Prof. Raccoon, the chair of the Critical Studies Department, is scowling in the boxwood hedge.
It’s Commencement Day, but he ignores the Tiepolo blue skies and smiling faces, the folding chairs in a row and proud families in the quadrangle. His 2015 commencement season is fraught with anxiety. He is looking for a safe space.
White privilege, LGBT injustices, wars against women, trigger warnings, and assorted micro-aggressions cloud the horizon. The injustices at Amerika University are uncountable, and Prof. Raccoon’s opportunities for purification are unending.
Prof. Raccoon has made a tidy career celebrating diversity with new perspectives. He patrols vigilantly to make sure colleagues, graduate students, department policies, and his university press all conform to his virtue.
Yet he meets increasing skepticism and indifference from students, parents, alumni, trustees, and now, administrators. He is dismayed. Dismayed is one of Prof. Raccoon’s favorite words.
College students are not going for English literature or history as they once did. They are turning their backs on identity studies, soft social sciences, and the whole catalogue of trippy hipster accreta. If it weren’t for distribution and diversity requirements, enrollments in overstaffed, over-tenured departments would be in far worse shape than they are.
Institutions scramble to meet fixed costs for their tenured raccoons, paying guaranteed salaries and benefits, while foisting much of the hard work onto cut-rate lecturers and adjuncts. Any college president, for example, Mitch Daniels at Purdue University, who challenges entrenched practices — or wonders at the Zinnification of U.S. history — will face squads of angry, often union-protected raccoons. Anyone daring to abolish tenure unilaterally — heaven forefend — would experience quick and painful death-by-raccoon.
Prof. Raccoon beadily eyes his tenured STEM colleagues. Trying to conceal his status rage, he hungers for full enrollments, summer consulting gigs, and federal grants. He denounces the Business School Profs as capitalist tools with greasy whiskers.
But the enrollment numbers don’t lie. A serious demand-supply imbalance is upending conceptually troubled fields. Many more undergraduates than in the past come from non-privileged backgrounds, as admissions policies eagerly seek out such raw talent. They cannot afford to play coffeehouse theory games.
U.S. students face intense new talent competition. As Purdue management professor Thomas Brush observes, American graduates are entering globally competitive labor markets. Those youth distracted by the fineries of postmodern “idealism” interview today against very bright, bilingual students from other countries. These foreign students are eager to use their math, statistical, and engineering skills in U.S. and global corporations.
By contrast, some native-born U.S. students push away the real world for fear of selling out to late capitalism and a legacy of oppression.
The humanities, as they are constructed and taught, can breed both intolerance and ignorance of prospective employers, an outlook tinged with pretense and superiority. Job interviewers tell Brush that graduates may look for high-paying jobs but have negative attitudes toward corporate life.
Unlike science or business professors, humanities professors claim to curate and police the inherited past. Their appeals to tradition can be misleading, however, since many academics raid the Western warehouse of arts and letters solely to gird contemporary prejudices, consigning the rest of the canon to oblivion or badthink.
Scientists and economists on campus hope any controversies involving the tenured zanies in the humanities and social sciences will leave them untouched. Some are sympathetic, making marginal efforts to stay in step with their moral politics. Others, embarrassed, worry about damaging the institutional brand.
Whatever the case, the humanities are attracting less raw talent than in the past. This brain drain should terrify the humanities professoriate but for some reason does not. Waving his hands like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, Prof. Raccoon says grandly that his academic field is “self-selecting.”
Talented students of contemplative nature who want to pursue eternal wisdom, complex allegorical thought, ideals, and character — or who have gifts for criticism and connoisseurship — find out fast what’s in and what’s out.
Some realize quickly that there’s good stuff being suppressed. They see certain lines of thought declared off limits, snottily pooh-poohed, or served up with ideological rococo. But graduate students and assistant professors dare not trespass established thought rules. Prof. Raccoon holds their fates in his hands. With opportunities limited and shrinking, they have no choice but to fall in line with his rubrics of virtue to protect themselves and their jobs.
Bright, earnest graduates who think they can buck the odds should consult a sobering website called 100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School. For any student willing to go for the gold, a wise, deeply ambivalent article on graduate work in the humanities by Prof. Daniel Schwartz at Cornell University provides detailed instructions on what to do.
Now let me add, since I see dismayed raccoon squads forming ranks in the boxwood. Two talented, personable doctoral students I know, one in 18th-century British Studies, the other in cinquecento Italian sculpture, bode well for the arts and letters. I know the headwinds they face, and so do they. They deserve great professional success, and they persevere with growing recognition and reward.
For young scholars and thinkers who can swing it, amazing opportunities exist to reconsider arts, letters, and much of history de novo, overturning institutionalized mediocrity and bad ideas. Prof. Raccoon, his paws on the bacon, is not your friend or perhaps even your mentor.
The finest American universities still deliver an outstanding array in the humanities. You know the names: Harvard and Stanford, Berkeley and Chapel Hill. A large number of even-handed, respected professors stand ready to preserve the inherited past on the finest interpretive terms. Yale and Chicago will endure.
But few will notice if and when dozens of inconsequential, tediously conformative graduate programs on overbuilt 20th-century campuses — public and private — expire for lack of interest. While no one should minimize or begrudge the individual and community pain this shrinkage will cause, the intellectual cost will be small.
Much original thought and conservation of old thought going forward is likely to occur outside colleges and universities, where fewer staffing problems, ideological roadblocks, and legal constraints get in the way of quality recognition.
Tenured raccoons will do their best to keep control of the game. As their comfortable, often delusional worlds collapse, they will not quietly run off into the woods to find new homes. They may look cute and cuddly from a distance. In fact they play mean, and they will be spitting and hissing all the way down.