This article is the second in my series on America’s new social class, the precariat. It takes the reader on a tour of the degeneration of our education system, as a part of the creation of America’s precariat, and the deconstruction of the middle class.
Higher education, as a vocation and field of employment, has gone through some pretty radical changes in just the last seven years. Some of those changes had been in the making since the Reagan Revolution. But a lot of what we are seeing now is the product of an accelerated degradation schedule that is dictated by moneyed interests and forced austerity. A history, by way of relevant press clippings, is documented here. I wrote an introductory essay on the precariat recently. In it, I used the following definition:
Precariat: a class of people who live just above the poverty line when, according to their professional experience or training, they should be well above it, somewhere along the spectrum we know as the middle class.
The definition of precariat most definitely includes the significant sector that is education, and higher education in particular. Up until the Great Recession, teachers and college professors were easily included in any definition of “middle class,” whether one believed they were fairly or overly compensated for their work. This has changed completely for tens of thousands who used to work as full-time educators.
Education, in general, has been in the sights of ALEC for a very long time. The Koch-backed organization, in tandem with other Koch Brother-created or affiliated groups actively participate in state, local and national lobbying to effect changes to the way our children’s education is planned, funded, and carried out and in certain states, even participate under the guise of promoting entrepreneurship.
On the higher education front, the Kochs have long been active in their attempts at dictating how economics, the social science, is taught, through direct interference and micro-management via endowments, to a far greater degree than any other known wealthy donors. At the core, however, Charles and David Koch’s philosophy consists of doing anything and everything that will achieve the decimation of as much of the education system as possible, and the refashioning of what’s left to reflect their ideological credo. They’ve been busy doing this from the bottom up and top down. If there is an aspect of education that exists, the Kochs have it covered.
And, indeed, over the last few years, we’ve seen at first a gradual multi-pronged attack on the middle class, using various means, including education, culminating in the severest of higher education cuts in states like Minnesota and Wisconsin. But those are hardly the only states affected by this. Governor Jindal in Louisiana has spent his entire tenure as governor, with the help of a Republican legislature, engaging in the social experiment of dismantling his state’s education system, leaving higher education for dead last.
Those affected the most are professors, in addition to the students who are graduating into a job market that can’t support their needs or repaying their loans and do so under the weight of crushing debt. Adjuncts are given so little work at any one college that they’re fighting among themselves for whatever work they can get, for near minimum wage pay or less, as you will see from Salon’s Matt Saccaro “Professors on Food Stamps:”
Over three quarters of college professors are adjunct. Legally, adjunct positions are part-time, at-will employment. Universities pay adjunct professors by the course,anywhere between $1,000 to $5,000. So if a professor teaches three courses in both the fall and spring semesters at a rate of $3000 per course, they’ll make $18,000 dollars. The average full-time barista makes the same yearly wage. However, a full-time adjunct works more than 40 hours a week. They’re not paid for most of those hours.
“If it’s a three credit course, you’re paid for your time in the classroom only,” said Merklein. “So everything else you do is by donation. If you hold office hours, those you’re doing for free. Your grading you do for free. … Anything we do with the student where we sit down and explain what happened when the student was absent, that’s also free labor. Some would call it wage theft because these are things we have to do in order to keep our jobs. We have to do things we’re not getting paid for. It’s not optional.”
Merklein was far from the only professor with this problem.
So, why is this happening, especially at a time when STEM is touted as the wave of the future, even though we have high unemployment among experienced STEM professionals and are bringing in H-1B workers? It is undisputed (save for the likes of Rick Santorum) that in order to get a “good job” in today’s society one must have a college degree. As stated in the New Republic article curated below:
The chancellor will now have much greater power to raise student fees and use them as he or she wishes.
The new model won’t just make faculty, staff and students subservient to their chancellors — it will also make the chancellors more subservient to the politically appointed Board of Regents (16 of the board’s 18 members are governor appointees).
Now, chancellor search committees will be chaired by a board member instead of a faculty member and the majority of committee members will be non-faculty.
This is about control by the moneyed few and the fashioning of our society into a modified feudal order, named “precariat” by economist Guy Standing, and as described immediately below by Nobel economist Robert Solow:
Nobel Prize-Winning Economist: We’re Headed for Oligarchy
Robert Solow on powerful families’ threat to democratic institutions.
In a recent interview at the Economic Policy Institute, Nobel Prize-Winning economist and MIT professor Robert Solow riffed on the political effects of increasing inequality and concentration of wealth at the very top. “If that kind of concentration of wealth continues, then we get to be more and more an oligarchical country, a country that’s run from the top,” he said.
Solow’s sentiments echo a point he made earlier this week in his review of Thomas Piketty’s book in The New Republic. (Solow, it should be noted, is not the only Nobel Prize-winning economist to use the o-word in discussing Piketty’s work.) Having examined and explained the trends Piketty identifies, Solow turns his attention to the possible measures that could be taken to ameliorate the inequality, and rejigger the system to favor merit over inheritance.