In the Basement of the Ivory Tower

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

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

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.

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.”

Yet students, “poignantly desperate for success,” continue to hock their futures with punitive loans because of the “wage premium for a college education,” and, more pointedly, “credential inflation,” that requires at least some college for an increasing number of fields (including nursing and state troopers).

Professor X is dismayed by the irreconcilable conflict “between open admissions and basic standards,” which turns low-rung community colleges into “vocational schools on steroids,” filled with students sorely in need of remedial education. As a teacher of English 101 and 102, two courses required for graduation, he has become a reluctant gatekeeper, determined to teach and grade to college standards rather than dumb down the material or succumb to compassionate grade inflation – decisions that have led him to fail as many as 9 out of 15 students in a single class.

While Professor X’s memoir/diatribe touches on what he teaches and how, the agony of grading is a recurring obsession. In fact, in the avalanche of responses to his Atlantic essay, some of which he quotes, he was roundly criticized for focusing more on evaluating than on teaching.

While Professor X questions the value of a liberal arts education and familiarity with James Joyce’s Molly Bloom for someone pursuing a career in, say, medical technology, he fails to question his own standards, which may be calibrated too high: In his grading scale, Anna Quindlen would earn just a B-minus!

One can’t help wondering whether a shift toward thinking about community college as further education rather than higher education might ease the rub. If students enter at a ninth-grade level, wouldn’t improvement of even a grade or two over a 15-week course have some value?

In criticizing our “blind faith in the power of education,” Professor X asserts that Americans “think of educators as something close to saints, and school as impervious to bottom-line concerns.” Tell that to teachers struggling to hang on amid draculean budget cuts.

Heller McAlpin, a freelance critic in New York, is a frequent Monitor contributor.

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