Monday, March 7, 2011

Academe vs. Reality

I don't know if you've noticed this, but it seems there's some sort of disconnect between what goes on in the heads of academics and what is actually going on in the world. The latest instance to be added to this ignominious case-file is that of the MSM program here at Notre Dame. Just last year our directorship became a triĆ¼mvirate with the addition of two new professors from parts Eastward. (We snagged 'em from the Ivy league. Somewhere in there is a G&S patter-aria to be written.) Anywho, these two came in with big plans for our sacred music program, the major 'improvement' to be made regarding which is the addition of many many more conductors. (Plans are for a sufficient number of student-conductors such that they can form their own choir to perform recitals. As it is, currently they rely on the goodwill of organists to supplement their choirs.) This is a colossal mistake. There are no church music jobs for conductors who are not also organists; with one exception, none of our present conductors is an organist. We have supervised church music placements, both on campus and in nearby churches, and the glut of conductors is threatening to overwhelm the available positions, which historically have been reserved for organists (y'know, the folks who can actually do the job). If this discourages organists from applying to the program, the problem will only be exacerbated. A Masters in Sacred Music from Notre Dame, at this rate, will become a vanity degree, for it certainly will not be useful for any extant jobs. None of this seems to bother the New Powers that Be.

This example, surely representative of all sorts of idiocy in college programs, raises several important questions. Chief among them is this: is a degree meant to be useful? I don't mean to say that a proper education is not a great boon to a mind, to a community, and to society as a whole. But can we, in good conscience, train students for jobs that aren't there? How many degrees in underwater basket-weaving shall we hand out before we realize that we've got enough baskets already?


  1. Hm.

    So, it sounds like you're asking something like the following. What impact ought the fact of there being too many baskets have on the training of basket-weavers? I'd say, none.

    For one, people might want to know how to weave baskets without ever intending to be weavers themselves. You majored in weaving, you needed something to do after undergrad, but ne'er did you intend to yourself become a weaver professionally. Seems to me that nothing there should prevent you from getting the degree. Or at least, the burden falls on the prescriptor to show why you shouldn't be granted admission.

    For two, artificially controlling the supply of weavers seems like setting off down the road to an inefficient weaver market. That is, there's a demand for weavers at the current price. As the demand for weavers increases, the price increases unless the supply increases to meet the demand. Similarly, price for weavers can decrease as demand decreases or supply increases without a commensurate increase in demand. Your problem seems to be that you don't like that other weavers are willing to work for less than you're willing to work for, and because they are so willing, they drive down your market value.

    But, who are you - or, indeed, the good people at Baskeweaving U - to decide when there are too many weavers, or what a 'good price' for weaving might be? If people so love the thought of weaving that they'd be willing to do it for increasingly lower rates, I say, good for the congregations in need of weavers. And what's more, the weavers won't care, because they are the ones who thought weaving so valuable as to be willing to do it for the lower rate, anyway.

    But then, I'm in an MA program in philosophy. One mightn't expect me to side with labor over management here, when labor's argument requires that degrees be practical, in the sense of increasing one's ability to secure a job.

  2. I agree with you until you start speaking of "market value". Indeed, there is still far higher demand for baskets than we have basket-weavers. My problem is that I believe baskets should be of a certain quality. (That is, with very few exceptions, it is necessary that every church musician be a capable organist, if we are to sustain a certain level of sacred-music literacy in our churches.) It's not that I'm being undersold; it's that the program is training basket-makers who can produce only Chinese knockoff baskets, and if these inferior baskets become accepted as standard, well, that's the end of competent church music as we know it.

    Y'know, if we continue this conversation perhaps we should drop the basket-making metaphor...

  3. Haha, sure. For the record, I always thought basket-weavers had about them a certain je ne sais quoi that church musicians (or philosophers, for that matter) could never quite muster.

    Anyway. I think my point is that, if churches are happy with the 'Chinese knockoff' musicians, explain the problem to me. I mean, if their needs can't be met by conductors-non-organists, won't they just not hire such as can't meet their needs? Which is to ask: if what churches need are conductor-organists, why would they hire anything less?

    And what's more, if there's still a high demand for church musicians in times when most graduate programs produced only conductor-organists (so, before the three horsemen turned up in South Bend), how was *that* demand being met? I mean, 'high demand' just means that there wasn't a large enough supply of conductor-organists to meet the needs of churches, right? So, if additional conductor-organists can't be induced to enter graduate programs by increased stipends, or churches aren't willing to incentivize conductor-organists to attend graduate school by the promise of higher salaries, whatever the reason, churches don't really have a lot of options. They can either pay more for conductor-organists until the supply increases, or they can pay for the 'it'll do' option: conductor-non-organists.

    And either way, if the demand for conductor-organists is high, and churches are having to do with a spread-thin supply of them, I'd wonder which of these is better: a short supply of conductor-organists, or a supply of conductor-organists that isn't spread thin that is also supplemented by an additional supply of conductor-non-organists who pick up the slack. I mean, which has a worse impact on churches? Too few highly qualified conductors, or just enough less qualified conductors? And, obviously I'm not intimately acquainted with this problem, but what other options are there?

  4. Okay, I’m just going to jump in here and I may overstate a few things myself. While I’m not intimately acquainted with the problems associated with educating either basket weavers or non-organ-playing-conductors, I think that, at least, some of what Ross is more widely applicable.

    *N.B- Are the Academy and Reality actually in opposition?* It might be an interesting poll to conduct... However, I’ve found that those (even, or perhaps especially, intellectuals) on the outskirts of academia pretty reliably insist on drawing an artificially sharp divide between that which goes on in the university and real-life. I’m only slightly intrigued by what this position indicates about one’s metaphysical commitments. I’m pretty sure that this tendency reflects the wide-spread belief that higher education is a material investment (which one hopes will pay off in kind), not a hedonistic pursuit, or a path to eudaemonia. Hence Aaron’s first suggestion (“You majored in weaving, you needed something to do after undergrad, but ne'er did you intend to yourself become a weaver professionally. Seems to me that nothing there should prevent you from getting the degree.”) mischaracterizes the problem that Ross is addressing. The percentage of folks working at Starbucks who have masters degrees is increasing. I doubt that, if polled, these good people would talk about how they went to graduate school because they could afford it, and were looking for something to do with their free time.

    Rather, many undergraduates are encouraged to continue on to graduate school, because the Bachelors degree does not have the value it once did and, after-all, the current job market is crap. So, we have a generation (or more) of undergraduates flooding graduate programs without any reliable tools for a cost/benefit analysis. Unsurprisingly, the problems that have plagued undergraduate education are cropping up in the postgraduate education system. Not the least of which is people who are ill prepared to enter the job market and simultaneously saddled with debt.

    So, the burden falls on the prescriptor to show why you shouldn't be granted admission? I’m not suggesting that non-organ playing conductors be barred from an MSM program, so long as they are willing to pay (since they will be the least competitive candidates for jobs in their field of study post-graduation). However, those competing for funding and other enticements from graduate programs, ought to be “the folks who can actually do the job.” Though I’m sure there’s lot’s more to say on this topic, I’ll wrap it up. Ross wants to know, can we, in good conscience, train students for jobs that aren't there. Sure, so long as they’re aware of the numbers game they’re playing. Unfortunately, as Professor X has pointed out, education is being commodified. The financial bottom line that motivates students to return to the classroom is the same bottom line that’s encouraging the expansion of graduate programs. And with the watered down value of the undergraduate degree, are we really confident that there are large numbers of people who are adequately prepared to fill the spots made available? I think this is the heart of the 'Chinese knockoff’ problem. And while there may not be a huge quality control issue within the fields of sacred music or underwater basket-weaving, other disciplines may be more significantly degraded.