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The Dire Situation of Scholars today: What next and what should be done!

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During the 1970s, such gatherings of humanists as the annual meetings of the Modern Language Association (MLA), the American Historical Association (AHA), and the American Philosophical Association (APA) were dominated by the discussion of the question of what was to happen to Ph.D.'s who could not find jobs as teachers. As the previous chapter suggests, there seems to be an answer to that question. They have gotten and will get other types of jobs. Most will enjoy their work as much as they would have enjoyed teaching. Very few face actual unemployment. Judging from survey data, the pro-portion believing themselves underemployed will be similar to that among the PhD/s who did find teaching jobs. As a fact, tens of thousands of doctoral students and PhD/s will have experienced pain, disappointment, and dislocation over the imminent drop in job opportunities and dilemmas. In most cases, however, their personal trials will turn out to have been brief, and the majority will look back on their years in graduate school as having been not badly spent.

The harder question is this: What is to happen to the ever important bunch of humanities academicians? What is truly uncertain about the decades ahead is whether there will continue to be a flow of articles and books enlarging and deepening understanding of literature, history, and philosophy.

It can be argued, to be sure, that a depression in the academic labor market, even if prolonged and severe, will not seriously affect the quantity or quality of scholarly research and writing. This argument cannot be dismissed out of hand, for it is a fact that the majority of people with doctoral training have not and do not function as scholars. An early 1970s survey of college teachers in the humanities found that fewer than half had produced a book, and only about 1 out of 7 had written more than 2 books. Almost half had never even published an article. A survey of the late 1970s found only a third of humanities teachers with no scholarly publications to their credit but also not much more than a third entitled to be described as productive scholars.

In the 1930s, the entire pool of people in the United States with scholarly training in Humanities amounted to only a few thousand, yet that decade is generally considered a very creative period in humanistic scholarship. Certainly, it was a fruitful period. The American Historical Review was publishing each quarter-year reviews of more than 30 new books by American scholars. The American Bibliography of the Modern Language Association, listing both books and articles by American scholars, averaged 1710 items a year.

It obviously did not require tens of thousands of scholars to keep Humanities in good health. Indeed, one can go on to note that fifth-century Athens did fairly well with a total population below that of present-day Scranton or Cedar Rapids. The total number of humanists may have no more bearing on the vitality of the humanities than the number of composers and painters has on the vitality of music and art.

Since even the most pessimistic projections envision several thousand career openings on college faculties, there may be no cause for concern about humanistic scholarship. True scholars may know their vocation. Those destined to shape knowledge may obtain the training they need, undeterred by the awareness that professorships will be few. After all, people who became scholars in the 1930s faced a scarcity of teaching jobs and, on top of that, the fact that salary levels were still based on an assumption that professors had independent means. Because the 1960s and 1970s saw the upgrading of so many colleges and universities, teaching posts suitable for dedicated scholars are now actually far more numerous than in the 1930s. For reasons outlined in Chapter 1, these posts will probably be filled, regardless of what happens in the rest of the academic labor markets. Scholarly research and publication could thus proceed, largely unaffected by a general depression in higher education.

There are, however, reasons for doubting that, in this respect, the 1980s and 1990s will be analogous to the 1930s. To begin with, it seems possible that relatively fewer talented and ambitious people will seek training. In the 1930s conditions were bad everywhere. Many people saw the alternative to graduate school and a teaching job as no job at all. In the time ahead, most are apt to see their choice as between competing for professorships that are few or poorly paid or both and, on the other hand, entering some profession where opportunities are multiplying and levels of compensation are rising. Humanities B.A's of the 1980s and 1990s could easily conclude that their vocations are in law or public policy or business administration. As indicated earlier, survey data suggest that the proportion of purposeful, career-oriented graduate students may already have declined.

A second question is whether people who do go to graduate school will get the training they need if they are to succeed as scholars. As was also pointed out earlier, many students base their choices on short-term economic considerations. They go where paid teaching assistantships are available. The institutions having the most funds for this purpose are not necessarily those best equipped to train scholars. With only a handful of institutions offering doctoral training in the 1930s, would-be scholars had few opportunities to make mistakes. Those of the 1980s and 1990s will face strong temptation to disperse themselves among universities, many of which lack faculty strength or research facilities that most apprentices need if they are to master the scholar's craft. Such an outcome is all the more likely in view of the fact that the strongest research universities have nearly all responded to the prospective shortfall in academic jobs by slicing back admissions to doctoral programs.

Third, people who do enroll in well-equipped graduate departments may drop out before they have sufficient training. With the completion of a doctorate taking on the average 2 years longer than in the 1930s or the 1950s, even dedicated and ambitious students could decide that they should be in a professional school or out in the world. Surrounded by advanced graduate students and junior faculty nervous about job prospects, many students could give up without completing even rudimentary training.

Finally, it is possible that the Ph.D.'s or near-PhD's with greatest promise as scholars may not be the ones selected by the colleges and universities best outfitted for scholarship. To be sure, almost all Ph.D.'s are likely to be able to teach. Even if career openings are few, short-term openings are sure to be abundant. If one-quarter of faculty posts are without tenure and are occupied by one person for only 3-4 years on the average, then several thousand posts will become vacant every year. As remarked earlier, however, large numbers of these teaching posts will not be suited to would-be scholars.

Posts that do offer opportunity for scholarly work may not match the scholars available to fill them, for universities and colleges usually hire people to fill instructional needs. Within any 2- to 4-year period, the schools most hospitable to scholarship may have no openings at all in many of the scores of specialties into which the humanities in practice subdivide. The distribution of quality in a given period's crop of Ph.D.'s in modern languages, for example, might be heavily skewed toward Slavic literatures. In the same period, the best colleges and universities might have vacancies only for teachers of Romance tongues. The Slavicists might be shunted into places discouraging for scholarly work, and at some point even the most dedicated scholars might decide to go into a different line of work.

Even if they have appropriate slots, colleges and universities hospitable to research may not pick the people best able to contribute to scholarship. They do not have very reliable criteria for judging scholarly promise. In the humanities, distinguished work requires both depth of original research and reflectiveness. A doctoral dissertation or even a first book seldom serves as a sure indication of the subsequent accomplishments of any critic, historian, or philosopher. Thus, even if adequate numbers of talented people seek and obtain training for scholarship, the academic appointment process could frustrate hopes that the humanities will survive in good health through a long period in which attractive career openings in higher education become fewer.

It follows that some special effort may be required if the 1980s and 1990s are not to be a period in which humanistic scholarship languishes. To specify possible lines of effort, however, is exceptionally difficult. It is probably idle to conjure up notions that call for new outlays of money, whether from public or from private sources. In addition, there exist no readily identifiable organizations or agencies to which recommendations for action might be presented.

The first of these problems needs to be stressed, for panels on the "academic job crisis" at humanists' conventions often feature an argument that the problem would disappear if the nation had its priorities in the right order. It is customarily pointed out that the federal government's annual outlays for defense have shot above $200 billion. If 1% or even a fraction of 1% of that money were used to fund humanistic research, runs the argument, practically all current and prospective Ph.D.'s in the humanities could put their training to work. Though this contention elicits nods and handclaps, it cannot be said to embody much realism. The Armed Services committees and the defense subcommittees of the Appropriations committees of the House and Senate do not authorize money for research in the humanities. The Human Resources and Education and Labor committees and their associated appropriations subcommittees do. Even if not in a mood to retrench on all fronts, these bodies would look at proposals to under-write employment of humanities Ph.D.'s as in competition with aid to dependent children, elementary and secondary education, equal employment opportunity efforts, and the like.

Similar conditions exist at state and city levels. It is probably in vain to hope that public outlays for the humanities will even remain at the levels of the 1970s, let alone be increased by a margin sufficient to promise a secure future for humanistic scholarship.
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