Given that it’s been 30 years since I left graduate studies in English Lit, I don’t spend much time reading up on the field. Still, when I saw the provocative headline, “The Big Lie About the ‘Life of the Mind,'” on a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education I knew immediately that this was a piece about the employment woes that Ph.D.’s in the humanities face. The author, William Pannapacker (writing under the pen name Thomas H. Benton), is an associate professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Mich. He has taken it upon himself to try dissuading a generation of would-be English and other humanities graduate students from wasting years pursuing doctorates unless they have “no need to earn a living for themselves or anyone else, they are rich or connected (or partnered with someone who is), or they are earning a credential for a job they already hold.”
That message, Pannapacker writes, is not something that undergrads are likely to hear from their professors. Asking about job prospects in academe, these students are too often told, “there are always jobs for good people” and “don’t worry, massive retirements are coming soon, and then there will be plenty of positions available.” Too many of these students find out only too late that professors in the humanities have been telling undergraduates this for years while fewer and fewer who head to graduate programs wind up finding employment that can sustain them. Worse, perhaps, the unemployed Ph.D.s ultimately discover that they aren’t valued in the rest of the job market, that “graduate school in the humanities is a trap” which is “designed that way” by universities who refuse to reduce admissions, even as job prospects go from desperate to whatever is worse than desperate.
As compelling as I found Pannapacker’s pieces, what astonished me the most about them is how little things have changed in 30 years. Virtually everything he says is shockingly similar to the warnings of Darcy O’Brien, a novelist and English professor whose 1979 article, “A Generation of Lost Scholars” in the New York Times magazine observed that, “a profession that traditionally prided itself on its gentility and immunity from the raw practices of the marketplace now finds itself unable to employ more than one in three humanities Ph.D.s.” This was no accident, O’Brien recounted, because even as universities of the day “question their degree programs,” they continued them, while “students, some of them either ignorant or misled, pursue courses of study that may enlighten the mind but will likely lead to unemployment.” More than thirty years ago, O’Brien portrayed this as “a system out of step with social and economic realities” wasting the energies and time of “many of our brightest, most intellectually energetic students.”
Most troubling, perhaps, is that Pannapacker repeats an accusation that O’Brien made in 1979, which is that graduate programs and humanities professional organizations cook their employment statistics intentionally to mislead would-be graduate students. They do this by counting as employed every graduate who is working in the field–including low-paying adjunct teaching positions and non-tenure jobs that are dead ends–without making distinctions. Pannapacker sums up the deception by observing that, “there is still almost no way…for students to gather some of the most crucial information about graduate programs: the rate of attrition, the average amount of debt at graduation, and, most important, the placement of graduates (differentiating between adjunct, lecturer, visiting, tenure-track positions, and nonacademic positions).” Were he still writing on the subject, O’Brien might observe that thirty years is a long time to be keeping this vital information from students.
Pannapacker is best at explaining why some students allow themselves to be taken in by these feints, even after so many years. They hear repeatedly as undergraduates that the life of the mind is somehow superior and worth sacrificing for. Some are more willing than others to accept this because “the world outside school seems so unstructured, ambiguous, difficult to navigate, and frightening.” Even worse, no one in the outside world will be impressed by their knowledge of Jane Austen. By contrast, college is an idealized life and graduate school is a way to “continue that romantic experience and enable [themselves] to stay in college forever as teacher-scholars.”
Pannapacker has diagnosed much of the problem. But I would add one more thing which misleads so many humanities graduate students, which is that they are too quick to swallow the notion that the only way to pursue a ‘life of the mind’ is by toiling in a graduate program reading obscure texts, then teaching and publishing papers and books on these works to secure a future in the academy.
By contrast, when I left graduate school to begin a career in journalism (starting at the absolute bottom by working at community newspapers) I found it liberating to be freed from my professors’ reading lists. For 30 years both in and out of my professional life I have met numerous people who grappled with the monumental works of Western civilization while also doing something as prosaic as earning a living, the way Wallace Stevens earned one as a lawyer for an insurance company, or William Carlos Williams as a pediatrician. Indeed, if there is one quick and easy way to explain the dreadful state of much of modern American literature it is by observing that many of its practitioners today spend their entire lives in the hermetically sealed world of academe.
More than that I learned that the ‘life of the mind’ is not reserved for those studying the humanities—an observation that seems so apparent that it needn’t even be made except to a humanities student. Over the years I’ve met (and often written about) people pursuing gratifying intellectual lives in fields ranging from the pure sciences to applied technology to finance to the study of human behavior in economics and sociology and public policy. Many of these people even pursued such a life while working at businesses (the horror!) which took their ideas and insights and turned them into profits (a double horror!).
I suspect that no professor will deliver that message to a potential humanities grad student not merely because it’s not in his department’s best interests, but also because most members of the professoriate simply have no idea. They seem to view most careers outside of the university as crass, superficial and intellectually unsatisfying.
They don’t know what they are missing.