Expanding on his controversial Atlantic Monthly essay, “Professor X” assails the ill-considered optimism that encourages unprepared students to assume crippling debt to get college degrees they don’t really need.
The author is an adjunct English instructor—tenure, no insurance, no benefits and no status—who teaches basic college courses on a part-time basis. This is in addition to his regular civil-service job, which no longer covered his expenses once he and his wife “marked the turn of the millennium by buying a home that we really couldn’t afford.” Indeed, perhaps the most unsettling thing about this disturbing screed is the parallel that Professor X draws between the housing boom that provoked the 2008 financial crisis and the recent boom in college enrollment, which promises people who barely made it through high school that a college degree will improve their employment prospects. “There are no guarantees,” he writes. “Markets tumble, houses enter foreclosure, students fail.” The author makes it painfully clear that many of his students deserve to fail. They cannot construct a basic sentence, let alone an essay; they have never read a book for pleasure in their lives. Yet they are expected to savor the glories of poetry and to produce coherent, properly organized and cogently argued essays. Contrary to what many of the angry responses to the original Atlantic article suggested, Professor X does not look down on his students or think they’re stupid, but he cannot pretend that they have the background and skills required for the classes he is allegedly teaching. (In fact, he’s doing remedial work.) He questions the necessity of higher education for people who want to be corrections officers or nurses, reserving some of his most scathing words for the “credential inflation” that keeps upping the amount of education demanded of applicants for blue-collar and technical jobs. The author offers no solutions, but makes the profoundly un-American suggestion that not everyone is college material.
Intelligent, convincing and depressing, despite the author’s evident zest for teaching.