I want to be clear at the outset: I love literature. I was an English major, and I’ve never regretted it for a moment. I seriously considered pursuing a Ph.D. in English. I could not have a deeper faith in the liberal arts as a path to the betterment of all mankind.
So imagine my dismay at some recent reportage in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Graduate programs in languages and literature are suffering troubles all too familiar to the readers of these pages: In these straitened times, the tenure-track academic appointments for which a doctoral degree is the traditional and necessary preparation are available for only about 60% of the recipients of doctorates in language or literature (a number chillingly reminiscent of the 56%-57% of the last two law-school graduating classes who managed to find a full-time, long-term job requiring a law license within 9-10 months of graduation, though when you exclude school-funded and self-employed positions as well as a few other confounders and irrelevancies, that number is closer to 53%). The Modern Language Association (a trade group for college and graduate educators and scholars in language and literature analogous to AALS) recently released a report conceding “[w]e are faced with an unsustainable reality.”
The solution? Simple—dismiss the “reality” as “wrong”:
"The discourse of Ph.D. overproduction is wrong," said Russell A. Berman, who led the task force that wrote the report and is a professor of comparative literature and German studies at Stanford University. "What we need instead is a broadened understanding of career paths.”
As the Chronicle explains, the MLA believes that language and literature departments should urge upon students considering graduate degrees
what else they could do with a language or literature Ph.D. Career options off the tenure track . . . include teaching at community colleges and high schools, working at cultural institutions such as heritage museums and libraries, and putting skills to use in the private sector. "The subject matter may, in fact, be far from literature," Mr. Berman said, "but the rich professional formation acquired during the course of doctoral study can be put to good use.”
The Chronicle also reports that the MLA “is taking a stance similar to the American Historical Association, whose executive director has said that history Ph.D.’s are not being overproduced but underused.”
If you’re feeling a certain frisson of déjà vu, you don’t need a doctorate in French to understand why. The MLA appears to be arguing that you should pursue a doctorate in language or literature (median time to completion nine years, by the way) because it will make you a better high school teacher. If you think this is silly, you’re right. If you think this is silly, but still believe that people unsure of their desire to practice law or do something clearly and directly law-related should attend law school because (as comp lit Prof. Berman put it to the Chronicle) “the rich professional formation acquired during the course of [law] study” is (as I lampooned it in a past post) “ideal preparation for any line of work, a thoughtful life, the vicissitudes of holy matrimony, Monty Python’s Argument Clinic, or the searching examination that can be expected from St. Peter when the matriculant finally reaches the pearly gates,” you are engaging in the kind of wishful thinking that would earn your contempt if you observed it in a colleague or a student.
We need to get a few things straight. You can get a doctorate in English because you love English and have the time and money to devote yourself to what you love, regardless of what comes after your studies are done. But once we start talking about education as preparation for a career, the argument changes: Specialized professional and graduate education is supposed to prepare you for specialized lines of work. There is no honest or sustainable basis for a view of specialized professional or graduate education as proper (let alone cost-justified) preparation for whatever job the market may eventually offer you. The fact that a doctorate in English, or a law degree, will provide its holders with thoughts or perspectives on unrelated work uncommon for others without their benefit does not mean that someone would rationally pursue either (or both, given that they’re apparently both ideal preparation for everything) in order to secure work unrelated to the discipline studied.
This is classic post-hoc fallacy: If you want to consider whether education X is good preparation for job Y, imagine yourself planning a path to job Y, and think about whether you’d consider education X an essential, or at least a very important, step on that path. The fact that you previously went to law school, and now have a nonpracticing position that many people would consider a good job (say as a high-school civics teacher, or as a paralegal), does not mean that the former was the cause of the latter. Nor does it mean that the latter justifies the former in any meaningful sense. Nor does it mean that whatever perceptual or perspectival advantages the former course of study lends to the later work justifies the education as a sensible preparation for the job if you were thinking about it ex ante.
Put slightly differently, the fact that you get a job not requiring a law degree after you graduate from law school does not, without a great deal more, make that job “JD Advantaged.” Law schools that are silently indulging that fallacy in their employment reporting should cut it out. If the Section 509 compliance audits that the ABA announced last year to test the accuracy of law-school disclosures are to be worth a damn, they will focus relentlessly on this issue.
And how do we explain this spreading contagion of laughable illogic among America’s best-educated and most thoughtful? I’m afraid we need look no further than Upton Sinclair’s well-worn observation that “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”