Community college teachers fight for their rights—and the soul of higher education—in Lanter’s feisty memoir.
Lanter (In This House of Men, 2010, etc.) taught English and philosophy at Southwestern Illinois College, a two-year public institution with a history of labor activism. Here he chronicles 25 years of union battles against an administration and board of trustees hell-bent on bringing the crass, exploitative norms of the corporate workplace into academia. The struggle involves familiar issues of pay, workload—officials were forever trying to impose “productivity” benchmarks on instructors—part-time staffing and the fight for recognition of the faculty’s American Association of University Professors bargaining unit. But in the background, Lanter contends, lie deeper conflicts over the meaning of a college education; namely, whether it should be a rigorous tutelage in academic disciplines conducted by professionals or—in extreme terms—a cheap, profit-generating commodity geared toward vocational training and employment credentialing, purveyed by glorified “drug-store clerks.” The narrative provides a comprehensive, if somewhat disorganized and repetitive, case study in academic and labor politics, immersing readers in pay tiers, overtime provisions and tenure guidelines. The author regales readers with the minutes of particularly rancorous meetings and the returns from county board of trustee elections and property-tax referenda. The level of detail is often eye-glazing, but there are dramatic episodes—including a sharp-edged 1980 faculty strike that ended in mass arrests—and an invigorating edge of scorn for the administration, its professorial cronies and its “insidious and parasitical” union-busting lawyers. Intertwined is a caustic, loose-jointed critique of higher education that takes swipes at watered-down grading, vapid learn-at-home telecourses, excessive concern for student self-esteem, junky “education” degrees and religious zealots who want to censor their profs; the whole “American capitalist ideology” under which “democracy has come to mean the right to make a corporate profit” also takes a hit. Lanter’s memoir may be, at times, curmudgeonly, but the author makes a cogent case for defending academic standards—and academics’ dignity—against an onslaught of business values.
An opinionated, perceptive insider’s take on an unsung but vital part of America’s education system.