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The Humbug That Is Higher Ed
December 15, 2013 - 8:36pm

“I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.”

                                            Their faithful Friend and Servant, C.D.

                                                     December 1843

                                 (from the Preface to A Christmas Carol, original edition)

It’s all Dickens in our house, these days. I have a seven-year-old playing the part of Tiny Tim in the city’s production of A Christmas Carol; his father and I ferry him to rehearsals and debate the merits of his various fake English accents. We’re reading a childrens’ biography of Dickens as a bedtime story, and we’ve introduced our five-year-old to The Muppets version of the story so she doesn’t bolt in terror when we go to see her brother.

But as we work our way through this grand redemption tale of the season, it occurs to me that Mr. Scrooge feels oddly out of step these days. If Dickens were releasing A Christmas Carol for the first time this December, I’m not sure it’d ever catch on. The truth is, in his original incarnation, sour old Ebenezer looks … a lot like us. At least us in higehr ed.

This dawned on me uncomfortably as I watched The Muppet Christmas Carol with my daughter.

Outraged five year old: Scrooge is mean!

Me: Scrooge has made the mistake of thinking work is the only important thing in life.

Outraged five year old: Why does Scrooge want everybody to work on Christmas?

Me: He can’t imagine anything else useful besides working, honey.

Outraged five year old: Scrooge needs to learn to share!

Me: Well, yes. And he does, right? He doesn’t want to live a life where nobody remembers or cares about him. So he opens his heart.

But in the midst of this heartwarming discourse on industrial redemption, a chill of doubt and fear ran through me. The post-industrial work culture I know is one of precarity and pressure: everybody’s hustlin’. Work, unbundled from its 9-5 constraints, has become pervasive. While I watched A Christmas Carol with my little one, I was also wondering how much email was piling up.

Would it be as kind to let my kids keep believing in Santa as to let them believe in ... Scrooge?

Outraged me (muttering): Power doesn’t seem to be as lonely these days as it was for

Five year old: What?

Outraged me: Nothing, honey.

Five year old: Scrooge is sad because people say bad things about him when he’s not

Outraged me: Maybe the 1% should read what Twitter has to say about THEM.

Five year old: What?

Outraged me: Nothing. Sorry. I was just thinking we still have some Scrooges in the world.

Five year old: Why does Scrooge leave the poor bunny in the cold and throw things at him, Mommy?

Outraged me: Scrooge likes to believe that the people who don’t have what he has don’t deserve it. This is a mistake lots of people make, sweetheart. You should read the comments in The Chronicle of Higher Education sometime.


A search through the academic blogosphere suggests we may not be ready for any real, redemptive Christmas Carol of our times.

Are there no prisons? snipe the comfortable to the precariat who have not achieved tenure.

Are there no workhouses? they sneer at all who dared specialize in disciplines that aren’t, effectively, economic engines of their own.

When the ghosts of Christmas past arrive to point out that many struggling scholars chose their disciplines some time ago, under very different economic and cultural realities, it doesn’t seem to register. Nor does the fact that in many families, just going to SCHOOL is a big, foreign, intimidating thing. If no one in a kid’s life can explain the difference between sociology and neuroscience, the concept of choosing a field based on return on investment simply isn’t on the radar. Perhaps if the commenters spent their surplus hours consulting in local high schools rather than soapboxing on the internet, they could help save future generations of bright deserving youth. But let me tell you, even neuroscience ain’t a ticket to Easy Street these days, Mr. Scrooge, sir.

And if the ghosts of Christmas future intone that the tenure track is dwindling and in fact that higher ed would currently run aground in 20 minutes if all who teach within its hallowed halls were offered job security and a living wage? More selective hearing. The deserving will make it, runs the Victorian logic of parsimonious “charity” that only extends its warmth to those it recognizes as kith and kin, fellow winners in an increasingly stacked and unsustainable game.

Secure or precarious, we academics are all tied like Scrooge to our desks these days, trying to fit more and more work and possibility into the same old 24 hours. If you have a reasonable job in academia after studying for half a lifetime? Please expect to work increasingly long hours on the treadmill for the privilege of believing you have not been left behind. If you don’t? Better bust your hump and distinguish yourself ever further, ever higher.

And if the ghost of Christmas present dares show his jolly face and suggest you leave your toil for leisure? The academy – and the rest of post-industrial capitalism – suggests you simply make leisure of your toil. We work on ourselves and our careers and our merged personal/professional identities, here in these convenient online spaces, around the clock. Few of us have time for redemption, these days.

So pass over, spirits: we in this era have no real ears to hear you.

God bless us, every one.





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