My initial reaction to Professor Trout's article on student Anti-Intellectualism [Spring 1997] was, "Here we go again, another Trout rave about the modem university going to hell...." I am sympathetic to Professor Trout's view. As a junior professor at my institution, I once called a bunch of students, who had not prepared for a discussion by reading assigned materials, parasites. Further, I asked them to leave class. They did, and marched straight to my Dean's office. I was mildly reprimanded for this incident with the vague threat, "At some schools you could be fired for doing that." Again, a few years later, I was taken to task by my school's EEO/ AA officer after a student complained about intellectual harassment. It seems she resented being forced to read, discuss, and write about "a really hard book" for an upper division seminar.
I also believe Professor Trout is way off base for his attack on "careerism." As a graduating high school student from a desperately poor Appalachian family, I surely would not have taken out student loans to become an English major. As an engineer, I was able to pay off those loans, and eventually land a fellowship enabling me to earn a PhD in the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology. "Careerism" has been denigrated by intellectual elite snobs ever since the Ecole Polytechnique opened its doors in Paris, and the German schools began encouraging Brotstudien. A colleague of mine, responding to an advisee's concern over job placement, told him, "Marketability, schmarketability, you're here to get an education, not to get a job." Not surprisingly, said student dropped out to take the first decent job offered to him. Unless we all want to teach like Socrates and give it away for free or, until the Revolution comes, a college education costs money. In a capitalist nation it is not unreasonable that many poor students seek a return on their investment.
Careerism in no way equates with anti-intellectualism. Anti-intellectualism, however, does seem to equate with intellectual elitism. Because a student's educational choices might well be influenced by his economic class, intellectual elitism also shares much with bourgeois liberal consciousness. Perhaps it is just another case of the liberal ventriloquist trying to represent reality for the poor ignorant dummies.
Associate Professor of History & Philosophy
Program in Society & Technology
Montana Tech-University of Montana
Response to Pat Munday:
Professor Munday declares that I am way off base when I attack "careerism." Unfortunately, he doesn't tell us what he means by the term.
Obviously, I want students to find jobs after college, and I believe that college should prepare them--in all kinds of ways--to earn a living. All of us have to eat. In my essay, "careerism" is equated not with an understandable desire to be a productive member of society but with a mindset that evaluates almost every aspect of higher education in terms of how it directly contributes to advancing the student's vocational agenda. The careerist mindset often prompts students to resent and resist courses, information, and efforts that do not obviously support, in their eyes, their narrowly defined, utilitarian goals. When this happens, and it seems to be happening more frequently, careerism could be said to foster an anti-intellectual attitude, Munday's unargued declamation notwithstanding.
I do not think that a preoccupation with narrowly defined occupational skills and knowledge is a good thing, either for students, employers, or the society at large. After all, personal plans and social needs change, and students must learn to be intellectually and occupationally flexible and resourceful. Moreover, students are not merely going to be workers but spouses, parents, relatives, voters, and members of many different social groups. To be personally fulfilled and to enact their varied social roles well, students--like other people--need a wide variety of skills and an extensive fund of information, knowledge, and wisdom. College should help them attain these things, as well as the values that sustain them and the country in the future.
In his last paragraph, Munday insinuates that I am an "intellectual elitist," another epithet that he conveniently leaves undefined. As William Henry says in In Defense of Elitism, the epithet "elitist" now rivals "racist" as the foremost catchall pejorative of our time. That this should be so in higher education, one of the most hierarchical and meritocratic institutions on the planet, strikes me as astounding. But the situation has become downright hilarious when a successful member of that institution, in the course of criticizing someone else for being an "elitist," can divulge: that he has gone well beyond his humble beginnings; that he won a graduate fellowship; that he earned a degree in engineering; that he was awarded a doctorate in the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology; that he has exalted and intimidating academic standards; and, that he is currently an Associate Professor in a special program in Society and Technology. Non-elitist Professor Munday, in short, lets us all know that he is not, as Rocky Balboa might put it, just another bum from the neighborhood.