The Road to Professorial Liberation

Eric, Regarding long-time-fandom, thanks very much and the feeling is mutual. But you haven’t described my views accurately.

I’m not pleading on behalf of academics; rather on behalf of humanities and social science academics, a group of which I am not a member. As I pointed out, professors in the sciences have access to other sources of income that are generally closed to humanities scholars. Your analysis of the state of US faculties is interesting but wrong; you’ll find that the US intelligentsia had clearly-formed left-wing views long before 1920. Teddy Roosevelt complained about them when he was president (and he pointed out the absurdity of pacifist condemnations of, e.g., the famous British victory against the Mahdists at Omdurman). What happened to the universities is simple: after World War II, they were taken over by intellectuals. Before that point Yale, Harvard, Princeton et al had been run by social (not intellectual) bigshots. Once the intellectuals took over, the political future was clear. The main determining event was the way US intellectuals turned Vietnam into a pseudo-American First World War. They didn’t want to be cheated out of the cathartic experience Euro-intellectuals enjoyed after 1918; therefore they made the absurd claim that Vietnam, like the First World War in the Keynesian view, was a doomed and pointless exercise in bloodletting.

But, anyway, your claim that English professors are merely getting what they’re worth is clearly wrong. A Harvard education is worth a lot. Not because the students learn anything much (not much that’s true, at any rate), but because a Harvard degree is clearly worth money in the job market (or is believed to be, which amounts to the same thing). Therefore students or their parents (or US taxpayers) are willing to pay huge sums to Harvard in exchange for Harvard degrees. The question is, what happens to that money? The same thing that used to happen to ticket receipts at ball games before the players got smart. It’s not that a Harvard English professor is worth what a right fielder (or whatever) makes. Just that he’s worth a lot more than he gets today.

The solution is obvious: a free market in education; a market controlled by the producers (namely the professors) and not the institutions. The road from here to there isn’t trivial, but one way or other that’s where we’re going.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In our techno-Utopian dreams, the advance of the internet is “a little like a cross between Adam Smith and Albert Einstein; the Invisible Hand accelerating toward the speed of light,” says tech visionary Jaron Lanier in this month’s big-thinking lead essay. Yet, according to Lanier, we chug along saddled by the illusion that the Internet is mainly a technological rather than a cultural phenomenon. Software, Lanier argues, is “brittle” and can continue to function only when backed by what he calls “Antigoras”– “privately owned digital meeting arenas made rich by unpaid or marginally paid labor … tweaking the global system of digital devices so that the bits in the various pieces of software remain functional and meaningful.” Antigoras are indispensable, but “if software stays brittle,” Lanier says, “there will be a huge dampening effect on any hyper-speed takeoff plans of the digital elite.” Takeoff velocity requires a reorientation that acknowledges that the “the Net is precisely the generosity and warmth of humanity connecting with itself.”

Response Essays

  • Open source software guru Eric S. Raymond takes issue with Lanier’s characterization of “lock-in,” his antipathy to the command line, and his discussion of ambiguity. Raymond claims that if Lanier’s point was just that the Internet is “a conduit of expression between people,” then he would stop in agreement. But, he writes, “the actual point seems to be to maintain an opposition between capitalism and (gift) culture that I think is … mistaken.”

  • Glenn Reynolds — taking pieces from both Lanier and Raymond — argues that small proprietary zones within the big open Internet — “semigoras” in Lanier’s terms — might prove “very fertile places for innovation and growth on the Internet” with the potential to empower individuals and small groups to “achieve the worker’s paradise” through technology and markets.

  • Ten years after his “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” John Perry Barlow insists that “the Internet continues to be an anti-sovereign social space, endowing billions with capacities for free expression that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.” A liberating future is still ahead, Barlow argues, but we must be on guard against a deep fact of both biology and markets: “New success inspires creativity. Old success tries to kill it.”