The Raft of the Medusa

There’s been a shift in higher education. What’s being bought with education dollars has so subtly changed that none of the key components have even been rearranged; only their role has shifted. The resulting destruction shows up in various ways, but almost comically, it’s the students who are blamed for it.

In a post from May, Peter Gray, Ph.D. of Psychology Today asserts that college kids are damaged these days, unable to deal with cruel, cruel life. He’d been invited by a major university to add to discussions about a trend they’d noticed: a decline in resilience among students.

“…students’ emotional fragility has become a serious problem when it comes to grading. Some [teachers] said they had grown afraid to give low grades for poor performance, because of the subsequent emotional crises they would have to deal with in their offices.”

Having spent a fair amount of time in school over the span of thirty years, culminating in a year as a graduate teaching assistant at one of the big 10 schools, 2014-15, I find this predictable institutional perspective beautifully illuminates a result of the actual crisis: the cost of replacing quality, full time faculty with cheap, disposable adjunct staff. The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges reports tenure track faculty were 78.3% of instructors in 1969, by 2009 they were just 33.5%, and that number is in steady decline.

Formerly, education dollars were spent to purchase an education: the knowledge, the struggles sought and faced, the lifelong relationships forged. Institutions that provided that experiences existed for the pursuit of learning, for standards of excellence for their own sake. Now, while that vision is still held up in pantomime, education dollars have become what an institution attracts to perpetuate itself, and that has become the primary goal: to feed. Students are marginally seen as diamonds in the rough to be shaped and shined, and mostly viewed as lump sums of money to be gathered in for processing. Teachers, on the other hand, are easy to come by in our Raft of the Medusa economy.

In the classroom, when a student is truly struggling, they’re embarrassed. They don’t ask for help, we have to come after them. But then there are other students understand the new educational hierarchy. They’re customers, not initiates. Pitching a big bitch will produce higher grades, so bitches will be pitched. Staff is disposable, and the customer is not. The customer service agent the teacher knows her precarious position; she’s not wooed like the student, she’s not worth health insurance, not worth a middle class wage, and certainly not worth the backing of administration. If she ruffles the wrong feathers she’ll be fired essentially, but without even the dignity of firing. She just won’t be asked back.

Here are some of the university’s findings about the university. Try not to laugh. I’ve added my own bullet points:


  • Less resilient and needy students have shaped the landscape for faculty in that they are expected to do more handholding, lower their academic standards, and not challenge students too much.
    • This is what we call Appeasing the Customer
    • Removes responsibility of the school to perform its primary function: to shape the landscape of learning
  • There is a sense of helplessness among the faculty. Many faculty members expressed their frustration with the current situation. There were few ideas about what we could do as an institution to address the issue.
    • I have yet to meet an adjunct professor who doesn’t feel frustrated because of their fragile employment situation; ignoring the impact of this compounds the feeling of helplessness.
    • Because income and job security will not be addressed in a meeting of this kind, of course there were few ideas about what to do.
  • Students are afraid to fail; they do not take risks; they need to be certain about things. For many of them, failure is seen as catastrophic and unacceptable. External measures of success are more important than learning and autonomous development.
    • Read this again but substitute adjunct faculty for students
    • Failure, AKA losing one’s job, is catastrophic and unacceptable in this economy
  • Faculty, particularly young faculty members, feel pressured to accede to student wishes lest they get low teacher ratings from their students. Students email about trivial things and expect prompt replies.
    • Ignores why low teacher ratings are so important: job insecurity
    • Job insecurity drives teachers to feel they must respond to trivial matters


Among my fellow students and in the classrooms where I taught, I did not encounter fragile students who couldn’t deal with life. I encountered a system that is more concerned with enrolment than with education.

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