Graduate school as trap

Thomas H. Benton, who has written several articles attempting to demystify graduate school, takes his critique about as far as it can go in his most recent installment (via MR).

Graduate school in the humanities is a trap. It is designed that way. It is structurally based on limiting the options of students and socializing them into believing that it is shameful to abandon “the life of the mind.” That’s why most graduate programs resist reducing the numbers of admitted students or providing them with skills and networks that could enable them to do anything but join the ever-growing ranks of impoverished, demoralized, and damaged graduate students and adjuncts for whom most of academe denies any responsibility.

That’s pretty explosive rhetoric, but having been in that trap and perhaps still feeling its effects, I can’t dispute any of it. I guess I would say don’t go to graduate school unless you already have a job and your company is paying for it.

It’s useful to read Benton’s article in conjunction with the Eurozine essay by Christopher Newfield about the “cognitariat.” His argument is that there is a hierarchy among knowledge workers, with most them vulnerable to exploitation, thanks to globalization-era management techniques that do away with loyalty. This plays out at the university level, where those who do work funded by corporations are treated preferentially. Naturally whatever value the humanities provide are undercompensated. I thought this passage pertained directly to the situation of the humanties grad student:

There is indeed a conflict between the modes in which knowledge is produced and owned within cognitive capitalism. But this does not translate into a political conflict of the kind Gorz calls class war. Analysts often suggest that two general phenomenon can undermine a productive contradiction like that of cognitive capitalism. The first is immiseration, in which bad conditions force a revolt. The second is inefficiency, in which elites tire of wasting money controlling people and not getting that last 20 per cent out of knowledge workers made sullen by mediocre treatment. Neither of these function in the case of knowledge economies, where the knowledge worker masses are still middle class on a world scale, and where a sense of professional duty produces good enough efficiency in nearly all cases (and threats of layoffs and closure where it does not).

Benton argues that the “life of the mind” ruse masks immiseration while the cheap teaching labor extracted prevents “inefficiency” from ending the situation.