Will college professors go the way of the milkman?

19 09 2011

I have been a Natalie Merchant fan since I first saw 10,000 Maniacs in college. In the old days, when I still went to concerts, I saw them more often than I did any other band (even after their shows were overran by teenage girls in peasant dresses). I pre-ordered the first Natalie Merchant album in seven years before it came out last year (rather than download the tracks) so that I could read the liner notes, and have had it in my car ever since. It’s two discs of the work of mostly obscure poets put to music, so there is actually a lot of interesting stuff to learn there.

This is my favorite track on the album:

The poet is Eleanor Farjeon, well-known in English places, but not in America. As Merchant notes, poetry aside, perhaps the most endearing thing she ever did was to turn down the title Dame of the British Empire with the line, “I do not wish to become different from the milkman.” Words to live by if I’ve ever encountered them.

They seem particularly useful to us academics, as we (myself included, of course) tend to greatly overrate our own usefulness. So many of us assume that whatever we’re interested in will be interesting to others, even if it isn’t. [See here for an important variation on this phenomenon.] I’ve also seen far too many examples of academics who assume that they’re somehow different than other working people just because they have a Ph.D.

We had time, and somehow we found the resources to study something for seven-odd years. This does not make us immune to the same rules of employment that blue collar workers face, like technological unemployment or the inevitable class struggle between employer and employee. This post by Tenured Radical about her computer troubles from over the weekend reminded me of Henry George’s complaint that industrial workers had been reduced to “mere feeders of machines.”

At the same time, there’s one way that I really do hope to be different from the milkman. Unlike milkmen, I hope my chosen profession continues to be practiced beyond a boutique existence long after my career has ended. If anyone has studied the demise of milkmen in America, I’d be interested in reading their work. If I had to guess though, I’d say that milkmen were probably victims of better refrigerated transport. It became cheaper to make milk on vast dairy farms and keep it cold for hundreds of miles than to squeeze it fresh and send it down the street. Yes, I know milk delivery is still a boutique operation in some places, but most people aren’t willing to pay that much more for a better product.

Will the college students of the future be willing to pay more for a better education? Will they even be able to pay more for a better education? Earlier this summer I wrote:

Seriously, the primary reason that I don’t go totally Luddite on this entire profession is that if given the opportunity, I don’t think the average bean counter is going to remake the university very well at all.

I still believe that, but now I’m afraid that the vast majority of both administrators and college students couldn’t care less. If I’m right, that should be enough to make you empathize with working people of all kinds. Especially milkmen.

Perhaps we can all double as psychiatrists, just like this milkman did.

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One response

19 09 2011
Music for Deckchairs

The interesting thing, though, is that there are plenty of people looking at the transformation of college education with almost predatory confidence about jobs and growth and business prospects. It’s just that they’re not college professors, they’re people building shiny new companies that trade for terrifying sums on the promise that higher education can be technologised.

But I take Tenured Radical to be offering a counter-argument: that with some conviction and skilful thinking, we could argue that what higher education needs most at the moment is its very own trained professionals (that’s us) because the money spent on big systems is otherwise going to be entirely wasted. We’re not going the way of vinyl just yet, I don’t think.

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