Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, a humanities professor has been on a crusade to reveal the many ways that graduate school is a bad idea. There are too few academic jobs for the training to be anything other than a crap-shoot. This is a problem, particularly because the hurdles to becoming a professor in America include slaving away for years on a PhD and submitting yourself to the low-wage exploitation of adjunct teaching.
Louis Menand addresses this in his new book, "The Marketplace of Ideas" (reviewed by The Economist here). He notes that whereas you can become a lawyer in three years and a medical doctor in four, the median time to a doctoral degree in the humanities is nine years. And then good luck finding a job.
Given all the bad news, I was initially heartened to see that the Chronicle has published a response to the original story, called "Neither a Trap Nor a Lie". Surely James Mulholland, an English professor at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, would offer evidence that secondary degrees in history and English aren't a fool's errand. Surely he would suggest that the economics of academia isn't so dire.
Alas, no. Instead, Mulholland argues that grad students need to be a bit more Zen about debt: "we must accept that persistent professional disappointment is a central part of the life." He explains that it would be better for those researching, say, the bathing habits of middle-class children in early Victorian literature to view their pursuit "as more like choosing to go to New York to become a painter or deciding to travel to Hollywood to become an actor. Those arts-based careers have always married hope and desperation into a tense relationship. We must admit that the humanities, now, is that way, too."
This perhaps explains why academics in American universities are so arrogant, as Naomi Schaefer Riley argues in In Character. Professors see themselves as a class apart from other professions because somehow, against the odds, they aren't the sad sacks most of their students are destined to become. Though given the fact that the same article also mentions that more than 100 new scholarly books were published on Shakespeare last year, perhaps a bit of a cull makes sense.
Picture credit: Horia Varlan (via Flickr)