Thoughts on The Last Professors by Frank Donoghue

by Nick

Frank Donoghue’s The Last Professors details the history of business culture’s relationship with the American university system, specifically humanities departments which have slowly been pushed off as unimportant since the early 20th century. Donoghue also eloquently supports his fears about the humanities current trajectory as most higher education providers only provide students with profession-prep with online classes. This standardization of content coupled with long standing labor issues that plague academy have put professors in a difficult position that few speak up about. Because the humanities have always had a hard time making a case for the abstract skills they produce in students, corporate culture never takes them seriously.

Donoghue takes on competition in graduate school, the Ph.D job market, the unintended consequences of academic faculty not unionizing themselves in order to prevent the problem of adjunct faculty, and whether or not prestige is worth anything. This monograph provides plenty of sources and more or less does everything the summary tells you it does.

The only two gripes I have are that Donoghue’s style of writing can be needlessly convoluted. For example “Robert Frank in ‘Higher Education: The Ultimate Winner-Take-All Market?’ says that there is, arguing that in the higher-education market, prestige ultimately transcends commodification” (115). This doesn’t diminish the work, but it’s frustrating when the subject matter could be more straightforward. Most of the topics discussed are not difficult to understand, but they are complicated and multifaceted. Luckily, Donoghue consistently presents every issue with complexity and talks about larger consequences because of the structural choices made in higher education.

My only other gripe is that Donoghue doesn’t try to offer up much of an answer to these problems. This is almost an unfair criticism because of the issues’ scale and scope, but “We humanists need to keep pointing out the hollowness of such [corporate] promises, but not in terms that suggest that we have something to offer our students, a transcendently ‘true higher learning’ such as Aronowitz envisions” (137) doesn’t cut it. This specific objection to Aronowitz makes sense, but the idea that the humanities doesn’t offer anything helpful in the professional world doesn’t sit right with me. Critical thinking and analytic skills don’t immediately translate to learning how a specific system works, but surely they count for something even if it doesn’t begin with a dollar sign. A lot of very successful folks do have some experience with the humanities no matter how superficial and while I wouldn’t say their success came from that one college literature class they took, I would say it probably expanded them in a positive way. It might have made them think more seriously outside of business class or prompted self-reflection. Not to mention the positive effects of reading on the brain, or any citation of studies done about how fiction affects the reader. But this book is about contextualizing the perceived crisis in the humanities and how it really originates further in the past and how it’s changing universities today and in the future. It does all this so maybe asking for more isn’t fair.

Aside from those nitpicks this is worth a look if you’re interested in the state of American higher education and the persistent problems in the humanities. It’s out now from Fordham University Press. Recommended.