Take the issue of money--always a good place to begin with things American. Academics outside business and the sciences often labor for many long years in college and graduate school in order to obtain a doctorate. More than a few collect their diplomas sporting some gray in their hair along with a briefcase full of debts. If we are lucky enough to land a tenure-track position, a large “if” over the last two decades, we frequently start at a salary that a skilled blue collar worker might expect a few years out of high school. Don’t think about salaries at Harvard; consult the data on most academics published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. A friend’s son, a brand new pharmacist, recently started at a local drug store with a salary that exceeded my University of Wisconsin System salary when I retired as a full professor, three years ago.
Serious economic problems face the glowing, self-confident scholar with little money. How, for example, is he able to find adequate housing? Even $300,000, well beyond the reach of most young and many senior professors, won’t buy much in Boston, New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Atlanta or Chicago, not to mention Madison, Sarasota, Ann Arbor, Palo Alto or Santa Barbara. The affluent suburbs, where the successful in other fields gather, are out of the question, of course. And so many of us move into older, deteriorating, often dangerous areas, telling all who will listen that we made the choice deliberately and that we, being humanists, have a natural desire to live among the poor and oppressed. In my experience, some English and anthropology professors actually believe this nonsense, and enjoy dressing as factory workers and displaying furniture obviously purchased during a Salvation Army sale.
Many academic families have two incomes, and some have other sources of private income. These professors can and often do enter the less exclusive suburbs, only to find that they have very little in common with their neighbors. They aren’t invited to join the country club, as everyone understands that professors lack the necessary funds. They aren’t invited to join the yacht club for the obvious reason. It’s difficult to join a cocktail party discussion on the joys of owning a Lexus when you’ve just driven up in an older Corolla. I was once asked how much professors are paid by the hour.
At neighborhood gatherings of all sorts, the professor might receive many pitying looks and face demeaning occupational questions. I once gave a talk before a select group, as a favor for a dentist friend, and was introduced as a writer. The businessman sitting next to me during lunch asked, “What do you do all day beside write?” Neighbors often assume that professors spend their summers in indolence and revelry. Thus they conclude that such people are not actually professionals and shouldn’t make much money. Tell them you’re writing a book and you might be asked what its chances are of being approved by Oprah. If it’s a university press topic, you might face such questions as “Who would read that?” and “How much could that make?” These inquiries are often followed by a wan smile or patronizing chuckle.
The education of the professor’s children is another sticky point. Good private schools are out of reach financially, and religious schools are, well, religious. That leaves the public schools, which all good humanists officially champion. Those who know better feel obligated to remind colleagues and neighbors that young people learn a lot about “real life” while evading bullies, drug dealers, gangs, and being instructed by teachers whose true calling in life was employment at Wal-Mart.
As for higher education, the low income professor faces an even greater obstacle to happiness. Tuition and expenses in even the mediocre private institutions are absurdly high, and public colleges and universities raised their tuition 14% last year alone. Few if any want to send their young people to the open-admissions College for Dummies across town, even if that would save some money. One wants to boast to a sniffy neighbor at a cocktail party that junior attends Brown, not Damp Valley State. Scholarships, grants, and federal student jobs are hoped for. Large loans increase the frustration.
Many academics not only envy people with money, but also those who enjoy political authority. Professors are more confident than most that they have the truth and are convinced that, if given the opportunity, they would rule with intelligence, justice, and compassion. The trouble is that few Americans, at least since the time of Andrew Jackson, will vote for intellectuals. How many professors run City Hall anywhere? How many would like to? How many humanities and social science professors are consulted when great civic issues are discussed and decided? Who would even invite them to join the Elks?
Instead of steering the machinery of local, state, and national politics, academics are relegated to writing angry articles in journals read by the already converted and pouring their well-considered opinions into the ears of young people who are mostly eager to get drunk, listen to rap, watch ESPN, and find a suitable, or at least willing, bed partner for the night. On the Left and Right, money means power, and we “pointy heads” and “eggheads” are on the outside looking in. (One thinks of “Artie” Schlesinger, swooning over the Kennedys forever because they gave him a silent seat in some White House deliberations.) Those making as much money as, say, an experienced furnace repairman account for little in this world, despite the Ph.D. How many academics even sit on the governing board that sets policies for their campus? It is all most humiliating.
Thirdly, there is the issue of occupational mobility and professional advancement. High income neighborhoods have constant turnover because of promotions and transfers. Professors in the humanities and social sciences, on the other hand, are more often than not (especially the white males) stuck on a campus for many years without a prayer of moving up or out. They have little or no control over their annual salary increases, if any, and having attained the rank of full professor have only “more of the same” and retirement to look forward to. Watching their former students scale the heights of prosperity and power can cause considerable chagrin.
A few professors will attempt to become campus administrators. Chancellors often have splendid incomes, free housing, and real authority. But most faculty, it seems, cannot rouse the necessary cynicism to enter this arena. Their integrity still counts for something.
One way to compensate for this bleak and futureless existence is to become involved in left-wing causes. They give us a sense of identity in a world owned and operated by Babbitts. And they provide us with hope. In big government we trust, for with the election of sufficiently enlightened officials, we might gain full medical coverage, employment for our children, and good pensions. These same leftist leaders might redistribute income “fairly,” by taking wealth from the “greedy” and giving it to those of us who want more of everything. A “just” world might be created in which sociologists, political scientists, and romance language professors would achieve the greatness that should be theirs. It’s all a matter of educating the public. And hurling anathemas at people of position and affluence we deeply envy.
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Jonathan Dresner - 7/14/2004
I don't suppose you've considered asking someone on "the left" if their activism comes out of their professional experience or something else.... like deeply held beliefs, perhaps?
Nah. Pop psychology (projection, more likely than not) is more than enough to bring on that "patronizing chuckle."
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