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In the Basement of the Ivory Tower

A disillusioned professor questions the contemporary American push to get all kids into college.

By Heller McAlpin / March 24, 2011

In the Basement of the Ivory Tower By Professor X Viking 258 pp.

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In June 2008, The Atlantic ran an article titled “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower,” in which a pseudonymous “Professor X” offered harsh criticism gleaned from his experience teaching English composition and literature as an adjunct instructor on the lower rungs of America’s institutes of so-called higher learning. He protested that despite our best egalitarian impulses, college isn’t for everyone and in fact is obscenely costly and wasteful.

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The provocative essay has now been expanded for the wider play (and pay) into In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, a book of the same title. Wanting to preserve his jobs, Professor X chose to remain anonymous and not single out the small private college and two-year community college where he’s been teaching for 10 years, which he believes are representative of the wider problem.

As we know from books as diverse as “Primary Colors” and “Story of O,” anonymous authorship paradoxically can both heighten and undercut a book’s impact. It can free a writer to be bolder and set off an identity guessing game; but it can also lead to less care or weight – as in anonymous Internet postings.

So who is Professor X? Good question. He’s a self-deprecating middle-aged man, possibly parochial-school educated (he mentions a Sister Mary Finbar, who taught him in first grade that “a sentence is a group of words expressing a complete thought,” something his students don’t seem to understand upon arrival at college).

Professor X’s dream, after earning an MFA in Creative Writing, was to write fiction, but practicality and three children led to a job in government. Real estate lust and easy mortgages led him to buy a house beyond his means in a charming exurban village. This in turn led to marital stress, and to his nocturnal teaching gigs – which in turn led to both serious disillusion with the educational system in which he had become a cog, and enormous comfort in “the light of literature.”

Other things we learn about Professor X: the man can write, and he’s passionate about literature. This does not mean, however, that what makes for a powerful essay is sustainable for an entire book. “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower,” while still providing plenty of grist for lively discussion, is regrettably disorganized in its structure and repetitive in its execution – rather like a term paper padded to fulfill minimum length requirements.

Most of the meat can be found up front, in the sharp preface. Professor X rues President Obama’s push for universal college enrollment because so many students are “unprepared for the rigorous demands of higher education ... and a great many will not graduate.” The papers he receives are so unintelligible he wonders whether his students “had not had their fingers placed on the home keys while they typed.”

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