By DWIGHT GARNER - New York Times, 5/5/2011
This book began its life as a fizzy essay, published in The Atlantic Monthly in 2008, that contained at its core, like a radioactive pellet, a seemingly uncontroversial argument: Not every American kid is cut out for college.
IN THE BASEMENT OF THE IVORY TOWER
Confessions of an Accidental Academic
By Professor X
258 pages. Viking. $25.95
The author, a poorly paid adjunct professor, a man who teaches nighttime literature classes in both a small private college and in a community college, wrote under the pseudonym Professor X. This made him seem intrepid and swashbuckling, as if he might secretly be Julian Assange or Banksy.
He is a bit wicked, this Professor X. His book-length expansion of the article, “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower,” is rippled with mellow sarcasm. Reading one student’s terrible paper about Sylvia Plath, he says: “I pictured her writing it in a bar, or while driving to class or skydiving. Maybe she composed it as one long text message to herself.”
Watching his working-class students eat chicken and rice out of plastic foam containers while he’s lecturing, he deadpans: “I feel like Robert Goulet doing dinner theater.”
The tone of his essay, and of this impertinent book, however, is as plaintive as it is lemony. The author is delivering unhappy news, and he knows it. It’s as if he’s proposing to paste an asterisk on the American dream. “Telling someone that college is not right for him seems harsh and classist, vaguely Dickensian,” Professor X writes, “as though we were sentencing him to a life in the coal mines.”
Yet why is it so important to Barack Obama (a champion of community colleges) and those doing America’s hiring, he asks, that “our bank tellers be college educated, and our medical billing techs, our county tax clerks”? College — even community college — drives many young people into debt. Many others lack rudimentary study skills or any scholarly inclination. They want to get on with their lives, not be forced to analyze the meter in “King Lear” in night school in order to become a cop or a nurse’s aide.
“No one is thinking about the larger implications, or even the morality,” Professor X says, “of admitting so many students to classes they cannot possibly pass.”
In marshaling his persuasive arguments, Professor X draws on the work of scholars and sociologists and demographers, and clearly he’s picking up on sentiments floating in the air. Matthew B. Crawford’s best-selling book Shop Class as Soulcraft, published in 2009, was an ode to vocational training and dignified blue-collar work.
Yet many reacted angrily to Professor X’s article (he prints some of the nastier letters he received here) as if he were proposing — to paraphrase Paul Fussell in his book Class — the beating to death of baby whales using the dead bodies of baby seals.
Professor X is unruffled. One thing adjunct professors are good at, he notes, is delivering bad news.
“We may look mild-mannered, we adjunct professors, in our eyeglasses and our corduroy jackets, our bald heads and trimmed beards,” he declares, in his calmly invigorating style, “but we are nothing less than academic hit men. We are paid by the college to perform the dirty work that no one else wants to do, the wrenching, draining, sorrowful business of teaching and failing the unprepared who often don’t even know they are unprepared.”
He adds, in a flamenco flourish: “We are not characters out of great academic novels such as Pnin or Lucky Jim. We have more in common with Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men. I am John Travolta in Pulp Fiction but in a corduroy jacket and bow tie. I feel evil and soiled.”
On its trip from essay to book In the Basement of the Ivory Tower has taken some odd detours. It’s morphed into something new. The author hasn’t greatly expanded his argument, but he’s turned the book into more of a memoir. It’s a sad, haunted tale that zeroes in on all the things that send people into therapy (or memoir writing): money, class, failure and real estate.
Professor X, a thwarted novelist who long ago took a day job working for the government, was driven into adjunct work because he and his wife bought the wrong house at the wrong time. They couldn’t meet their monthly nut. It was, he writes, “a cataclysmic financial decision.” Their dreams begin to clot.
As it clips along, In the Basement of the Ivory Tower begins to read like the miserable, neurotic flip side of Norman Podhoretz’s book Making It. Its title could have been “Not Making It.” Professor X drives a car with a leaking radiator and one headlight; he is too strapped to buy summer clothes. “Such is the smallness of my spirit,” he writes, “that I rank my position in the universe against everyone I encounter.”
When he spies a tenured professor, he’s awestruck, as if he’s seen an egret in the DMV: “He exuded calm. What must be the state of his arteries? How unobstructed must they be?”
About himself and his students, he offers this: “We reek of coffee and tuna oil.” He looks around and declares, “Our presence in these evening classes is evidence that something in our lives has gone awry.” Sections of this book read like a midnight cri de coeur, a grasping after dignity and gravitas.
This is meaty and oddly moving stuff, right out of Arthur Miller or David Mamet, and I wish I could say that Professor X’s prose retains its poise and elastic snap throughout. It doesn’t. By the end, like one of his students, he’s padding things out. Repetitions and infelicities pile up.
Mild banalities do, too. (“There are many wonderful aspects to teaching English in college. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.”) When he talks about teaching writing, he likes to use the word “craft” as a verb. That’s a flogging offense, professor.
Yet I admired much of In the Basement of the Ivory Tower. It’s a clear-eyed report from what the author calls “the college of last resort.” It’s the work of a compassionate man who longs for academia to be crueler to be kinder.
“Sink or swim,” he writes. “When was the last time you heard that in contemporary America?”