The fallacy of blaming universities for unemployment

I feel obliged to respond to wretchedly short-sighted articles like this one in Salon that critique liberal arts programs for not preparing people for the brutal job market. I’m just going to say this as simply as I can: It makes no sense to blame universities for producing graduates who can’t get jobs, because the problem is the employers, not the employees. We don’t have a “shortage of qualified graduates”; we have an employment system that’s broken and harmful, an employment system that prioritizes the needs of business owners and managers over those of society and the general population, an employment system, in short, whose constant failure to sustain collective life and common dignity is scarcely to be blamed on the educational system. In the end, education is only one input into the employment system, and when the problem is that system itself, it just makes no sense to dump all the blame onto one of the system’s inputs. If you put someone through a meat grinder, no matter how well prepared for the experience they may be, no matter how much they’ve been educated to be a good, flexible, attractive lump of raw flesh, they come out ground to pieces.

Now, contrary to received wisdom, unemployment is in no sense inevitable. In fact, anthropologically speaking, the phenomenon of unemployment is an aberration. The majority of human societies have had no such thing as unemployment. This should be obvious, if we reflect for a moment on the structure of work in small-scale agrarian societies where people work primarily for themselves and for their household. There were, for example, no unemployed people among the Nuer of Sudan, at least not when E. E. Evans-Pritchard studied them back in the 1930s. He informs us that “there [was] enough land for everybody on the Nuer scale of cultivation… it is taken for granted that a man has a right to cultivate the ground behind his homestead” (p. 77). Or take the Gawans of Papua New Guinea, in Nancy Munn’s account. Gawan men and women alike were expected to work, and the lazy were condemned; as among the Maenge, “passivity [was] the social defect par excellence.” Nevertheless, “daily work,” which focused on the family’s garden, “is planned by each person or nuclear family… [and] a person’s participation in any wider group arrangements for work depends entirely on individual decision” (p. 75, p. 30). For that matter, Michel Panoff, writing about the neighboring Maenge, notes that it took an average of four hours of daily work per adult to feed a nuclear family.

A world where a normal family with no money could work four hours per day to keep itself comfortably fed is, to us, unimaginable. A world where people by default have decent access to the means of sustenance even if they’re not wealthy and haven’t done well in the “brutal job market” is, for us, somewhere past the horizons of our collective imaginations. A world where there wasn’t a harsh competition to be able to participate in reproducing the material basis of our world is, basically, inconceivable. And the limits of inconceivability are accepted as normal; and the fact that our society is an anthropological aberration is utterly unknown.

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“Nothing left but the fac”

I’ve just started reading the most prominent book on French university reforms of the past year, Refonder L’Université: Pourquoi l’enseignement supérieur reste à reconstruire, which translates to “Refounding the University: Why higher education awaits reconstruction.” It came out last October from La Découverte, and has spawned debate at, for instance, ARESER (the Association of Reflection on Higher Education and Research), at a seminar last November on the Politics of Science, and more generally within the remnants of the faculty opposition to Sarkozy’s education policy.

I may write more about this in the future (once I’ve finished it!), but I was struck by the very beginning of the introduction (pp. 15-16), which gives a nice capsule summary of how the university is seen as being at the absolute bottom of the prestige scale in French higher education. I’ll translate; bear in mind that “la fac,” short for “the faculty,” is French slang for “the university.” Bear in mind, also, that a major distinguishing characteristic of French public universities is that they’re open to everyone with a high school diploma, while other kinds of higher education have more selective admissions.

Bastia, August 2008. Conversation with a taxi driver. He finds out that his passenger is an academic. He brings up the case of his daughter, which he’s worrying about. She has just received her high school diploma, science track, with high honors. She wants to enroll in a private school in Aix-en-Provence to be a speech therapist. It’s a dream she’s had since childhood. This is the best school for it, it seems, but the tuition fees are high and you have to pay for lodging too (no dorm housing if you’re not enrolled in the public university). But above all, the results are uncertain: there are only a few dozen places for several thousand candidates. The academic tries to convince the taxi driver that it would be good for his daughter to enroll simultaneously in psychology at the university. That would at least guarantee that she’ll get a degree. Neither the taxi driver nor his daughter seem to have thought of that…
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Rage, repetition and incomprehension in precarious work

The following is the text of an open letter sent to the President of the University of Paris-8 by a teacher in visual arts. She’s losing her job because of a particularly Kafkaesque circumstance: she doesn’t make enough money from art to maintain her tax status as an artist, and in France there’s a regulation that says you have to have a “principal occupation” to work as an adjunct. At any rate, this text, which tends to express its outrage through repetition and irony, is a particularly rich example of the emotional consequences of precarity.

April 28, 2011

Mr. President,
The honor I feel in writing to you is coupled to the hope that you will be able to spare a few moments.

In terms of the facts, all resemblance to the life of Christine Coënon is not accidental; in the form of the writing, all resemblance to John Cage’s Communication (Silence, Denoël Press, 2004) is not accidental (in italics).

I am a visual artist, an adjunct [chargé de cours] in Visual Arts [Arts Plastiques] at the University of Paris-8 since 1995.
I am 48 years old. High school diploma in 1980, two years of college (Caen, 1980-82), five years in art school (Caen, 1982-87) and then the Institute of Higher Studies in Visual Arts (Paris, 1988-98).
Holding a degree in art (DNSEP, 1987), more than twenty years of research and artistic production, fifteen years of teaching at the University of Paris-8… my pay as an adjunct in visual arts is rising to 358€ per month.
What if I ask 32 questions?
Will that make things clear?

Every week I teach two classes, a practical and a theoretical class, which comes to 128 hours of teaching per year.
All my classes are paid at the “discussion section adjunct rate [chargé de TD].”
Do you think my pay is fair, compared to the pay of a tenured professor whose hourly quota is less at 200 hours?

The adjunct is paid for the time spent in class: two and a half hours, although the time slots are currently three hours long. Should I refuse to answer questions after class? And course preparation? And correcting people’s work? And grading? And tutoring the seniors?
What is the difference between an adjunct and a baby-sitter?

In 2005, the semesters were changed from 15 weeks to 13 weeks; after which adjuncts were paid for 32 hours instead of 37.5.
32 = 13 x 2.5?
Why didn’t someone teach me to count?
Would I have to know how to count to ask questions?

Why, when a visiting lecturer [vacataire] gets a gross hourly wage of 61.35€, am I getting 40.91€ (compare to the rate of a visiting foreign lecturer)?
I was told that the hourly rate of 61.35€ corresponded to what an adjunct costs the university.
So if I just add the bosses’ overhead to my own salary, everything adds up.
Do I understand that adjuncts are supposed to be paying the bosses’ overhead?
These things that are not clear to me, are they clear to you?
Do you think it’s fair, this special system?

Why don’t adjuncts, who agree to work for a trimester or a year, get contracts?
They do, however, sign an agreement to work, and after that it’s a “maybe.”
If I start a semester, am I just supposed to imagine that I’ll be there at the end? The same thing for a year?

The adjunct is paid hourly, and thus doesn’t have the right to paid vacation or to an end-of-contract bonus. [NB: The French have something called an indemnité de précarité, which is supposed to be paid at the end of short-term contracts to “compensate for the precarity of the situation.”]
Is there any point in asking why?

Why is it that an artist must have money to make money?
Why does the university refuse the House of Artists’ regulatory framework? I pay them fees as a good taxpayer. [NB: The House of Artists is the professional association chosen by the French state to handle artists’ social security.]
Why does Visual Arts at the University misrecognize the artist’s situation, characterized by precarity?
(The median earnings of affiliated artists are 8300 euros per year, which is below the poverty line, and 50% of artists earn less than that…)

Is an artist who has “insufficient earnings” insufficient?
Why do I have the feeling of only being a chit for the accountants?
Why is the teaching artist considered “lucky” to get underpaid for teaching only if her research is profitable?
Why, paradoxically, does the University only recognize artists’ sales, and under no circumstances their research and teaching?
(I’ll permit myself to mention that in 2008 I got a research fellowship from the National Center of Visual Arts [CNAP]).

Is this the 28th question?
Have we got a way to make money?
Money, what does it communicate?
Which is more communicative, an artist who makes money or an artist who doesn’t?
Are people artists within the market, non-artists outside the market?
And if people on the inside don’t really understand, does that change the question?

Why do I teach at the University? (Some say there are Art Schools for artists!)
Why? Because I was invited there and, naturally, I found myself a place there.
I say “naturally” because, whether at an Art School or at the Institute for Higher Studies in Visual Arts, I have always felt a complementarity between the historian and/or theorist and the artist.
Too naturally, no doubt, I got invested and, too passionately, I have continued in the conditions that you know.

Is there always something to wonder about, never peace or calm?
If my head is full of uncertainty, what’s happening to my peace and to my calm?
Are these questions getting us somewhere?
And if there are rules, who made them, I ask you?
In other words — is there a possible end to these uncertainties and, if so, where does it begin?

Are there any important questions?
The semesters are getting shorter, the quota of students per class is rising…
60% of teachers in visual arts are precarious, their pay rising a few hundredths of a euro each year.
I ask you, given that experience emerges over time, what will happen if experience is sacrificed for momentary profit?
Are these questions getting us somewhere?
Where are we going?

Mr. President, I hope that you will be able to understand these questions, and able to answer them too.

I inform you that in spite of the recognized interest in my classes, they are going to be canceled because I am subject to the House of Artists system (which is not even a professional obligation for me), and my earnings are below the threshold for being a full member.
“Fired for insufficient earnings”: my courses are being canceled because my earnings are too low.
Faced with the aberration of this situation, and without a response on your part, I will choose to make this letter public on May 19, 2011.

Please accept, Mr. President, this assurance of my best regards,

Christine Coënon
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