Robert Nozick, among others, wondered to what degree left-wing conceptions of social justice are mere attempts to valorize envy. (Extreme left-wing views in the US, in particular, tend to concentrated among privileged upper-middle class liberal arts grads in the 2% who are angry with the 1%.) As an example of an envious rant, check out this remarkable essay at Counterpunch, “The Economic Inequality of Academia”., by Richard Goldin. An excerpt:
Paths to knowledge are often forged through the interplay of publications and teaching. No objective standard of measurement exists to financially quantify, and differentiate, these approaches or their contributions. Yet a vast and enduring economic hierarchy has emerged grounded in the supposed intrinsic hierarchy between the two. This financial hierarchy is not a dispassionate reflection of an objective reality; it is a strategic effect of the mechanisms underlying class formation and preservation.
The primacy of publishing, and the attendant allocation of resources, is utilized not merely to perpetuate two different economic classes, but also to create two different kinds of people. This creation allows the hierarchy of privilege to function as though it represents objective value differences both in terms of the work produced and the individuals who produce it.
Some comments on the essay:
1. Like many essays in this genre, it has its facts wrong. It claims that the majority of faculty are adjuncts, but that is just false. As Phil Magness documents here, at normal four-year, not-for-profit universities and colleges, the majority of faculty are tenure-track. Even when we include for-profit and community colleges, which rely disproportionately on adjunct labor, the majority of faculty in the US are not adjuncts. (See this post, too.)
Also, contrary to what everyone keeps saying, the number of tenure-track faculty slots has been increasing over the past 40 years. Here’s a chart with US Dept of Ed data, again from Magness:
It’s bizarre that the madjunct crowd keeps repeating obviously false claims, such as that they make minimum wage. Can’t they make their point without lying? I suspect the issue here is that many of these people are postmodernists, and for postmodernists, the concepts of “truth” or “facts” are just attempts to wield power over others. Or perhaps Dr. Goldin is being funded by the Koch brothers as part of a neoliberal assault to undermine the credibility of academia.
2. The essay claims that the academic 1% do as well as they do because the burdens of teaching are shifted onto poorly paid adjuncts. But the rather obvious problem with this claim is that the places where the academic 1% reside are not the places that use lots of adjuncts. The top researchers end up in places like Princeton, Harvard, MIT, and Penn. These schools do not make heavy use of adjunct faculty. (Insofar as they do use them, many of their adjuncts are professionals with full-time jobs, who teach extra clinical classes in their law and business schools.) For Goldin’s argument to succeed, he’d have to show us that the reason the academic 1% do so well is because their employers somehow exploit the adjuncts working at other universities and colleges.
I’m an academic 1-percenter, but it’s not because adjuncts do all my teaching for me. We do have a two-tier system, it’s true. In our system, the majority of faculty are extremely well paid tenure-track professors with high research expectations and low teaching loads; the minority are very well paid permanent teaching faculty with higher teaching loads. (According to this website, Goldin makes $30.5K a year, which is only a tiny fraction of what we pay our non-tenure track teaching faculty. Indeed, we pay our non-tenure-track faculty better than Cal State Long Beach pays their tenure-track faculty.) We use few adjuncts.
I’m not making bank because Georgetown exploits adjuncts. Martin Gilens isn’t making bank because Princeton exploits adjuncts. R. Edward Freeman doesn’t make bank because Darden exploits adjuncts. Rather, the exploited adjuncts are getting exploited elsewhere, at community colleges, small liberal arts colleges, third tier/low output “research” universities, and the for-profit colleges.
3. Goldin has some interesting points about whether research is overvalued and teaching undervalued. But we should keep in mind the economics of the situation. Good teachers are a dime a dozen. It’s easy to find people who can teach low-level undergraduate courses well. It’s easy to teach these classes well, and many people can do it. The supply of good teachers is very high. But good researchers are rare. Most faculty cannot consistently publish in high-level venues. The supply of good researchers is low. (It’s easy to publish in obscure third and four-tier journals and presses, but difficult to publish in prestigious top-tier journals and presses.) Even if universities valued teaching and research equally, we’d expect the star researchers to be paid more than the star teachers, because star teachers are easy to come by.
I realize that as a Counterpunch author, it’s unlikely Goldin has ever seen an economics textbook. But I’d invite him to go to Cal State Long Beach’s library, check out Mankiw’s undergrad econ textbook, turn to pages 6-7, and read about the diamond-water paradox.
4. Consider this quotation:
It is teachers dedicated to a challenging education who engage in the task of reworking and concretizing theories to make them relevant to students. It is in the classroom where the dialogue between theory and politics takes place; and it is the classroom which sends forth generations of students who can perceive, and possibly undermine, the rationalities of power.
Paths to knowledge are often forged through the interplay of publications and teaching.
What should we make of this? Is coming up with general relativity less of an achievement than teaching it to undergrads secondhand? Is writing A Theory of Justice less of an achievement than teaching it to undergrads secondhand? Is writing the stuff that gets into the textbooks less of an achievement than teaching the textbook to undergrads?
Also, after reading Academically Adrift, it’s not clear to me that college teaching is undervalued. It might instead be overvalued.
5. Goldin, like many writing in this genre, claims that academia is a lottery. This view is problematic. First, if it were a lottery, we’d expect that the type of people being hired as tenure-track at Harvard would have average credentials, but, on the contrary, the top schools tend to hire people with the best publication records. Second, the way the madjunct crowd reacts to their failure to secure good jobs doesn’t match how people react when they lose lotteries. My Uncle Freddy like to play the lottery from time to time. When he lost, he didn’t act surprised, claim that the system is unfair, and demand redistribution from the winners to the losers. Rather, he expected to lose, threw out his losing tickets, and kept living his life. If madjunct crowd sincerely believed that academia is a lottery, they would not act surprised or indignant that they lost and would move on with their lives.