The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities by Frank Donoghue

Kathryn Pope
Core Faculty, BA
Director, Bridge Program

This book was like passing a 30 car pile-up on the 405. No, it was like being in the pile-up while watching it simultaneously on TV. For anyone who loves the humanities (and especially for adjunct teachers in the humanities) this book is gory — blood and guts everywhere.

Donoghue talks about the very old tension that has existed between academic and business philosophies. The basic question: is education worth it just because we learn cool stuff, or is education only a good idea if we we can make use of what we learn? It’s the big smackdown between the utilitarians and proponents of value ethics: Dickens’ left-brained Gragrind versus George Eliot’s idealist Dorthea. Who will win the match? Donoghue proposes that the Gragrinds of the world won a long time ago — and that we’re now seeing the effects. Universities are cutting costs and outsourcing, like corporations do. Professors (especially those who teach in the humanities) are valued less. He cites the now common practice of having courses taught with contingent, part-time faculty who often take two or three jobs to cobble together a living. He also talks about the dismantling of tenure and the creepy practices of for-profit universities like University of Phoenix. The humanities, he predicts, will soon be only for the class of student who can afford to buy an ivy league education, someone with more than one home and summers in the Hamptons.

I don’t know that Donoghue makes a perfect argument. He doesn’t, for example, make a case for the humanities as an integral part of culture or critical thinking. He focuses almost exclusively on the classics, and he doesn’t describe why vocational training alone isn’t enough for students. I don’t think he’s writing for Gragrind, though. He’s writing to Dorthea, who already values the humanities and who, after all, is the most likely to be that “scholar gypsy” (Donoghue) who teaches five classes and still can’t afford a visit to the doctor.

I love my work beyond measure, but since at reading I was in the adjunct, part-time pool, I couldn’t help but take all this at least a bit personally. Despite the gore, I kept reading, half to be reassured that it wasn’t not just me struggling over here, and half hoping for some magic idea from Donoghue, some glimpse into a beautiful future, where adjunct teachers everywhere, like all baristas or Barnes & Noble booksellers, can have health insurance and wages for every hour we work.
“Why Bother?,” Nicolas Dames, n+1
“The Grim Threat to British Universities,” Simon Head, New York Review of Books
“Why Are the Humanities Important?,” The Human Experience/Inside the Humanities at Stanford University

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