A Latenight Rant by Peter
There is no genre more beloved by the old, lazy, and tenured than the “don’t go to grad school,” advice column that seem to spring up every other couple of months or two on the Chronicle or Inside Higher Ed. Writing with nothing but the best paternal intentions, some tenured prof or another explains, with his hand gently patting our shoulder, that he has come to realize that there just aren’t jobs in X field and students really just shouldn’t apply for these PhD programs.
As a member of generation-fucked, I find these types of arguments frustrating. Let me rephrase that. I find them god-damn fucking frustrating. I encounter them mostly from academics, who make some series of arguments about why no one should follow them into graduate school. All the reasons why people say it is a bad idea to go into grad school (terrible job market, no social respect, you will simply be a source of cheap labor, etc…) are all true, of course, but turning them into reasons why you shouldn’t go into grad school misses the point.
Think about it this way: would any good progressive look out across the Rust Belt in 1985, fold their arms, and say (with a certain self-satisfied air of regret), “well I’ve always told Youngstown high school graduates that they shouldn’t go into the steel industry.”
Of course not. They would blame union-busting, and off-shoring, and leveraged buy-outs, and Reagan, and everything else. But they wouldn’t shift the blame onto the workers themselves, who should have known better than to go into that industry.
Obviously people who are considering a PhD or JD have more options than a steel worker did, but anyone who thinks that recent college graduates are just overflowing with good choices is just revealing their own generational entitlement (defined, for the purpose of this post, as anyone who came of age before the country went to the total shitter, especially those who took advantage of that non-shittiness to get good public education, and then gleefully grabbed up all those fun tax cuts and cushy tenured jobs).
What, prey tell, are those would-be English PhDs supposed to do? Journalism? Ha! We know they can’t do law school! Publishing? Not even worth joking about. Secondary school teaching? Not now, after NCLB/Michele Rhee/budget cuts/TFA/Scott Walker have all had a go at teachers. People don’t have interchangeable skills, (we all can’t just smoothly transition from excelling at languages since 7th grade into a career as a chemical engineer) and those of us who hoped to make a living on our writing, thinking, teaching, arguing, etc… don’t have a ton of options these days.
The problem with the “no one should go to grad school” articles are that they, unconsciously or not, shift the blame for the endemic joblessness onto the most vulnerable, those who are, or will soon be, unemployed. This is especially pernicious when these arguments come from tenured faculty who should be exactly the ones who have the greatest responsibility to try to fix the Academy. Implicitly, they accept conservative narratives about individual agency within capitalism. Rather than fight the real enemy (the corporate administrators, the Tea Party Governors, neoliberalism, etc…), they turn it into a moralistic argument about what some 22 year old should be doing. It all becomes a way to justify to themselves why they aren’t helping out the grad student union, or marching with OWS, or challenging their University President.
Now, don’t get me wrong, it often is a terrible idea to go to graduate school. It is generally a terrible idea to be young right now. But let’s not blame some poor kid who wants to dream that he might not have to be a barista for the rest of his life. The people we should be paying attention to are the university presidents, and politicians, and think tank “intellectuals” and everyone else who is destroying our educational system and our economy.