Is Professor X a courageous maverick who dares to point out that the emperor has no clothes? Or is he a self-involved whiner who rejects responsibility for what goes on in his classroom? His 2008 Atlantic Monthly piece, "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower," inspired both responses: David Brooks chose it for a Stanley award, while the blogosphere filled with angry rebuttals and personal attacks.
The same people will almost certainly lionize and vilify this book-length expansion of the piece, for the same reasons. And the issue of his anonymity will arise: Does it display cowardice or a lack of accountability? "I write anonymously," he says, "because I have no desire to single out my institutions; I believe the issues I raise to be universal." Fair enough, though I suspect he is not unaware that a hidden identity suggests juicy revelations -- juicier, in fact, than he actually delivers.
"In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic" is a hybrid. It is basically a memoir, but it's also a polemic, spiced with bits of literary criticism and references to articles and reports on higher education. The memoir chronicles Professor X's years of teaching writing as an adjunct instructor (paid on a per-course basis, with no benefits) at a community college and a private liberal arts college. Though he soldiers valiantly, he finds that many -- perhaps even most -- of his students display a "jaw-dropping lack of ability," with reading and writing skills at perhaps the sixth-grade level.
In other words, many of his students are "not ready for high school," let alone college. So they fail, often going into debt in the process. His conclusion: Colleges are full of people who lack the ability, motivation and preparation to be there; this is a waste of resources. His solutions: limit college enrollment; reject the unprepared. Admit that many jobs do not really require a college education. Create more well-paid blue-collar jobs.
Professor X writes well, cares passionately about writing and, from all the evidence, truly does understand his students' plight. He upholds standards, for which I applaud him.
Still, his solutions often seem peculiar, perhaps because he is so determined to create analogies between the recent real estate bubble and what he suggests is a similar bubble in higher education. (He began teaching to hold onto an unaffordable mortgage; updates on the state of his mortgage and the stress it takes on his marriage are frequent narrative elements.)
He doesn't mention the most obvious fix: Ramp up the academic standards at high schools. He portrays lack of preparation as a terminal disease rather than a treatable condition. Most disappointing, he seems uninterested in the learning that does take place in his classroom -- glacially slow, perhaps, and often insufficient to pass the class, but learning nonetheless. Indeed, learning -- surely the point of education? -- figures into his equation not at all: In his world, if students don't get the credits they paid for, the whole enterprise was a waste of time.
Although Professor X deplores the consumerist mentality of his students, he implicitly endorses the idea of higher education as a commodity, like a big house or a Lexus, that should be purchased only by those with the resources (financial, yes, but primarily educational) to afford/deserve it. This is a disturbing paradigm.
Patricia Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.