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The Baubles of Corporate Academe

dedicated to the memory of David Halberstam,
who died this recent month, and whose book, The Best and the Brightest,
remains as trenchant now as ever about our so-called elites

Early this recent month a local poet, Troy Jollimore, wrote a San Francisco Chronicle book review on a new book by Benjamin R. Barber, Consumed:  How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole.  I'd like to believe the review a joke – it appeared April 1 – but I'm afraid it was no joke.

Jollimore dutifully reviewed the book, which argues against our national consumerism.  But in Barber's list of culprits, as reviewer Jollimore stressed them, the latter never noted nor added the role of his own profession:  our universities. 

At this point I've read only Jollimore's review, not Barber's book, but it's a safe bet to assume Barber, too, ignores the role of corporate academe.  Everyone does, though we have a long and venerable tradition in American letters of jeremiads castigating our philistine ways.  Thoreau did it.  Melville did – and Twain, Henry James, and Henry Adams all famously so in the nineteenth century.  Willa Cather did it early in the twentieth century, joined by Mencken, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dashiell Hammett, and, finally, a whole slew of sociologists up to and including Benjamin R. Barber.  We can add to this list of native-born American Savonarolas our own many ministers and preachers ever since the first Great Awakening who have ever loved to inveigh against the machineries of our materialist ways.  Our popular press has long made fun of our readiness to be taken by con artists suckering us, from the days of vaudeville and circuses to Madison Avenue and all its offspring.  Hollywood has tickled our materialistically vulgar predilections from the days of its Keystone Cops and Marx Brothers until today, when late night talk show hosts Leno, Letterman, and John Stewart yet do it.  As good ol' American boys and girls we've had many scripts for us as rubes, idiots, and ignoramuses within the dynamos of our marketplace world.  Our elites have been there, too – named Ambersons by Booth Tarkington, Snopeses by Faulkner, Hubbards by Lillian Hellman, Carringtons by Dynasty, and Ewings by Dallas.

It goes on and on, the finger-pointing at the Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and the selling to us of our national leaders like so many brands of soap, cereal, and sugar drinks.  But through this long and merry history, no one has ever seriously included the more recently even deeper role of our corporate academics in all the reductions of us.

Jollimore didn't think to do it in his review.  Unlikely Barber does in his book.

Jollimore, anyway, has normal reason not to throw stones from within his own variant of glass house.  He gets paid by Stanford University, where the San Francisco Chronicle credits him as "External Faculty Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center" – a tip that, in getting paid, he likely seldom reports to any office or classroom.  Jollimore's new book of poetry, Tom Thomson in Purgatory (2006), gives author's credit for him as last year having his teaching position at California State University, Chico.

Corporate academe abundantly provides such positions for thousands of souls such as Jollimore – primarily in the Master's of Fine Arts (MFA) programs at over three hundred American universities.  Each of these has anywhere from six to fifteen creative entrepreneurs on hire – each filling slots for teaching the writing of poetry, short fiction, the novel, the screenplay, the stage play, and the memoir.  Each has its own subsidized literary journal – over 300 exotically named venues for the thousands in this racket to get themselves "published," and so pad résumés for the closed-circle further moves in the niche careerism of the MFA world.

Jane Smiley wrote a novel, Moo, venting sarcasm at the more obvious aspects of this, the campus world.  Richard Russo wrote a kinder, more subtle novel on the same theme, Straight Man.  Mary Gordon wrote Men and Angels.  Years before this (1954) the poet and critic Randall Jarrell wrote their precursor, a satire called Pictures from an Institution.  Willa Cather preceded them all with The Professor's House (1925) – though little of this story occurs on any college campus.  At any rate, we do have some small tradition of writings about personalities in higher education – but zero on "follow the money," excepting odd screeds such as Jennifer Washburn's 2005 University Inc.:  The Corporate Corruption of Higher Education.

Virtually no one in corporate academe lets the rule of "follow the money" open up more as to the pervading ethics in this, what Dwight Eisenhower originally considered part and parcel of "the military-industrial-academic complex."  An otherwise narcissistic sanctimony yet rules.  The conceit of ethical immunity is built into the ways our corporate academics get their training.  All learn withdrawal into specializations, with each resultant niche set in deliberate mutual isolation from all others.  The consequent lack of obligation to acknowledge "others" comes from each department's elaborately protective habits.  With exceptions only in physics, higher math, and complex system sciences, the niche habits define turf and reinforce further such habits for departmental jargon, reproducibly modular methodologies, and an elaborate, expensive gamesmanship of corporate textbook and companion appliances.  No one gets tenure without fit to this specialized series of ostrich games.  Without it, no one gets hired into the few full-time tracks that occasionally open for happy entry from any of the waiting masses of otherwise clever, credentialed, ambitious acolytes; without it, no one later gets promoted into the royalty hierarchies webbing all the higher pay scale desuetude, mandarin privileging, and labyrinthine, quasi-hidden routes for the perks and compensation corruptions ever after.

In his review of Barber's book, Jollimore defends especially one ethos unique to this world:  service to "the highly self-oriented goal of self-betterment."  Parallel and instrumental to this, he lauds the uses of literature as themselves primarily, too, to serve our "most private experiences."  Jollimore makes this case for attention to the self in answer to Barber's "apparent tendency to classify every form of self-fulfillment as either immature or morally questionable."  Maybe it's a fair argument – the relative tilt of seeing the private and/or the public (or whatever is opposite the private).  But if Barber tilts too far in Cassandra finger pointing at our public consumer culture, it's possible to do so, too, in the other direction, which Jollimore does in his own published poetry.

In his 2006 collection, Tom Thomson in Purgatory, Jollimore has five dozen poems.  Only one fifth of these have any specific language of individuals, or of specific landscapes, buildings, food, clothing, or vehicles whereby people find and exhibit themselves.  He relies instead on everyman abstracted language for people, all items and aspects of life reduced to their most simple, generalized forms.  He does this cleverly, with deft sketches of archetypal human situations, the recurring issue being the question how fully any of us may live.  An insouciant, witty irony pervades his poetry – so compromised  and limited in our private lives as perhaps we all are.  For its excellence Tom Thomson in Purgatory won this year's National Book Critics Circle – regardless how Jollimore leaves out language of the public world to render his private themes.

How is it that a poetry so intelligent and nuanced as this can also be so bereft of public language?  Certainly it's Jollimore's choice.  More certainly, those thousands of would-be poets who turn to our university MFA programs find themselves circumscribed within the same set of choices.  If they're there to learn to write poetry – and to get it published according to standards of the profession's award-winning gatekeepers – then of course they will see that in the typical American university anymore one does not cross over into what may be the particularities of any other area for language, references, or any such specifics of "others."  Thus we Americans have no poets anything like those from older European culture who could locate all the most private and personal in larger public contexts, too – alongside and within history, biological sciences, earth sciences, and more.

If our thousands of would-be poets are in these many university writing programs for something other than poetic reasons, then perhaps we may return the larger ethics of "follow the money."  At this point we may see the grubbier side of our dear – and otherwise unquestioned – corporate academe.  While its machinery may be glossily shining by virtue of its poetic baubles, all those so glittering and sparkling are also there for economically reductive reasons.  They do the undergraduate teaching.  For huge savings for administrators and tenured faculty, virtually all MFA fellows get tuition paid and other monies as parts of deals whereby they alongside other exploited adjuncts do the teaching of remedial literacy, grammar, and composition courses.  They staff the required courses – undergraduates must take them.  They underwrite guaranteed profit lines for Corporate U.

And meanwhile the old American game goes on – we, as Barber says, colossal suckers for our culture of marketing – we, as we pass the four-year mark of our abysmal record inflicting war and chaos in the Middle East, yet colossally stupid about "others."

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