Thursday, July 31, 2003

Tenure and NASA 

Photon Courier posts a very interesting comment on the similarities between academics and astronauts.
What does a space shuttle disaster have to do with the current troubling situation in the teaching of the humanities? Strange as it may seem, I believe that there is a connection.

...There are very few people in American who have more job security than a civil servant or a university tenured professor. But this security seems to have little payoff when it's time to speak up about something important and truly controversial. Perhaps jobs that offer high security tend to attract people who are not risk-takers. Or perhaps concerns about being liked by one's peers trump job-security issues per se. In any event, it does not seem that systems with a high degree of employee protection really yield the expected benefits in terms of outspoken employee behavior.

I'm sure there are some NASA employees who had and have the courage to speak out [about the failures that led to the Challenger disaster], just as I am sure that such courage exists among some senior professors of the humanities. But it seems that such people are too few in number, at both institutions, to make a real difference.

This has to sound familiar to Jack, who's said this numerous times to me privately and here on the blog.
[Stanley] Fish ends his article like this: "...while academics are always happy to be warned against the incursions of capitalism, they are unlikely either to welcome or heed a warning against the incursions of virtue." He's right. And the medicine will get worse, until the bulk of the sensible faculty who have been depressingly silent, and in their fears have abdicated their responsibility to actually educate their students, start to see the sense of things as Stanley Fish has, get back up on their back feet, and become professionals again.