Thursday, July 2, 2009

A Rigged Game

Darryl Campbell, a Ph.D. candidate in history, has published a sneering obituary for Billy Mays, the hard-working television pitchman who died last month.

Campbell's carefully phrased criticisms ring with intellectual condescension:

"...the loudest practitioner of the old-school hard sell."

"...cookie-cutter ads and the questionably useful devices and chemicals he peddled."

"...he still existed mainly to give us sincere advice about problems we didn't even know we had."

"But the aw-shucks, nice-guy persona, all smiles and shouts, hid a cunning businessman who was fully aware that his persona was every bit a fetish as the trinkets he sold."

"...professional huckster."

"...he promised that acquiring superfluous junk could be a ticket to a better life, even at a time when that life seems to be slipping further and further out of reach for so many of us."

How ironic that Campbell should sneer at Billy Mays, when Campbell himself is purchasing what may the world's most questionably useful degree.

William A. Pannapacker, Ph.D. in English, writes about the academic profession for the Chronicle of Higher Education. In a recent column, he pointed out that only half of all doctorate holders in the humanities -- after nearly a decade of preparation -- will ever find a tenure-track position, the academic equivalent of a full time job.

Pannapacker warns aspiring humanities graduate students, "What almost no prospective graduate students can understand is the extent to which doctoral education in the humanities socializes idealistic, naïve, and psychologically vulnerable people into a profession with a very clear set of values. It teaches them that life outside of academe means failure, which explains the large numbers of graduates who labor for decades as adjuncts, just so they can stay on the periphery of academe."

Given a choice of professional values, I choose the values of the salesman over the values of the professor. The motives of the salesman are transparent. He wants the customer to buy. The values of the professor are carefully disguised. Behind the veneer of scholarly inquiry, he wants to exploit "naïve, and psychologically vulnerable people." Under the noble banner of knowledge, he promises that a superfluous degree is the ticket to a better life. Who is the better huckster here?

Professor Pannapacker concludes, "It's hard to tell young people that universities recognize that their idealism and energy — and lack of information — are an exploitable resource. For universities, the impact of graduate programs on the lives of those students is an acceptable externality, like dumping toxins into a river. If you cannot find a tenure-track position, your university will no longer court you; it will pretend you do not exist and will act as if your unemployability is entirely your fault. It will make you feel ashamed, and you will probably just disappear, convinced it's right rather than that the game was rigged from the beginning."

If Billy Mays really did sell some crap, at least it wasn't as individually expensive or socially toxic as the crap universities are selling some graduate students in the humanities.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's a shame that the art of selling not appreciated enough by society. If not for the salesperson in one form or the other products would not be purchased. The last cog in the distribution process is the companies representative to the public and must not be taken for granted.