Into the Apocalypse

By Catharine R. Stimpson

The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities. Frank Donoghue. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.

The Last Professors is hardly a source of breaking news. It can also oversimplify, ignore reforms in graduate education, and neglect much of the probing writing about the humanities of the past decade. Nevertheless, it is a cogent, serious,  independent, and passionate book. To paraphrase its argument crudely: for more than a century, corporate America has wanted the university and its professors to embody the values of efficiency, productivity, and utility. Universities have also been pressed to standardize the credentials they award to students: in a mobile society, a course credit ought to mean roughly the same thing to employers in Alabama and Alaska. Today, the university and its professors  must submit to standardization in the form of data-driven rankings, a widespread development of which Donoghue is appropriately suspicious.

World War II stimulated the growth of the postwar university, but corporately inflected operations butchered the humanities. In his picture of the abattoir, Donoghue aligns such phenomena as overly restrictive copyright laws, graduate training that putatively privileges “productivity and salesmanship,” an obsession with research at a time when the scholarly publishing industry is so feeble that it shuns most monographs, and the “collapsed” job market for new humanists. One aspect of this job market is the growth of the adjunct labor force—now 35 percent of college teaching personnel, according to Donoghue—itself a painful symptom of the American casualization of labor. Oddly, although Donoghue explores the erosion of tenure, he refuses to endorse tenure robustly. He finds traditional defenses of tenure logically inconsistent and post–World War II attacks on tenure inaccurate. Most crucially to him, tenure hardly matters. Too few people either have or will get it.  Donoghue seems like the heir to a library who shutters its doors because he has concluded that readers are becoming obsolete.

Even if courses are taught by adjuncts, people will seek out college training, in part because they believe  the hype that higher education is a path to prosperity. However, humanistic learning—art history, literature, philosophy—seems a far slower track than occupationally oriented disciplines, especially if the classes in these disciplines are scheduled at convenient times and places. Forprofit and online institutions—and for-profits are often online—build a fast track, and one can hardly blame a student for wanting to travel on it. More insidiously, the values and practices of the for-profits now infiltrate all but the most elite institutions.

Donoghue uses data to support his jeremiad, but he also extrapolates from them to predict a future in which higher education, increasingly subject to global competition, will become bipolar. It will consist of business-centric institutions, which will be indifferent to the humanities, and a much smaller elite group, which will sustain them. The losers, he prophesizes, will be our state universities. Even the flagship institutions and systems, no matter how many football games they win and how many medical centers they staff, lack money and exclusivity—the wellsprings of the prestige the institutions crave. Donoghue is an associate professor of English at a great public institution, the Ohio State University, and although his threnody for state universities is briefer than that for humanities professors, it is no less mournful. Yet, when I think of the great public institutions—their resilience, their discoveries, their vast array of services—when I picture the campuses of the University of Texas at Austin and at Brownsville or the campus of Ohio State with its huge stadium and its superb Wexner Arts Center, I find Donoghue’s lamentations premature.

My opening line—“once more into the apocalypse, dear colleagues” —adapts that of King Henry’s speech in Shakespeare’s Henry V, “once more into the breach, dear friends.” King Henry, going to war, demands that his troops be tigers in defense of their common interests, values, and bellicose manhood. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his defiantly elegiac analysis, Donoghue does not tell us why the humanities matter; what their significance is; or what they do actively and attractively, be it in research universities, community colleges, or public broadcasting. Most obituaries at least point to one or two pleasing features of the departed. The Last Professors is an autopsy report. If I were a businessperson who wanted to endow a professorship in Spanish literature at a state university, I would scour The Last Professors in vain for reasons why I should do so.

However, Donoghue does have some advice for humanists who wish to “resist their extinction.” Given the line of critical thinking about the humanities and the academic labor force that he extends, and given the shrewdness of his comments about faculty unionization, I had expected, but did not find, an explicit advocacy of unionization. Instead, in an echo of the late Bill Readings and The University in Ruins, he wants humanists to gather into a community of dissenters who will deconstruct conventional wisdom and corporate-speak. He also loves Jim Dixon, the buffoon-hero of Kingsley Amis’s riotous 1954 academic novel, Lucky Jim. Despite his misogyny and philistinism, Dixon grasps the “institutional horrors” of the academy.

Such advice and such roguish, if good-hearted, role models unfortunately reinforce the refusal to construct an affirming, compelling argument for humanistic wisdom. Instead, Donoghue’s humanists are to deploy critical thinking to question the intrinsic goodness of efficiency, productivity, and profitability. So far, so mildly interesting, but also so shallow. Efficiency is much more than the goal of an aggressive Taylorism. It can be the result of a beautiful design: a Roger Federer forehand, a meticulously crafted sonnet. Humanists are also to challenge the stated connections between a college education and a secure job in a global economy. Donoghue is correct to insist on truth in higher education’s advertising, but his foray into global macroeconomics is skimpy. Finally, and more persuasively, he asks humanists to become practicing sociologists in order to understand the institutional and historical context of their work. Is there not a humanistic truism about the worth of the examined life?

Both the consolation and the terror of an apocalyptic vision is that history as we know it will end with both a bang and an agonizing whimper. The centuries-long book of higher education has awful apocalyptic chapters. Some U.S. institutions, both for-profits and nonprofits, will fail. Yet, one need not be a smirking, smug utopian to find that apocalyptic prophecies are really too self-indulgent to be appropriate for contemporary U.S. higher education. Moreover, in comparison to some of the corrupt, censorious, or threadbare universities around the world, our institutions have multiple decencies and powers. If we believe in them, our job is the arduous, constant, reliable measurement of the depth and extent of our difficulties in all the disciplines; the incessant creation of consensus about change wherever possible; and the nourishment of the values of lively teaching, learning, and deep inquiry. That is our soul and our shoemaker’s last.

Catharine R. Stimpson is University Professor and dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York University. Her e-mail address is [email protected].