Wisdom Is Sold in the Desolate Market

What is the price of experience? do men buy it for a song?

Or wisdom for a dance in the street? No, it is bought with the price

Of all that a man hath, his house, his wife, his children.

Wisdom is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy

And in the wither’d field where the farmer plows for bread in vain. . . .

It is an easy thing to talk of patience to the afflicted,

To speak the laws of prudence to the houseless wanderer . . .

It is an easy thing to rejoice in the tents of prosperity:

Thus could I sing & thus rejoice: but it is not so with me.

[From the Song of Enion in “Vala, Night the Second,” by William Blake]

There is an accurate and depressing blog by a colleague on Patheos titled “How The American University was Killed, in Five Easy Steps.” It can be found at http://junctrebellion.wordpress.com/2012/08/12/how-the-american-university-was-killed-in-five-easy-steps.

His point is that the 1%, the only class in America that can create, implement, and finance long-term plans, decided back in the 1960s to eliminate the kinds of people (intellectuals) who could oppose their stupidity and greed. They are people who fit into Stage One in Scott Peck’s scheme of moral development. Stage One is Infantile; an adult in that stage is a criminal.

The five steps are:

1. defund public higher education. (State and community colleges were free back in the 1960s.)

2. deprofessionalize and impoverish the professors and continue to create a surplus of underemployed and unemployed Ph.D.s. (75% of American college teachers are adjuncts, with no job security or benefits, living on the edge of poverty; 57% even at Harvard)

3. move in a managerial/administrative class who take over governance of the university (beancounters with neither education nor love of it)

4. move in corporate culture and corporate money (this is why college professors now get fired for proving, for example, that GMOs are poisonous)

5. destroy the students: (a) dumb down and destroy the quality of the education so that no one on campus is really learning to think, (b) make college so insanely unaffordable that only the wealthiest students can afford to go to the school debt free.

It’s understandable why he writes his blog under a pseudonym. It’s risky enough for me to talk about all this even in generalities.

As I’ve written before, my Awakening at age 14 saddled me with an obligation to seek out “Truth” for myself about all things, not about merely one narrow academic specialty. My getting a Ph.D. was part of that path; I wanted that advanced training in order to be a better writer. I had no illusions (at least most of the time) that a Ph.D. would get me a secure and well-paying academic post; that was one of the rare instances in which I foresaw the future accurately.

I became a Doctor of Philosophy on October 22, 1980, exactly on my fortieth birthday. The degree was conferred on me by the Franciscan School of Theology, which had been founded by Fr. Junipero Serra in 1776 in Santa Barbara. As a Doctor of Philosophy, do I have a mandate to doctor philosophy? To heal philosophy? To work toward restoring the love of wisdom? For most Ph.D.s, the title is an empty formality inherited from the “Dark Ages.” Few have ever taken even a single philosophy course. But my program was all about philosophy, religious history, creativity. Should I feel that, in knowingly accepting that degree, I also accepted an obligation to carry out its mandate, one going back to that godstruck medieval hippie?

The Franciscans were the good guys and scholars of their time. It is only because of their compassion that any of the native peoples of California survived at all. Working on hagiology back in the 1960s, I wondered about the nonobvious names they chose for places in California (and some in the Southwest). Finally I realized those names commemorate the great mystics, scholars, and Doctors of the church: St. Augustine. San Tomas Aquinas. San Juan de la Cruz. St.BonaVentura. I wondered why they left out Teresa of Avila—but she hadn’t been canonized yet.

At the end of his blog, my colleague asks whether it is still possible to rescue higher education in America. I think there are some possibilities, but they amount to starting over. Consider Oxford, the oldest and still the best of all universities. I know about Oxford because my GTU doctoral program followed the Oxford model and because of conversions with an author who was a Fellow of an Oxfordcollege.

Oxford is made up of 38 colleges and five “halls,” each being autonomous, self-governing, and collegial; that is, the faculty members are not employees—they own the college and they elect the few administrators they need from their own ranks. To be elected as a Fellow is to be accepted as a partner in the enterprise. In Italy at least one university (I think Bologna) was owned by the students, who hired the teachers. Perhaps there are still some colleges in America organized like that; I haven’t looked.

Perhaps a collective of generalists, people who really are doctors of philosophy, each one being well-informed in all major areas of human knowledge, could form a nonprofit corporation and recruit students who genuinely want a real education, not job training. They would not need buildings, textbooks, tests, homework, or grades. It could be financially feasible for a great deal less than most institutions of “higher” education In America are charging right now, especially since there would be no paid administrators, though perhaps a General Factotum for coordination and continuity.

I promise to think more about all this. I would appreciate feedback and ideas. So would my colleague.


  • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

    Because of the problems you describe, I think academia is going to have to reinvent itself in order to survive. Some solutions I’m seeing attempted include:

    –Independent scholars in niche fields forming online learning communities in which there is either no middleman, or a limited middleman, meaning that students pay their instructors more directly for instruction
    –academic texts are self-published or published inexpensively and quickly by new presses taking advantage of readily available self-publishing technology
    –formation of charter or alternative schools (K-12) that use radically different learning strategies from traditional public schools and employ nontraditional teachers, some of whom would formerly have taught in universities
    –formation of adjunct unions to pressure universities to provide benefits and raise pay rates for part-time instructors
    –formation of academic think tanks outside the academy (like this one: http://ronininstitute.org/ronin-blog/)
    –major universities providing free access to their course materials and recorded lectures through services like Coursera (https://www.coursera.org/)

    None of these strategies is perfect, of course, but there is a great deal of innovation happening right now. (Necessity is the mother of…)

    • Nicole Youngman

      How on early are faculty going to be able to survive financially in that world…? Re: textbooks, one thing my university does that I just love is RENT the textbooks to the students for a really cheap fee. Saves them several hundred dollars per semester. The downside though is that we can’t all use whatever books we want for most of our classes; the dept has to agree on, for instance, the same Intro text that all of us will use for a few years. I hate not being able to pick my own books, but I understand the trade-off, and for students like ours who are struggling to pay even what is comparatively very cheap tuition it’s tremendously helpful.

      • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

        Well, faculty are for the most part not surviving financially now. That’s the reason for the crisis and for the proliferation of alternatives, yes? Tenure is not coming back, and from the ugliness I observe (happily, from a distance) in some of the local universities, those departments that are trying the hardest to fight the trend are the ones causing the most suffering. The abusive way that some departments treat faculty in the name of “saving academia” makes me sick to my stomach. I don’t know if there’s enough money in the world to make me work a tenure-track job and be subjected to the kind of hazing that goes on.

        The old system is most of the way dead. We might as well start having wild visions to try to find sustainable alternatives.

        • Nicole Youngman

          I understand, and believe me I’m right in the middle of a lot of this. But nothing you’ve delineated above is something that would provide actual salaries for professors! Part of the problem too, I think, is that grad students are just plain lied to. We all get told that “the market is tough,” but students get trained as though they’re going to be Big Name Researchers at Big Research Schools, and no other options are ever really mentioned except maybe an occasional derogatory remark about those “teaching schools” that those-who-don’t-make-the-cut will end up at. Then the students (some of them…) finish their degrees, get whacked with many tens of thousands of dollars of student debt, and float from adjunct to “visiting” to adjunct gig just hoping to keep their heads above water, all the while being treated like if they were just somehow good enough they wouldn’t be in that position. Meanwhile we stand up in from of our sociology classes and try to convince the students of the realities of structural inequalities! :)~ Sigh, again.

          • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

            Notice I didn’t recommend any of these strategies, I just said they were some of the things people are trying. Most of them point to a world without “professor” as a job title, it’s true. Some of them do lead to people being able to teach, write, and do public education while still making a living, though (myself included).

  • Nicole Youngman

    Ok guys, as much as I totally resonate with the general themes here, 76% of us ARE NOT ADJUNCTS; we are non-tenure-track. NOT the same thing. Sorry but I’m awfully tired of that study being misread and misquoted. The larger point that way too many of us are adjuncts these days is very true, and folks like me who are full-time but staggering under our teaching loads are increasingly common as well. Academia is increasingly a caste system, where people who aren’t willing to give up the rest of their lives and go deeper and deeper into debt just for the CHANCE of a tenure-track job are looked upon on as losers who just don’t want it badly enough and don’t have enough commitment to the discipline, never mind the realities of the job market and the fact that many of us simply can’t even afford to go to conferences. It’s especially ironic in the social sciences where we’re supposed to be oh-so-progressive but prestige still tops quality and experience every time.

    • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

      > Academia is increasingly a caste system, where people who aren’t willing to give up the rest of their lives and go deeper and deeper into debt just for the CHANCE of a tenure-track job are looked upon on as losers who just don’t want it badly enough and don’t have enough commitment to the discipline, never mind the realities of the job market and the fact that many of us simply can’t even afford to go to conferences.

      Yes yes yes. Sadly, in my world, it’s the women who fought tooth and nail in a sexist system to get their tenured positions who tend to treat grad students and junior faculty (especially other women) the worst — leveling criticism against anyone who dares to put family, health, or any other priority first; viciously tearing down colleagues during tenure reviews; and treating anyone who chooses a job outside of academia as a pity case or a pariah. All I can think is that it’s too difficult to admit how badly they themselves were hazed and victimized in the process of getting their jobs (which, often, don’t seem to make them particularly happy), so they do their best to portray the abuse as “normal” — and part of that involves visiting the same abuse on others.

      It’s not that there aren’t still nice people in academia — there are — but there are also strong pressures that contribute to systematic abuse of those in vulnerable positions (i.e. those without tenure, which is almost everyone).

      All I can say is that I deeply, deeply appreciate the protection my advisor provided me and my colleagues when I was in grad school. He was, among other things, an openly gay, ordained Episcopalian, and he understood that academia’s value system was not the only one, nor the most important.

      • Nicole Youngman

        That’s been my experience too, sadly. All of my colleagues where I work now are actually fantastic, but my dept chair fudged more than a little about the teaching load I was going to have and the kinds of classes I’d be teaching when he first hired me. Some of that may have been unintentional–I do like him very much and he’s been supportive and has worked to find ways go make my job more stable–but academia is just like every other profession these days in that regard: Get as much work as possible out of as few people as possible and keep the full-time hires at an absolute minimum. I’m deeply tired of people giving me that pitying look when they find out I’m not tenure-track; I have a JOB, and that’s a big accomplishment these days. One thing that’s funny, though, is that it turned out one of my first grad school profs, who I’ve been lucky to stay in touch with a bit, got his undergrad where I’m working now, and HE was tickled to death to find out that’s where I’d ended up. :) So they’re not all status-snobs, but still. Sigh.

        • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

          I’m glad you ended up somewhere with a healthy culture!

  • aidanakelly

    Glad to see this inspired an intelligent dialog. At the GTU, all faculty were and are ordained minsters, clergy, religious, etc.; that’s why I was treated humanely, could design my own program, not have anyone added to my committees without my permission. I went there in order to become a doctor of philosophy in the (more or less) original sense, not for job training.

    I find, by just looking, that there are many colleges in America at which tuition is about $4K a year. At that level, 20 students could provide a teacher with a modest but adequate (at least for me) income. I’m supposing they would be students who want to be mentored by generalists in order to become generalists. Back 30 years ago, I tried helping a couple of experimental schools work toward that goal. At 72, with 3 kids at home, I don’t have the energy to try that again–but I can speculate about it..

    • Mike Cosgrave

      I do like the 4k 20 students adequate income idea, but the missing link there are library and certification; for 4k students expect, need and get access to a university library and certification at the end.

      1 academic can manage more than 20 students, Dave Parrys suggestion of 40 to 50 seems right. Any particular student, however, needs access to a variety of perspectives, but it should still be possible, with learning analytics tools, open badging and personal learning tools, to construct a framework in which learner a can have a useful education, at least in some areas like humanities, for 4k.

  • Bodhi

    Hi Dr. Kelly,

    I’ve admired your writing for
    some time now but never commented before. This piece is very timely for
    me though so I thought I’d chime in. I’m a young, queer want-to-be
    academic with a strong interest in Pagan studies (and religious studies
    in general). I was hoping to get some input and maybe advice on my situation?
    I’m not very far along my educational path having just completed my
    associate degree and transferred to my local state university.
    Unfortunately, the school was not what I thought it would be and being
    that I didn’t have starry eyed expectations to begin with that’s saying

    I was only able to afford to go part-time
    due to budget concerns as I’m currently between jobs. Because I chose to
    attend on a part-time basis my university charged me additional tuition
    compared to the normal rate. I was initially O.K., if reluctantly so,
    with this but I ended up being charged $4,000 for 2 classes BEFORE fees
    and books. When I started attending classes I found out that there were
    2,500 people in my section alone. Since I was taking 400 level senior
    courses, one of which was a core course for my major, I found this class
    size troubling to say the least.

    To my further
    consternation the course was team taught by volunteer undergrads whose
    only qualification was that they had taken the course before and gotten
    an “A” so they, “knew what it took”. Considering that the requirement
    for completing the course with an “A” was turning in six 3 page
    “research” papers, citations optional (!), this was a less than
    impressive credential. I don’t consider myself to be an academic snob
    and while I didn’t expect much going in I don’t believe that was
    acceptable – especially not for $2,000 a course and definitely not for
    core courses for my major! I never even met the professor, she refused
    to hold office hours for undergrads.

    I guess
    ultimately I’m not looking for recourse against my, now former,
    university. I paid my money and took my chances as they say. What I’m
    really looking for at this point is guidance on how to get at least a
    moderately good education for an affordable price without losing my
    mind. Because of the nature of my discipline I still have graduate
    school to contend with after I finish my bachelor degree. I am open
    however to non-traditional approaches to getting an education – I just
    have to be able to reconcile them with my career prospects. I don’t want
    to give up on my dreams but I’m already flirting with burn out. Any
    advice you, or anyone else for that matter, could give me would be much

    FYI – The comments system seems to be giving me problems. Sorry about any formatting issues or double posts.


  • David Oliver Kling

    I have been frustrated with the educational system for a long time. After graduating with an M.Div I find my student loan debt maxed out and even after a year CPE Residency (almost done) I find job prospects limiting and frustrating. I would love more education of the doctoral variety but I have no more loan money in which to pull from. I’ve been in school for close to ten years getting the education that I have now and while it isn’t worthless it isn’t paying for itself. I have to simply be grateful for the ontological transformation invoked from my education and save my laments for another time. I like your reflections and I hope that new models of education will eventually manifest in my lifetime.