The View From Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America

One cannot solve a problem until one acknowledges a problem exists.

People hate complaining because they do not like to list. When you listen to someone complaining, you are forced to acknowledge them as a human being instead of a category. You are forced to witness how social systems are borne out in personal experience, to recognize that hardship hurts, that solutions are not as simple as they seem.

Sarah Kendzior an expert on totalitarian regimes, particularly in central Asia, and a journalist based in St. Louis who I’ve followed on Twitter for some time. The View from Flyover Country is a collection of essays penned between 2012 and 2014 on issues that range from media to race to higher education. I read the entire collection in about three sittings last weekend, only setting it down when some of the essays hit a little too close to home.

The fact that The View From Flyover Country is a collection of essays published for Al Jazeera leads to a certain amount of repetition one would expect to find in a series of articles published on their own, but also offers scathing critiques of the present economic and social order in easily approachable chunks that cause her call to action to swell like a flood. Kendzior laces her criticism of the status quo with a deep humanism, making the case that the economic systems that have already shattered at least one generation and are hard at work on a second one deprive many Americans of not just economic opportunity, but basic dignity.

In the post-employment economy, is self-respect something we can afford? Or is another devalued commodity we are expected to give away?

The foundations of the system as Kendzior identifies it are rising inequality paired with increasingly expensive barriers to entry into lucrative careers that create pay-to-play environment. Simultaneously, she articulates that we are living in a post-employment economy in many sectors, where corporations aim to stay profitable by reducing wages and offloading costs onto the workers. These conditions, combined with the toxic potential of the new media landscape create totalitarian echoes.

Kendzior penned these essays well before the 2016 presidential election, but that campaign season and the events that have unfolded since have done nothing invalidate her words. If anything, the curtain was stripped back to reveal systemic and ideological weaknesses in the American system. Where people had previously brushed these off with wave toward a black president, long strides that have been made by women, or a general sense of American achievement—some of which is warranted—has been shown to also be gilding atop gross and growing inequality.

There are no easy solutions and Kendzior doesn’t pretend that there are. But to the extent that the first step to making things better is to acknowledge that a problem exists, The View From Flyover Country should be mandatory reading for everyone in the United States.

ΔΔΔ

I was under the weather this week, which managed to consume most of my energy left for reading, but I did start The Man Who Spoke Snakish, a fablistic novel by the Estonian author Andrus Kivirähk. It is too soon to judge the book, but I enjoyed the first few pages.

More than a numbers game

There is a labor crisis in higher education.

The myth of the well-compensated, insulated, and out of touch professor has a powerful grip on the American imagination, but in fact applies only to a few people, even among those lucky enough to have a tenured position. (The real money comparatively speaking is in administration, unless you happen to be a coach.) Most professors, including those on the tenure track, are not well-paid, particularly relative to their level of education. Setting that issue aside separate, albeit related issue, the larger crisis is that courses are increasingly being taught by adjunct professors with too little pay, no benefits, and no job security.

This is not new. The old line was that you should inquire how much of the teaching at a school is done by graduate instructors, and adjuncts are the latest iteration of the same forces that cause schools to fill credit hours with cheap labor.

In the sense that many, though not all, schools have bi-polar mission of teaching on the one side and world-leading research from their (full-time) faculty on the other, this split makes sense. As much as research influences teaching and vice-versa, both take time to do well. In the humanities, too, research generally doesn’t make money, but remains a benchmark for the university on various external rankings, which, in turn, is part of the pitch to bring in students. The solution is generally to bring in cheap labor to fulfill the teaching mandate, thereby creating a surplus that can be paid to the full-time faculty in the form of salary and research support, including travel and reduced teaching loads. Simple.

Only not so much. With state divestment from higher education, the financial burden for operating a university is frequently being passed on to the students, now branded as the consumers, in the form of tuition, fees, and, eventually solicitations for donations as alumni while they are still paying off loans for the initial investment. And at the same time, significant teaching loads are passed to underpaid and overworked contingent faculty. This is not to say that contingent faculty are bad teachers—-many are excellent—-but that while the cost to the student goes up the combination of financial precarity and insufficient resources impedes the ability of many of their teachers to help them reach their potential. Something like 75% of all faculty teaching in colleges are now non-tenure track positions, working under a range of titles and for a median pay of 2700 dollars per course.

These economic issues are fundamentally important to the future of higher education, a top-heavy system that feels many days like it is teetering precipitously. It is a matter of when, not if, something is going to give.

But that is not what prompted this post.

In response to a recent report on the issues surrounding contingent labor and a report that 79% of anthropology PhDs do not gain employment in tenure-track positions, I saw the inevitable response that the solution to this problem is to reduce production of PhDs. The idea is that this is a crisis created by supply far outstripping demand, which is true enough, but doesn’t acknowledge the underlying structures that are shaping demand.

The optimistic, if morbid, line even when I started graduate school in 2009 was that it was just a matter of waiting for the rapidly aging generations of professors to give up their posts one way or another. Not that the job market would be easy, but that there would be a wave of jobs that would make it easier. Before long it became apparent that the great recession of 2008, which struck right as I was graduating from college, marked an inflection point for higher education. Many of those older faculty members were clinging to their jobs not out of malice, selfishness, or obliviousness, but because they believed that their positions would not be replaced when they left. They were right. Their courses are taught by contingent faculty and the tenure lines largely boarded up and forgotten. This is the new normal.

These systemic changes are not unique to higher education, I should add. I’ve recently been reading Sarah Kendzior’s A View From Flyover Country where she talks at length about the seismic changes to the American economy after 2008 as companies looked for ways to remain profitable to stockholders. Universities are a little bit different because many schools are among the institutions most affected by government divestment, but there are many broad similarities.

Nevertheless, I am not in favor of a widespread slashing of graduate programs.

First, reducing the number of PhDs is not going to solve the labor crisis. There is already a long line of qualified candidate. In 2012, two schools, Harvard University and the University of Colorado received backlash after stating in the job ad that candidates more than a few years after graduation need not apply. Moreover, cutting positions in graduate programs does nothing to address the structural factors underlying the decline of tenured positions. In fact, cuts to graduate programs could conceivably accelerate the cuts to full-time positions because graduate programs are one of the justifications to keep tenured faculty.

Second, the remaining graduate programs would invariably exist in a handful of elite schools, which already produce most of the graduates who win the tenure-track job lottery. This list of elite schools is not immutable, but tends to favor those that already have large endowments. As is true elsewhere in American society, fluctuations to financial fortune tend to be much larger for schools without these inheritances.

In theory, limiting graduate education to wealthy schools would create a more ethical environment in terms of pay for graduate students, as well as provide them adequate research support, but it also develops scholars and teachers in an environment radically different from where most professors work—not to mention that their students will be coming from. Like with my comments about adjuncts above, this is not meant to denigrate people who go through elite institutions, many of whom are deeply concerned with issues of precarity, austerity and who do not come from privileged backgrounds. At the same time, reducing spots reduces the opportunity for people who are not already introduced to academic life, either during their undergraduate education or through individual mentor-ship, usually by someone with connections to those schools. Similarly, for as much scholarship comes out of people working in top-tier programs, they cannot cover everything. As in any number of fields, visibility and representation matter. A retreat toward the proverbial ivory tower reinforces the perception of a barrier between the intellectual elite and everyone else.

There are deep ethical issues with how graduate program in the humanities approach training, regardless of what the future of the professoriate looks like. There needs to be greater acknowledgement and preparation for so-called alt-ac jobs, and a support system in place to help people find employment with livable wages. That is, there is needs to be a reconsideration of the purpose of graduate school, with teaching in college being just one potential outcome.

(To be fair, this is easier said than done and I see programs coming to grips with this reality and beginning to implement changes, but too little and too slowly, and without enough action to counteract the emotional trauma of the current system.)

But there is also a larger point. People pursue advanced degrees for all sorts of reasons, including interest. This is a good thing. I may sound impossibly, naively idealistic, but I want to live in a society that supports and values education not out of a desire for credentialism but because these opportunities are where creative innovation is born. Eliminating graduate programs beyond those in well-funded schools makes sense if you look at the problems facing higher education as a simple supply-and-demand numbers game, but in fact threatens to realize some of the worst stereotypes about academia.

A Brave New World

There was something called liberalism. Parliament, if you know what that was, passed against [sleep teaching]. The records survive. Speeches about liberty of the subject. Liberty to be inefficient and miserable. Freedom to be a round peg in a square hole.

You’ve got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art. We’ve sacrificed high art. We have the feelies and the scent organ instead.

Civilization has absolutely no need of nobility or heroism. These things are symptoms of political inefficiency. In a properly organized society like ours, nobody has any opportunities for being noble or heroic.

I had to read A Brave New World over the summer before my senior year of high school, the first book for AP English. I hated it, and it was from that experience that I developed my theory that I had a natural aversion to books I had to read. (My love of The Great Gatsby is the exception that proved the rule.) While some of the books read for high school still hold no appeal for me, this is one I’ve been meaning in to re-read for some time now. As with Fahrenheit 451, 2018 seemed like an appropriate year to work through some of these classic dystopian stories.

The brave new world in this book is a perfectly stable global utopia achieved through artificial reproduction, genetic manipulation to create a clear caste hierarchy that descend from “alpha double plus” through “epsilon”, and conditioning to ensure the each person not only accepts their place in society, but embraces it as ideal. Free love is mandatory as a way to prevent jealousy and possessiveness, and everyone is regularly treated with powerful emotional stimulation and, more importantly, with doses of soma, a drug distributed by the state. Doped up by pleasure, people abandon interest in anything else.

There are drips and drabs of how this utopia that worships Henry Ford came into existence, a compromise after a series of destructive wars in the distant past. Despite genetic engineering, the world is not even. Places deemed too inhospitable are left as “Savage Reservations” and islands like Iceland and the Falklands, far from the Metropole, are the preferred landing place for people with mildly heretical ideas.

A Brave New World follows two arcs, tied together by the mildly unorthodox alpha, Bernard Marx. In the first arc, Bernard sets a date with the “pneumatic” Lenina Crowne. Lenina is herself under scrutiny for becoming too attached to her current partner, and so she sets to date the uncommonly short and aloof, particularly for an alpha. The arc concludes with the pair going on a vacation to the Savage Reservation in New Mexico. The second arc carries forward their return from New Mexico, taking with them a dark secret from another vacation taken decades earlier: a woman who had been left behind and the child she bore–not entirely by choice–against all strictures of society.

The narrative tension of A Brave New World largely centers on the fate of John, “the Savage,” and his choice between submitting to the constraints of a society that would provide his every pleasure and the pain of freedom. (In his forward to the volume I read, Huxley wrote that if he were to write the book over again, he would include a third option.) I appreciate Huxley’s social commentary more now than I did in high school. This new world is one of abject consumerism were it is verboten to repair an item when you could just replace it and maximum pleasure is the highest calling. Possessiveness breeds jealousy, pain breeds strife, and independent thought leads to both. Thus the central authority maintains its power by tamping down those instincts.

And yet, I found the characters rather flat and the plot thin such that it becomes reduced to a deterministic parable about freedom and happiness.

The larger question I had going into this book, though, was how it stacked up against Fahrenheit 451 and 1984. On the one side, A Brave New World shares with Bradbury’s dystopia an emphasis on pleasure and freedom from heretical thought, but the latter suggests communal enforcement. On the other, it shares totalitarianism with 1984, albeit one of a consumerist make.

1984 receives too little appreciation because it was assumed that it could never happen here where society is governed by liberal political institutions. (Note: this judgement may be undergoing revision in light of recent events.) Where the state in 1984 exploits difference, the one in A Brave New World has a single world state that erases them in any meaningful way other than caste, but then conditions each caste to appreciate its position in society—and then only see the world from the perspective of people in the top two classes. This is a world that doesn’t have to address the consequences of unapologetic waste and that has no enemies outside certain tendencies in human nature. In short, A Brave New World is a dystopia for a happier time.

ΔΔΔ

The semester is in full swing, but I’m still carving small slivers of time to read. I finished Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos, a slim, irreverent novel about a poor family in small town Mexico with middle class delusions, and started reading Sarah Kendzior’s collection The View from Flyover Country.

A Dead End Lane

Τhere is a “dead end” sign where I don’t remember there being one before. The road just ended. In practice, that is. Officially, the dead end is where the maintained road turns into a long-since overgrown class-4 road still drawn old maps.

Returning to the rural hilltop where I grew up always makes me think. The sodden smell of decaying leaves is comforting, even when accompanied by the dull whine and sharp bite of hundreds of insects. But for all the familiarity of the dirt roads turned into tunnels by fifty shades of green, there are subtle changes. There are more signs, for one thing. The roads have names and the turnaround for the school bus is labelled with a warning to anyone who would think to park there. There are also more houses. Big houses, brought visibly close to the road, in place of the small, frequently ramshackle habitats sitting in clearings carved from the forest.

Below the hills, other parts of town are the same way. The elementary school is still there, its doors open with just under fifty students, but so is the old general store building that has simply decayed since it was shuttered close to twenty years ago. The radar traps are new, flashing a warning to drivers who ignore the speed limit through a village that seems more than a little irritated at being ignored, but unable to do much about it.

People ask me about where I come from whenever I return from these trips. Vermont is a curiosity to them, an edenic wilderness that defies the modern world or a bastion of progressive politics epitomized by a frazzled-looking white man with a thick Brooklyn accent. (When Sanders first moved to Vermont in the 1960s it was to Stannard, a nearby town where several of my high school friends lived.) It is, after all, the birthplace of Phish and home to Bread and Puppet.

Vermont has certainly earned these reputation in recent decades, with a left-leaning congressional delegation and the early recognition of homosexual partnerships. My general read on these things is that politics in Vermont that there is a strong libertarian streak and that the intimate nature of politics in such a small state helped get the delegation repeatedly re-elected more so than their voting record, with the state historically having been a bastion of Republican politics. (Between Civil War and 1988, Vermont’s electoral votes went to a Democrat once, in 1964.) Its reputation, moreover, ignores the virulent backlash against the civil union law that went into effect in 2000, the so-called “Take Back Vermont” movement—not to mention an ugly history of bigotry that includes a small but virulent anti-Catholic strain of the KKK in the 1920s. More recently, when students proposed that Vermont adopt a Latin motto there was outcry from people who believed that “Latin” meant “Latin American”. Their mistake speaks volumes both about the makeup of the population and some of the limits to the education system, despite generally positive rankings.

These are young forests. The foundations of farmhouses and lines of stone walls are common sights when walking in the woods, serving as a reminder that the state was largely deforested in the 1800s. In some ways things haven’t changed much. From the right vantage point, the granite quarries still stick out as scars against the wooded hills and agriculture remains a significant part of the economy, even as forests have reclaimed the fields.

In truth, these things work hand in hand. Vermont’s isolation and economic challenges, particularly in the corner where I grew up, lead to poverty, but also make it an attractive destination for artists and back-to-the-earth types. The result is a population that is in flux, with a percentage of the population having been born in-state below the national average.

I haven’t lived in Vermont for more than a few months in a year since starting college in 2004 and haven’t lived there at all in a decade. I can’t remember the last time I talked to an elementary school classmate, but receive periodic updates. Some are doing well, but I more frequently hear about the ones who have struggled with drugs and the law. One died earlier this year. (I do better with people who weren’t in my specific class, as well as people from high school.) Time passes, places and people change as variations on a theme. I would like to move back to Vermont, should the opportunity present itself, but that seems like a remote possibility right now. At the same time, growing up in a rural town that had its largest population in the 1840 census informs what I do as a historian and teacher.

Writing this from my couch in Columbia, Missouri, I fear that I lost my thread. I wrote the opening sentences of this post on my phone from that wooded hilltop where I had no cell reception. All I had were a few lines, a couple of observations about the dead-end dirt road I grew up on, then and now, and a sense of omen that I couldn’t quite put my finger on about a sign. I still don’t know the conclusion, except that a launch pad is a dead end of another form.