Another day, another “professors only work 15 hours a week” know-nothing shooting his mouth off in the public sphere. Except in this case, David Levy surely knows something, given his professional background and present business interests.
Sometimes, I cut people slack when they believe that the hours spent in the classroom are the only work that a professor does. The profession doesn’t do a good job in general of explaining the work we do, one reason why I started doing my “Pictures From an Institution” series. Even when you can get people to understand that every hour in a classroom requires at least two, more often three or four hours of preparation and design work, they still tend to see the rest of the work life of professors as an optional extra. Sometimes faculty themselves help to create that impression. We all love to disparage administrative or service work, for example. But it’s not an optional extra: most of what faculty do administratively is a necessary part of their work as teachers and scholars. When I meet with my departmental colleagues to talk about our next job search, about end of year assessment of our classes, about the design of our major, about participation in college-wide curricular initiatives, I’m doing my work as a teacher. Those meetings are as much a source of the added-value of my pedagogy as time spent in my office reviewing the readings, designing my syllabi and grading papers. When I meet with visitors to campus, attend guest lectures and events, give a lecture myself at another institution, I’m making myself a better teacher. When I write my weblog or work on my research, I’m working on my teaching. It all adds to that goal.
So yes, we could explain better. And yes, there are faculty who abuse autonomy and do much less work than they should. Give me unfettered access and an invisibility cloak and I’d wager I could find a similar proportion of people letting everyone else carry the load in any workplace. You can always find people who are compensated far in excess of their contributions. Some of them might even be CEOs. The idea that market competition or at-will termination relentlessly identifies and punishes such individuals is a fairy tale. Every complex organization has its parasites who burrow in and adroitly use political and social strategies to retain their place against all scrutiny. This is an inevitable tax that large-scale social institutions have to pay.
But David Levy? He really ought to know about the workflow that goes into high-value teaching. He really ought to know that even with the protection of tenure and considerable autonomy, most faculty in most higher education put in long hours because they believe in their profession. So what’s going on here?
I think it’s fairly simple. You know the classic “First they came for the X, then they came for the Y, and I did nothing, and then they came for me?” schtick? This is one of those stories. In fact, it’s the end of one of those stories. They already came for the doctors and the psychiatrists. They already came for the lawyers. They already came for the accountants and auditors. They already came for all the professions. Professors are the last to be broken on the wheel, the last to be put at their station in the new assembly lines of the 21st Century Service Economy.
The early Industrial Revolution, in the first decades of the 19th Century, was not focused on the giant factories and mass economies that were characteristic of its later height: it was about replacing artisanal and household production through relatively small efficiencies and reorganizations of labor and property. This is what’s happening now to the professions. The professions were the great engines of bourgeois culture in mass society. They were provided human capital by the massification of education but they also provided services to much of society that couldn’t be duplicated or replaced by industrial capital, services that were seen as public goods in newly democratizing societies.
In the early 20th Century, most of the professions came to see autonomy and self-governance as the precondition of providing high-value artisanal service to both elite and mass clientele. The relations the professions created to clients were simultaneously intimate and impersonal. Patients sought doctors they could personally trust but that trust was a product of the doctor’s calling to a vocation with values and obligations bigger than his own interests. Businesses and governments looked for auditors who were independent but also had a skilled and sympathetic understanding of fiduciary workings. And students looked for teachers who were committed to an educational mission bigger than themselves but who also taught out of a fiercely independent and individualized vision of craft. Think of the exalted archetypes of teaching in 20th Century fiction for examples, like Mr. Chips or David Powlett-Jones.
The post-industrial service and knowledge-based economies of the last thirty years have relentlessly chipped away at the autonomy of the professions, because professions are service. They could no more be allowed a semi-monopolistic right to set their own value than artisans and guilds could be allowed to continue to set the value of clothing or printing in the face of early industrialization. I’m not playing with metaphors here: I think it’s a pretty close analogy. And as an analogy, it lets us see both what will be gained and lost if the David Levys of the new economy manage to enclose all the professions, all forms of knowledge work.
What might be gained is simple: affordability, scalability, massification. At some point the Veblen-good pricing of higher education and the post-GI Bill, post-1950 massification of higher education were going to collide. We appear to be at last coming to that point. I’ve long argued that the consumer cultures that grew out of early industrialization had an emancipatory and generative side, that we shouldn’t be telling that story strictly as all dark satanic mills and disenchantment. And it’s equally true that the professions in the mid to late-20th Century had grown arrogant, that their inflexibility could be as deadly and stultifying as the most stereotypical case of inflexible union procedures for changing lightbulbs. We do have to change, not just to address affordability but also to embrace opportunity. In many ways, the technological and material infrastructure of the early 21st Century could have been (might yet be?) a chance for most of the formerly autonomous professions to make good on their public obligations and higher missions in completely new ways.
What’s lost? Well, in a word, quality and individual attention except for the precious few that can pay for the full luxury version of such services. The rich still had their suits tailored at Savile Row after everyone else was buying a mass-produced shirt. But in this case, those values might be more precious and important to the larger human missions of education, medicine, psychiatric treatment, auditing and so on. That’s really what you lose: the sense of vocation, of calling, of dedication to something bigger. The new publics of liberal democracy understood that education, medicine, law, accounting and so on were important to their resilience and thriving in a way that artisanal consumer products were not.
You lose innovation and imagination too because when professionals don’t work for themselves but for the David Levys of the world, they have no more incentive to do more, dream more, create more. It’s no surprise that Levy cuts researchers and not teachers slack: that’s because Levy and people like him are already pretty confident that they can capture the value that researchers produce inside a corporatized university. The mechanisms are already there, including ways of cutting value-producing researchers in for a share of the profits. Teachers, on the other hand, are just for moving the products (students) down the assembly line: any pretenses to the contrary need to be crushed. What do you lose also? Well, the distinctiveness that has made American higher education the envy of most of the world. Just as they’re trying to figure out how to do it the way we’ve done it, we’re going to crush all that and do it the way they’ve done it. One more story of self-inflicted American decline.
And for this reason, maybe we shouldn’t expect that affordability will actually follow as a consequence of the enclosure of the professions. It hasn’t happened to medicine, even as doctors have had to come inside of large corporate structures and work to the tune of the insurance industry. Quite the contrary: Americans pay more than ever for medical care and receive poorer and poorer results for it all the time. It hasn’t happened in law, even as an almost unremarked-upon depression grips the profession and most of its members work increasingly as salaried and highly supervised laborers. Look at the for-profits in education and you can see the same thing going on. The quality is vastly lower even as the poor old scapegoated professors get turned into digital widget makers punching the clock, anonymously pushing their consumer-product students down the line. But the prices? As high as ever even without the overhead of brick-and-mortar facilities and frustratingly autonomous professionals with their own ideas about the mission of education.
So who really gains? Well, I’m pretty sure David Levy does.