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Tuesday, October 9, 2012


In 1951 or 1952, when I was an undergraduate at Harvard, the great American poet and biographer of Lincoln, Carl Sandburg, came to give a lecture.  Sandburg, who lived to be 89, was then in his seventies, and of course looked absolutely ancient to us.  He was a true poet of working people, back when America still acknowledged the existence of a working class.  He told a story that has stayed with me ever since.

It seems, Sandburg said, that there were two cockroach brothers perched on a farmer's cart riding into town one day.  The cart hit a bump in the town's main street, and the two cockroaches fell off.  One brother fell onto a heap of dung -- very heaven for a cockroach -- and waxed fat and shiny.  The other brother fell into a storm drain and nearly drowned.  Slowly, laboriously, the second brother pulled himself up out of the drain until, exhausted, emaciated, near death, he dragged himself back into the gutter.  As he looked up, he saw his brother seated happily atop the dung heap, sunning himself.  "Brother," the unhappy cockroach cried, "how have you become so fat and happy?"  The fat self-satisfied cockroach looked down at his miserable relative and said, smugly, "Brains, and hard work."

I think of this story often as I reflect on the ease and endless rewards of my career, moving from comfortable position to comfortable position, and compare it with the terrible struggles of young academics trying to gain some sort of security and time for their own scholarship in an increasingly hostile job market.  The sixties, when my career was being launched, was a time of explosive growth of higher education in America.  Spurred by the G. I. Bill and the post-war economic boom, and fed by an endless stream of young men avoiding the Viet Nam draft, colleges and universities virtually metastasized.  State universities, which had existed ever since the Land Grant Acts of the 1860's, suddenly sprouted satellite campuses.  State colleges plumped themselves up into universities, and Community Colleges became State Colleges.  There were so many new teaching positions to be filled that in the sixties and seventies graduate students were being offered tenure track positions before they had become ABD.

At the same time, the Cold War and the Sputnik scare triggered a flood of federal money into universities.  Most of it, of course, funded defense-related research or studies of parts of the world that America considered inimical to its interests [Russian Research Institutes, East Asia Programs, language programs of all sorts], but some of the money slopped over into the Humanities, and even into libraries and university presses.  For a time, commercial publishers found that they could not lose money on an academic book, since enough copies would be sold to newly flush university libraries to enable them to break even.  Those were the days when a philosopher willing to sell his soul [and who among us was not?] could get a contract on an outline, a Preface, or just an idea and a title.  The professor introducing me at one speech I gave said, "Professor Wolff joined the Book of the Month Club, but he didn't realize he was supposed to read a book a month.  He thought he was supposed to publish a book a month."  Well, we all thought we were brilliant, of course. 

Then the bubble burst.  First the good jobs disappeared.  Then even jobs we would never have deigned to notice started drying up.  Universities adopted the corporate model, and like good, sensible business leaders, started cutting salaries, destroying job security, and reducing decent, hard-working academics to the status of itinerant peddlers.  Today, two-thirds of the people teaching in higher education are contract employees without good benefits or an assured future.  Scientists do pretty well, thanks to federal support for research, but the Humanities and non-defense related Social Sciences languish.  The arts are going the way of high school bands and poetry societies.

The truth is that I fell off the cart onto a nice big dung heap, and waxed fat and happy, as any self-respecting cockroach would.  My career happened to fit neatly into the half century that will, in future generations, be looked back on as the Golden Age of the American University.  There is precious little I can do for those unfortunate enough to come after me.  But at least, I can assure them that their bad luck is not a judgment on the quality of their work.  And, of course, I can write increasingly lavish letters of recommendation in a desperate attempt to launch them into the few remaining decent teaching jobs.  I would have liked to do better by them.  They deserve it.


Rosa said...

The cockroach story suggests that you don't think that you necessarily deserved all the success that you enjoyed. The closing line suggests that you think *everyone* deserves all the success that you enjoyed (the conditions for which are no longer present). Devil's advocate here: Surely one of the effects of the golden age was that some people who did not "deserve" fancy jobs nonetheless got them, and produced a great deal of schreck as a result. Unless you think: the more philosophers the better, and no better use for government money?

Don Schneier said...

For me, one, not inconsiderable, blessing of having arrived too late for that Golden Age, is that I can attend to my own philosophical interests without distraction. Since I do not subscribe to the value of possible world comparison, I resist speculating about whether or not I am better off as such. Or, since I have long sided with Spinoza vs. Kant on the relation between Virtue and Reward, perhaps I've just gotten what I deserve.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I quite agree that the combination of government money and the threat of the draft produced a generation of academics who probably would have been better off in some other line of work, but took a safe and easy path instead. But my heart goes out to young people who, through no fault of their own, cannot have the sort of rewarding and fulfilling career that would most certainly have been theirs a generation earlier.

Don Schneier said...

The potential loss of a career by some individual is also the potential waste of an intellectual resource by a society, to the evident advantage of at least one of the current major US political parties.