Op-ed: End the University as We Know It
In the NYT today, Mark C. Taylor (no relation), the chair of the religion department at Columbia, argues that “GRADUATE education is the Detroit of higher learning.” He outlines a six-point plan for restructuring how graduate (and, later, undergraduate) educational institutions are structured and how they operate. He makes a number of good points–and a few I’m ambivalent about–but here’s one that especially resonated with me:
The dirty secret of higher education is that without underpaid graduate students to help in laboratories and with teaching, universities couldn’t conduct research or even instruct their growing undergraduate populations. […] In other words, young people enroll in graduate programs, work hard for subsistence pay and assume huge debt burdens, all because of the illusory promise of faculty appointments. But their economical presence, coupled with the intransigence of tenure, ensures that there will always be too many candidates for too few openings.
He’s talking about the more traditional kind of academic, but I think the point is a salient one for MFAs and other creative degrees as well. The idea that all, or even most, of the people who specialize in a creative discipline will then be in a position to make any sort of living at the practice of that discipline is at best a willful delusion, and at worst a pernicious lie.
Even if all people emerged from such programs equally talented (they don’t) and were producing work suitable for publication and marketable to some version of the “mainstream literary audience” (they’re not) there would be exponentially more of them than the market–for writers and/or for writing teachers–could bear (indeed, the market can’t come close to bearing what it has now). The pursuit of any sort of advanced degree in the creative arts should be understood as an opportunity to refine one’s craft for its own sake, and to give oneself the gift of a community of like-minded people. Whether you hold out for an institution that will support you in part or in full in this endeavor, or whether you choose to pay for it, is between you, your bank account, and your (anyway, my) loan officer.
Whether you “do anything with” the degree after you’ve earned it, is another question again–and a silly one, because degrees themselves don’t “do” anything. The time I spent getting my MFA made me stronger as a writer, reader, and editor. But it didn’t actually make me into those things. I was those things already, or I never would have entered the program. And now, a couple years out, being one of the very lucky few who makes his living mostly by practicing his craft (at sub-poverty wages, with no benefits and no job security–but still), I can tell you that my degree is a fine testament to what I did, but it itself doesn’t “do” much of anything. It’s not what wakes me up every morning and tells me to be a writer. My alarm clock does that.