A disillusioned professor questions the contemporary American
push to get all kids into college.
In June 2008, The Atlantic ran an article titled "In the Basement
of the Ivory Tower," in which a pseudonymous "Professor X" offered
harsh criticism gleaned from his experience teaching English
composition and literature as an adjunct instructor on the lower
rungs of America's institutes of so-called higher learning. He
protested that despite our best egalitarian impulses, college isn't
for everyone and in fact is obscenely costly and wasteful.
The provocative essay has now been expanded for the wider play
(and pay) into In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, a book of the
same title. Wanting to preserve his jobs, Professor X chose to
remain anonymous and not single out the small private college and
two-year community college where he's been teaching for 10 years,
which he believes are representative of the wider problem.
As we know from books as diverse as "Primary Colors" and "Story
of O," anonymous authorship paradoxically can both heighten and
undercut a book's impact. It can free a writer to be bolder and set
off an identity guessing game; but it can also lead to less care or
weight - as in anonymous Internet postings.
So who is Professor X? Good question. He's a self-deprecating
middle-aged man, possibly parochial-school educated (he mentions a
Sister Mary Finbar, who taught him in first grade that "a sentence
is a group of words expressing a complete thought," something his
students don't seem to understand upon arrival at college).
Professor X's dream, after earning an MFA in Creative Writing,
was to write fiction, but practicality and three children led to a
job in government. Real estate lust and easy mortgages led him to
buy a house beyond his means in a charming exurban village. This in
turn led to marital stress, and to his nocturnal teaching gigs -
which in turn led to both serious disillusion with the educational
system in which he had become a cog, and enormous comfort in "the
light of literature."
Other things we learn about Professor X: the man can write, and
he's passionate about literature. This does not mean, however, that
what makes for a powerful essay is sustainable for an entire book.
"In the Basement of the Ivory Tower," while still providing plenty
of grist for lively discussion, is regrettably disorganized in its
structure and repetitive in its execution - rather like a term paper
padded to fulfill minimum length requirements.
Most of the meat can be found up front, in the sharp preface. …