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Wednesday, February 22, 2012


I was just lucky.  My teaching career coincided with the most rapid expansion of higher education since the passage of the Land Grant legislation.  I was actually a few years early, to be completely accurate, but during the height of my career, graduate students had no trouble at all snagging tenure-track university or college jobs, sometimes literally before they had passed their doctoral qualifying exams and were, as we say in the trade, ABD ["all but dissertation."]  Naturally, the aspiring young academics who were the beneficiaries of a seller's market thought of thsemlves as simply supremely well-trained and talented.  How could they not?

But for several decades now, things have been very different indeed.  Early projections suggested that as the flood of young professors, drawn to the Academy by the threat of the draft as much as by the delights of the mind, began to retire in the '90s, enough new jobs would open up to absorb the greatly expanded ranks of newly minted PhDs.  Alas, nothing resembling that scenario played out.  Instead, colleges and universities cut back on the Humanities, turned to low-paid non-tenure track part-timers, and so diminished the supply of entry-level tenure-track positions [to use the term of art familiar to all young graduate students] that the products of the elite graduate schools had to settle for positions at institutions they would have turned up their noses at fifteen years earlier, and the graduates of less highly-ranked graduate programs struggled even to get interviews at the annual professional meetings.

In Philosophy, desperate young academics turned to ancillary jobs that called for some formal training in philosophy.  Medical schools were persuaded to create positions in medical ethics [although my recent passage at arms with the UNC medical establishment suggests that the benefits of this innovation have not yet percolated thoughout the ranks of practicing physicians].  Business schools introduced courses in Business Ethics [good luck with that!]  Nevertheless, the job market has remained godawful for young philosophers.

Now, however, my keen eye has spied a quite new employment possibility for desperate young philosophers, and in a region of American society that no one would have thought fertile ground for philosophical expertise.  I refer of course to the Republican Party's sudden embrace of Practical Theology, or what used to be called Casuistics.  Almost alone, former Senator Rick Santorum has brought back into the public discourse the ancient and honorable branch of medieval learning that applies abstract principles of Theology to problems of social or individual concern.  Casuistry was given a bad name by stiff-backed Protestants who were repelled by the lithe, limber reasoning of Jesuit Fathers.  But we are now blessed with a serious candidiate for the Presidency who is prepared to make the logical connection between the fundamental principles of his religious faith and such pressing and hitherto little discussed, indeed often quite unacknowledged, problems as birth control, pre-natal screening, marital sex, and masturbation.

Santorum himself has been thinking about, dare I say, obsessing about, these issues all his life, but his opponents in the Republican Party and his potential opponents in the Democratic Party have been woefully negligent in considering these issues.  They are utterly unprepared for a full-scale public debate about the sinfulness of husbands and wives engaging in protected sex.

There is hardly time for Romney, Gingrich, Paul, and the entire Democratic Party to get themselves up to speed on these and related questions.  There are logical traps, subtleties of analogy and similitude, potential errors of the excluded middle and the fallacy of composition, that might bring them down in a full-scale debate.  Where can they find trained reasoners who are right now capable of leading them through the shoals and rapids of Applied Theology?  Where in our society is there a pool of trained Casuists who are currently underemployed?

The question answers itself.  I grant that employment by a political campaign as the Resident Casuist does not carry the possibility of tenure, and even the fringe benefits may be scanty.  But it beats picking up $3000 a course gigs as a part-time instructor.

Yet one more example of the wonders of the marketplace.  An invisible hand indeed.


Don Schneier said...

In Facebook Axiology, this rates not merely 'LOL', but 'LMFAO'.

occasionalist said...

Great post. However, your estimate of $3000/course would be considered generous at many places. While I'm one of the lucky ones, I know for a fact that adjunct pay (and overload pay)at my institution is only half the figure you cite.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Sigh. I feel like George Herbert Walker Bush not knowing the price of a carton of milk.

John S. Wilkins said...

It may help if the Casuists don't read their Pascal...

occasionalist said...

Michael Berube has had interesting things to say on the adjunct topic lately:

Here is a link to the Adjunct Project google doc mentioned in his post:

formerly a wage slave said...

As someone who has had to live with the consequences of acquiring a Ph.D. in Philosophy at a time when jobs were scarce--as someone not so lucky as yourself---this contribution from you was disturbing. I know you are making an ironical commentary, and I say again that from time to time I have genuinely benefitted from your blog. (And if I'm not reading your Gorgias tutorial, that's only because it would take me away from a current project, and I have enough problems with distractions already.) But what's salient for me now as I face a bleak future, is a letter I got just before I was about to enter graduate school. First I experienced apprehension and worry (What if I don't go to graduate school?) including nightmares about being stabbed. Then, I was accepted, but, with a big qualification. There was a letter warning me about the job market. Well, I am sure that the letter was written with the best of intentions, to cancel any unspoken assumption that completion of the Ph.D. meant getting a job. But, for me, as a naive, unworldly, twenty-year old, that letter was like a death sentence.
As I write this I can see that there is an unclarity in my thinking. The letter was a mere indicator of a bad situation; I shouldn't blame the letter or its authors
Yet, having received that information, I was never able to completely put its message out of my head. And I believe (though of course it's not provable) that I approached graduate studies with less than complete enthusiasm, and always with a kind of mental reserve.
Perhaps I only re-write the past. I don't know.
For thirteen years I solved the problem by living outside of the USA. That was only a partial solution. I escaped the suffocating embrace of USA anti-culture (the militarism, the empire, the omnipresent propaganda and the inculcated assumption of capitalism) and that alone was worth the price of admission. But, the problem has not been solved, and I am not optimistic. Yet, given a choice, I would rather leave the land of the free......I have given up the hope that I will ever teach Philosophy here, and that would be the only thing that would make it possible to remain here.....MarkL
Perhaps you can file the above under the rubric: "A fragment from the life of someone who was bitten by the philosophy bug during a less happy time....."

formerly a wage slave said...

Incidentally, you might be amused to learn that linguists are also thinking about jobs the politicians might provide:

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