? Who gets the highest salary? What is the biggest budget sink in a small college?). But focusing on only the tech side, and treating the liberal arts like some little feel good project is fundamentally missing the point. The monks in Ireland did not sit around copying the recipe for cement during the dark ages, they were copying the best philosophers and theologians of the West. These ideas were the fundamental root core of western civilization. Contract law, individualism, free will, dynamic capitalism, republicanism and Judeo-Christianity are all necessary for our high tech wonder world to work. And so it will be next time around. No one is going to sit and copy the diagram for an 80gig hard drive by candlelight. It will be the best of the modern thinkers.

But perhaps that is a point lost on business oriented tech guys.

He starts later: “While capitalism isn’t perfect…” Everybody knows sociology profs are all Marxists. It’s very fashionable to be a Marxist in sociology circles. My friend knows this. But, while I criticize the negatives of capitalism fiercely, the market system is the best we have. Nothing else seems to be so good at distributing stuff efficiently to an industrial-sized civilization. Some of the worst abuses seem to come from too great a centralization in industry. Economists will argue that this increases fluidity and efficiency, but I see it at the cost of local business and communities. I can’t help but think that the ideal focus for politicians is to rebuild the grassroots economies of their areas. Find a way to make the unemployed into those who have a stake in the system. Find a way to make the laid off into craftsmen and owners. When you look at places where illegal economies thrive, they seem to be places where the grassroots economies have been devastated. Inner cities, deindustrialized cities, rural areas. These are places where the economies are “thin,” if you will. And what happens but the locals start manufacturing methamphetamine, distributing all sorts of drugs, marijuana agriculture, resource re-extraction (theft and burglary). So I’m all for local business development. I’m all for more corner groceries, more Sanford and Sons, more mechanics. I don’t know – whatever skills and needs the neighborhood has.

Here’s why this is funny. He comes to the conversation with the idea that I’m an unrepentant Marxist with no understanding of budgeting or politics. I come to the conversation being one of the most pro-business, pro-markets, pro-grassroots-entrepreneur sociologists on the earth. He talks about making universities rational and profit driven, and I think it would be great if our department was funded per capita. Hell I dare ‘em!. But it ends stale, with no real common ground. And the final end is when he leaves visibly frustrated, when someone else (not me) suggested that we need at least a buck a gallon gas tax. His family had to leave, so the conversation was cut short. No discussion of petroleum supply constraints. No discussion of demand competition from China and India. No discussion of the challenges of bridging the energy gap (is there another side to bridge to?) which even the optimists say is only 30 years off. No discussion of why a gas tax might be better than mileage requirements. How there would be better consumer choice, more transparent costs, and encouragement for the market to start to move toward the best transport options, rather than the ones we impose from the top down.

Instead, the small entrepreneur who drives 900 miles twice a week left thinking only of how a gas tax would hurt the middle class. He was also almost undoubtedly thinking that the two academics in the crowd were out of touch and only too happy to impose their crazy leftie ideas on the rational populace.

And crude topped 65 a barrel today.



lennybrinick4203 said...
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Michael said...

Man, I got all excited I had comments. And it's just spam.