The yearly conferences in the humanities--MLA, AHA, and others--have brought an onslaught of handwringing over the purpose of graduate education in a collapsing academic job market (not that it was ever that good, even during the bubble years).
William Pannapacker, a.k.a. Thomas H. Benton, Dean Dad, Tenured Radical, and others have weighed in on what graduate students, potential graduate students, and graduate programs should do. Basic message: don't go! Do something else!
Tenured Radical has some particulary intriguing recommendations for humanities graduate programs, her overall point being:
While I don't think Ph.D, programs are responsible for unemployed graduates, they could do a better job of imagining what an intellectual life in the twenty-first century looks like and how the university can connect to the public sphere is more vital ways.
Lots of valid points made in these critiques, reflections, and comments, but there is one thing that always bothers me about them. We seem to pretend that the job market for intellectual work in the "public sphere" is robust compared to academia. Curating? Working in a library? Not so easy to get jobs in those fields, even if you train directly for them. Journalism? Not doing so well lately. "Content providers" on the Internet? Business isn't exactly booming like it was in ye old digital revolution days.
Perhaps the larger problem is not that the academic job market is collapsing, but that the "public sphere" of "intellectual life in the twenty-first century" itself needs reimagining.
I don't mean that everyone should start twittering and blogging and chattering away right now. What I mean is that the problem of the academy is also an opportunity to imagine a "public sphere" and an "intellectual life" whose institutions, economies, and values are not dominated by neo-liberal ideologies of efficiency, productivity, and profit, but also thought, interaction, care, deliberation, reading, and time-consuming investigations. Less banking, more seminars!
Maybe the answer, weirdly, is not that graduate admissions should be limited, but actually that more people should be going to graduate school rather than fewer.
They should be spending more time studying, and part of this study should be about developing a robust graduate education that connects the time-honored traditions of scholasticism--specialization, mentoring, arguing, getting a bit lost in a corner of a discipline--to the reimagining of the public sphere as a place in which the peculiarities of the academia and the general good intersect.
This would mean a dramatic turn in the kind of institutional work of academics, universities, and others. It would mean building a counter-movement to the corporatization of everything that for so many people now feels like the only path. It would mean a lot of struggle. But maybe if things keep getting worse, this struggle will make more and more sense.
Instead of all the banter about how liberal-arts training is the key to finding employment, let's start talking about how we could imagine the kind of employment that would suit people with a liberal-arts orientation.*
For intriguing takes on the Ph.D. job situation, see:
*Admittedly, this kind of talk occurs more at the undergraduate level, but it's part of the same mindset that dismisses Ph.D. training as pointless and irrelevant.