The Ivory Cage–and Beyond

The Ivory Cage–and Beyond


“The Ivory Cage” is an article everyone who cares about education should read.  Like a lot of people, I spent quite a while working for advanced degrees, in the hope that I would land an academic job.  My view of college was formed by the lost world I grew up in and by my own fantasy of a haven for those who love ideas and beauty and for intellectuals with a conscience.  This article puts in words what I’ve long known–but denied just the same–was the truth: there ain’t no such place.  A few choice quotes:

“…far from a reclusive cloister or merely an institution of privilege, the university has become central to the operations and reproduction of capitalist economic and social relations.”

“The university (and, increasingly, graduate schools) today act as massive human warehouses where youth must borrow exorbitant amounts to pay to wait out an economy that has no real use for them or their expensive qualifications and credentials.”

“…the university weeds out dissident and provocative thinkers well before they apply for tenure or promotion, or, more sinister still, transforms them into highly disciplined producers of obscure jargon aimed primarily (in spite of much sanctimony) at generating academic capital.”

“…the tenured or otherwise permanent professoriate is (with some heroic exceptions) more timid, careerist and quietist than ever, even while our times demand outspoken public intellectuals, activists and organizers as never before.”

“We must give up on the trashy romance novel narrative of the university, where the brooding, often violent yet heroic institution can be tamed by our tender affections and become worthy of our selfless devotion. Rather, this is a gothic tale; we are romancing a monster, trying to avoid becoming monsters, balancing between survival and annihilation.”

I’ve been living with that “trashy romance” ideal of teaching college: tenure and tweed jackets, conferences abroad, absurdly minimal course load, all the free time in the world to work on my “research,” and a sabbatical every few years because it really is such a strain teaching 9 hours a week.  I used to think it was the ideal life.  Reading Haiven’s description of the university system essential to the maintenance of a direly unjust economic and political order, I finally have the last piece in the puzzle I need.  I can cut that dream loose.

For the adjuncts he discusses in the article, the ones who still toil for next-to-nothing wages, hoping for that big tenure-track score, I would like to make an invitation: If you love teaching then why not JOIN US IN THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS.  That’s right–go get certified to teach and bring that intellect, scholarship, and love of teaching into the public schools.  For those interested in really setting the world on fire with ideas, it starts in that classroom, with those kids who keep hoping to meet a teacher who isn’t a disappointment, a “good soldier,” a hack, a bore.  They’re waiting for you–for someone who cares not just about kids but also about what goes into their heads and how it can change the world for the better.  You don’t get sabbaticals every five years, you have to teach a hell of a lot more than college profs do and have just as many lame meetings to attend, and you’re beholden to parents and the community at large.  But…if you like a good fight on the front lines, if you’re looking to confront that system the universities and colleges serve–then why not join what’s left of the union movement and fight to teach kids how to think critically, how to question, how to imagine a better future?  Miracles can happen there: the intellectually blind and deaf can be healed, their minds open.  I’ve seen it happen.  It’s happened to me.  Give up the system which has bankrupted a generation and show the next generation how to transcend it!


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