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.