What’s Wrong With Graduate Education in the U.S.?

According to “The Path Forward; The Future of Graduate Education in the United States,” what’s wrong with graduate education is too little of it.  The Educational Testing Service and the Council of Graduate schools published this “landmark report,”on April 29; we know it’s a landmark report because ETS and CGS said so, in their press release.  OK, OK, minimal irony from here on, I promise.

The reason we need more people graduating with Ph.D.’s and M.A.’s–overwhelmingly the main reason–is the “necessity of a graduate-level workforce to maintain US competitiveness and innovation” (April 29 News Release),  The United States “is in peril of losing its competitive edge . . . ,” say the presidents of ETS and CGS.  People with graduate degrees are “crucial to ensure our nation’s continuing ability to compete in the global economy. . . ,” says the report’s conclusion.  There is much talk of losing the “dominant position” of US graduate education, its standing as “world leader,” its “preeminence,” and so on.  Yes, our grad schools are competing with those in other countries, but that competition is governed and warranted solely by its contribution to “our nation’s” economic battle with other nations.  You don’t have to look too deeply between the lines to understand this economic “necessity” as that of the companies that want to employ highly skilled and innovative holders of advanced degrees.  Naturally, the ETS-CGS commission that produced the report included business leaders, one of whom (Stanley S. Litow” of IBM) called for “innovative graduate programs in partnership with business.”  I suggest decoding this call to partnership  as:  “you grad schools produce the high-tech workers and we corporations will make the profits.”

The visible hand of corporate power in US education went to work a long time ago, of course.  Since the scary 1983 report, “A Nation at Risk,” federal support for K-12 schooling has been justified almost entirely through economic and nationalist arguments.  Apparently, doctoral education has now been seamlessly stitched into the same logic.  Never mind knowledge for its own sake, fearless pursuit of (sometimes unpopular) truth, knowledge for citizenship and resistance to illegitimate power, culture and civility, the inner life of the graduate student, her pleasure in the beauty of clear thought.  Such goals are far off the map of corporation-friendly education, along with sea monsters.   Graduate students serve “the nation” well enough by going to grad school, by completing their degree programs, and by signing up to work for capital.  In doing so, they may advance their own economic welfare, it is sometimes noted.  But the main thing is for US capital to get the knowledge and “workforce” it needs to best its international rivals.  So let’s round up more new grad students, see that more of those already enrolled finish their degrees, and fight to rebuild the population of international students doing graduate work in this country.  That’s it.  Those are the chief goals this landmark report recommends.

Oh yes, one more:  provide “career transparency,” showing new Ph.D.’s and M.A.s the pathway to “clear career entry points.”  Again, decoding may be helpful.  What this means is, even with declining numbers of young and not-so-young people entering graduate school, and even with more than half of them dropping out before earning degrees, many new graduates cannot find the kinds of jobs they thought they were preparing for.  So they need better guidance in finding kinds of jobs they did not intend to seek.  And programs need to admit more of them.  No kidding.
I guess the high minded friends of graduate education and US empire put their report to bed before they could have read an unpretentious forum in the Chronicle of Higher Education (April 5, 2010), “Graduate Humanities Education:  What Should Be Done?”  It took the disappearance of good jobs as its jumping off place:  “Is the supply of jobs the problem?  Or are graduate programs admitting too many students?”  Not one of the fourteen respondents–ranging from the president of Ohio State University to graduate students, dropouts, and adjuncts–rejected the premise; though several noted that there are plenty of lousy jobs, just not nearly enough decent ones to warrant having put in years of one’s life pursuing graduate studies.  Everyone who has been around a professional organization for the last two years knows this wretched truth.  In fact, the gap between tenure track jobs and job seekers has widened steadily since 1970.  Nor is this disjunction confined to the humanities; it has afflicted all arts and science fields.  I imagine that some of the hot shot companies in finance or the newer technologies are dissatisfied with the pool of Ph.D. recruits.  Apart from that, “The Path Forward,” with its forecast that in 2018, “2.5 million new jobs will require a graduate degree,” reminds me of those forecasts from the peak, time of university expansion in the 1960s (when one of my senior colleagues at Wesleyan urged us to start a Ph.D. program in English, because by 1980 or so the state of California alone would need all the new Ph.D.’s coming out of existing programs), or the Mellon Foundation’s forecast in the 80s that the job crisis would be over soon, as hordes of people in my generation retired.  We did our bit, and the job market continued its stately decline.  A more plausible forecast, now–one less oblivious to the waste and harm of graduate study–would need more serious, less sycophantic, historical framing.

–Richard Ohmann

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