Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Loss of Legibility, Or, Why Do People Still Pile Into Grad School?

Why do people still go to grad school in the liberal arts?

My generation had an excuse; we were told that a great wave of retirements was imminent, after which jobs would spring from the ground like mushrooms. In other words, we were lied to.

But the adjunct trend is so well-established at this point, and the economic irrationality of grad school so screamingly obvious, that it's fair to wonder why many departments are actually experiencing record applications.

I have a few thoughts, but I invite others.

First, of course, is True Love. Some people can't imagine doing anything else, and won't be dissuaded. I won't discount the idea that people will do self-defeating things for love, but I don't think that explains variations over time. I'd assume that True Love is constant over time, so we need to look at something else to explain variations.

Second is self-delusion. Here again, though, I don't think self-delusion fluctuates with economic cycles, so I'm inclined to assume that this holds pretty constant.

Third is the "port in a storm" hypothesis. If there aren't any jobs to be had anyway, why not ride out the recession in grad school? You get loan deferments, maybe a fellowship or T.A. line, a dignified excuse for poverty, and more education. Applications tend to climb during recessions, so I imagine there's something to this. The degree may not pay off, but if nothing else is paying off either, what the hell?

(The problem with this line of reasoning is that grad school lasts a lot longer than most storms.)

In a conversation with a colleague, though, I heard a fourth explanation, and it made sense to me. I'll call it the Loss of Legibility.

In my college days, in the 80's, we assumed that there were several relatively clear paths to upper-middle-class prosperity. You could go pre-med, or pre-law, or sign up with an investment bank, or do 'consulting,' or go to grad school to prepare to ride the great wave of retirements. Each of those options offered a legible path. It had steps, it had hoops, you knew (more or less) what to do. Each had pitfalls and risks, but at least you could imagine how to get there from here.

In the early 90's, the era of "post-" everything, the old order stopped hiring, but the new was still emerging. A cohort that had played by the old rules found itself locked out, blocked by Boomers and bad economics.

Now, the old stuff is largely dead, and even the New Economy stuff isn't what it used to be. But academia still offers a surface legibility. Yes, the odds are daunting, but good students have spent years rising to the top of academic competitions. There's still a path, there are still hoops, there are still rules. They don't really work very often anymore, but they're there. As the rest of the economy has become less legible, this holds real (if misguided) appeal.

I think this explains some of the wounded indignation people express when they can't get the tenure-track jobs they wanted. In many other lines of work, it's simply understood that the climate of opportunity fluctuates, and you'll get both good breaks and bad. But academia holds tenaciously to the myth of legibility. When you follow the rules for twenty years, only to find nothing waiting for you at the end, it's easy to move to angry disbelief. Academia likes to tell itself that it's immune to economics, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. It's supposed to be clear and fair, economics be damned. So some people hang on for years on end, waiting to redeem what they think they're owed.

The problem, of course, is that academia isn't immune to economics, and can't be. And the huge wave of applicants now will discover that that in some really unwelcome ways in a few years.

The meritocratic myth does untold damage. Part of the damage, I think, comes from people hanging on to the dream for far too long, since doing something else would constitute failure. The failure isn't theirs, but it feels like it, and that counts for something.

But until people stop buying the myth of the legible path, I suspect this will continue. I hope not, but it will. In the meantime, I think we owe it to the next generation to steer them away from grad school whenever possible. The path is legible, but it doesn't lead anywhere good.

Wise and worldly readers, especially those on the brink of grad school, I'd like to hear your theories. Why do people still go to grad school in the liberal arts? And what do you make of the legibility theory?