Clue to understanding contemporary thinkers: While their theories may not accurately describe reality, their theories probably do describe their own behavior. Thus, if a historian claims that history does not consist of objective facts, you can be sure that his version of history will play fast and loose with the facts and will be advancing a political agenda. A scholar who believes there is nothing more to culture than oppressive power, if given a position of authority, can be expected to wield power in an oppressive way. Someone who believes there is no such thing as truth can be expected to lie.
Universities are the last bastion of economic liberalism. In fact, along with Cuba and China, universities are the last bastion of Marxism, with humanities departments continuing to analyze literature and art in terms of the class struggle. While the rest of the country is cashing in on the stock market and many abroad are discovering the wonders of the free market, many university professors are apoplectic about the evils of capitalism. They inveigh against the big corporations who make money on the backs of oppressed workers.
And yet, for all of their economic liberalism, universities are some of the worst offenders when it comes to making money on the backs of oppressed workers. They have even managed to create a class system and a class struggle. And today, as in the 19th-century sweatshops, the exploited workers are trying to organize into unions, despite harsh opposition from the professorial bosses.
Full-time faculty at major universities enjoy the perks of tenure, miniscule teaching loads, good salaries, and a free rein to pursue any research projects they want. Money in higher education has become tight, so the number of full-time faculty positions has become restricted. Nevertheless, enrollments are surging. This means that universities must offer more classes with fewer faculty. The solution? Hire part-time teachers-from the masses of Ph.D.s unable to find full-time positions-to cover the courses at a subsistence, per-course wage with no benefits. And have them teach the undergraduate introductory courses, so that many full-timers can concentrate on their esoteric specialties in seminars consisting of just a handful of graduate students.
In 1970, 22 percent of college instructors were part-time "adjunct" faculty. In 1980, the number rose to 34 percent. Today, up to 47 percent-nearly half-of the college teachers are rent-a-profs.
Another way of covering the classes, while insulating the full-time faculty from the demands of the classroom, is the use of teaching assistants (TAs). These are graduate students who are given a small stipend and a tuition break to teach classes. Such programs allow students to go to grad school at little expense and provide them valuable teaching experience. Such programs are also very good for the professors, supplying a constant stream of grad students for their esoteric seminars, while manning the less desirable freshman and sophomore courses. And they are very good for the university as a whole-one section with 30 students each paying $300 a credit hour for a three-credit class can bring in $27,000, of which the teacher might be paid $1,200.
They are not necessarily very good, of course, for the freshmen and sophomores who are taking the class, who often must put up with inexperienced and not-yet-qualified teachers. The problem is especially acute in science and math courses. Not many Americans are going into grad school in those subjects, which are considered "too hard" for many casualties of our educational collapse. Instead, slots in graduate programs in the technical fields are being taken by international students. Thus, many undergraduates find that their science and math TAs have difficulty speaking English, compounding the problem of scientific literacy.
But now the academic piece-workers are, quite understandably, feeling exploited. Enter the unions. Last month, after a series of mini-strikes and the university spending $1.8 million to quell union organizing, graduate students at the University of California voted to unionize. TAs at the Los Angeles campus will now be represented by the United Auto Workers (UAW).
The UAW now represents graduate students at the University of Massachusetts and is bidding to be the union for New York University, all in solidarity with their brothers on the Detroit assembly lines. The Communications Workers of America represent campus staffers at the State University of New York. TAs at the University of Iowa, perhaps recognizing the role of the overhead projector and the VCR in college teaching today, are negotiating to join the United Electrical Workers. And the graduate students at Yale, that epitome of America's academic and social aristocracy, have petitioned the National Labor Relations Board that they be recognized as a chapter of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union.
The blue-collar workers who change the sheets, wash the dishes, wire the houses, and weld auto frames might not think they had much in common with young college kids working on their doctorates. The trade unions, whose membership and clout in American industry have been declining, are clearly eager to enroll these white-collar workers, who represent a fresh and potentially influential pool of members and union dues. And the grad students, with their liberal bias, can feel the thrill of solidarity forever.
Unions are hardly the solution to the problems of higher education today. Eliminating tenure might help to eliminate the academic caste system, open up competition that would benefit the best teachers, and stem the tide of worthless publish-or-perish research. On the other hand, today tenure is protecting the cadre of conservative academics, who otherwise would be swept away by the radicals in charge. Making full-time professors teach more is not necessarily a solution either. Our society does depend on research universities as the primary patrons of scholarship that is useful and valuable-and many tenured professors would just multiply their bad influence if they taught more.
Accrediting bodies are now forcing colleges to assess their performance, a process of self-scrutiny that is uncovering the deficiencies of higher education today. In response, many colleges are rediscovering the benefits of the traditional liberal arts. In the meantime, academic disciplines that deconstruct themselves will have problems justifying their existence. Facing financial difficulties may force colleges to reallocate their resources in a more rational and productive way.
The malaise in higher education opens up new possibilities for Christian colleges, which have historically concentrated on good teaching and the liberal arts, both of which are in short supply at the big universities. For some reason, though, many Christian colleges seek to emulate the worst features of the secular universities, instead of offering a genuine alternative.
What Karl Marx said would happen to capitalism did not come true, though it did happen to communism. It may well happen to our academic establishment. He described a system that would become so huge, so monopolistic, and so oppressive that it eventually would collapse due to its own internal contradictions.