Academia: a colossal waste of human capital?

They're doing exactly what we always complain our brightest students don't do: eschewing the easy bucks of Wall Street, consulting or corporate law to pursue their ideals and be of service to society. Academia may once have been a cushy gig, but now we're talking about highly talented young people who are willing to spend their 20s living on subsistence wages when they could be getting rich (and their friends are getting rich), simply because they believe in knowledge, ideas, inquiry; in teaching, in following their passion. To leave more than half of them holding the bag at the end of it all, over 30 and having to scrounge for a new career, is a human tragedy.

Sure, lots of people have it worse. But here's another reason to care: it's also a social tragedy, and not just because it represents a colossal waste of human capital. If we don't make things better for the people entering academia, no one's going to want to do it anymore. And then it won't just be the students who are suffering. Scholarship will suffer, which means the whole country will. Knowledge, as we're constantly told, is a nation's most important resource, and the great majority of knowledge is created in the academy--now more than ever, in fact, since industry is increasingly outsourcing research to universities where, precisely because graduate students cost less than someone who gets a real salary, it can be conducted on the cheap. (Bell Labs, once the flagship of industrial science, is a shell of its former self, having suffered years of cutbacks before giving up on fundamental research altogether.)

--[an irate] William Deresiewicz
"Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education"
The Nation, May 4, 2011


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