Capitalism, Humanity, and Adjunct Professors
Recently, I was at a campus-wide meeting of adjunct faculty at a medium-sized suburban community college in mid-America. It was a valuable learning experience, but not altogether for the intended reasons. We were given good information on where our school ranks in effectiveness with its peer institutions. Adjuncts generated a good and (largely) substantive discussion. The skilled and knowledgeable tech guy gave a hasty but useful presentation of the new online course management system. And the President of the college brought forth his “pep-talk,” which was obviously the same talk he had given to the full-time faculty. He gave a budget presentation accompanied by what sounded an awful lot like a scolding. A scolding for a group of people that the college utterly depends upon to . . . to what? It got me thinking, again . . .
The President lofted a few warm fuzzies around the room before his talk on the budget. But, it was really quite astounding, as an adjunct faculty member working at half-price with no benefits to sit and listen to a man who is largely a prop on a six-figure salary tell us that we must do more with less. The public is not going to tolerate having to pay any more for higher education, we were told; we need to quit whining and do more. Why? Because these private institutions of higher learning were dumping all this money into advertising and offering vo-tech training, where we could not guarantee jobs to students because, the implication was, we teach liberal arts and social sciences that, frankly, do not add to the GDP. Remember, this was at an institution of HIGHER learning, albeit a “mere” community college. As for the majority of the adjunct faculty, they seemed locked in rapt attention, nodding their heads and responding the proper way at all the proper moments. One brave adjunct raised her hand an asked, “With all due respect, can you tell us why the previous President of the college was paid 700 times more than adjunct professors who actually produce the credit hours?” One clever fellow saw his sycophantic opportunity and answered, “Because he had to answer questions like that.” It was the only substantive question asked during the presentation on the budget, and the President’s answer was, “Good question,” and he moved on.
Yet, there are some basic needs in the human psyche that were completely left out of the President’s, and the state legislature’s, and the Board of Regents’, and the federal government’s calculations. Namely, the need for awareness – political and personal, health, respect, love, companionship, shelter, connection to creation; in short, the need to be the person one was born to be, which has a lot more to it than working to produce profits typically enjoyed by someone else. This has everything to do with the underlying myths operating in the adjuncts’ meeting in Room 232.
I am a student of history, so I tend to see things in historical terms. What I’ve studied and written about most is how the mythos of a society is created, perpetuated, and can be used by the more controlling among us to manipulate large numbers of people. This process has been characterized by deceit. The corruption is built into the system; a somewhat different system, known as feudalism, also employed deceit as a fundamental tool. But now we have, for lack of a better word, capitalism – the “glorious” revolution of the bourgeoisie. Now, capitalism has replaced feudalism, but the same structure is basically present; it’s just more fluid and, ultimately, more destructive because of the technological power that has been unleashed. The people are told that this system has unleashed the power of the human spirit, that their chains have been thrown off, that they too can rise to the top of the heap and live in comfort and even luxury until the end of their days. And it’s all due to this remarkable economic system.
There, in this version of the myth, exposition of its “humanity” ends. Work, the myth says, is the answer to all of your problems. Work harder. Do more with less. Work harder. Be efficient. Work harder. If you step outside of the myth, it begins to look a lot like an addiction – work, must have more work, harder, harder, harder . . . etc. And for what? Well, profits of course. These will make it all worthwhile. But what if you are an adjunct professor? Then of course you LOVE what you do and you don’t need to be paid as much. Good question, move on . . . . Incidentally, those who follow the adjunct’s plight and higher ed generally recognize this rhetoric as “fascist dog-whistle” for privatization. Once this is accomplished, we can dispense with all of this liberal arts nonsense; except for a chosen elite, of course.
There was a brief time -- about a generation, maybe two -- where there was a serious attempt to control otherwise reckless bourgeois profiteering that has characterized imperial expansion since the 13th century. (And no, I'm not a doctrinaire Marxist, I'm just an admirer of his analysis of capitalism.) New Deal liberalism may have been the best way to minimize these excesses through regulation, but it's still corrupt at base. How much of this is the human condition and how much can be overcome by embracing a morally sound mythos? And if the latter is possible, how would this transpire? I know these are abstract questions, but we're talking about a society that has long embraced an amoral mythos. New Deal liberalism, as I point out to my students, IS the middle ground between fascism and communism -- and its effectiveness was fleeting. The Liberals began their decline when they turned their back on the working class. Trading in Henry Wallace for Harry Truman was a crucial moment in the decline. But ultimately, the decline is due to a loss of a rhetorical war by the center left to the right in the U.S. (there not being any functional "left"). The rhetoric is rooted in the myths by which most Americans conduct their lives, knowingly or otherwise.
We can change the people in the system (marginally effective); we can change the system (more difficult); and/or we can change the mythos underlying society (impossible, I think, to contrive). So, I will continue to speak out, educate, write, play my guitar, and enjoy life as best I can — after all, I’m an adjunct professor – I LOVE what I do.