Saturday, March 05, 2005


Boomer Vs. X in Academia

A sequence of events, culminating in an odd desire to hear Bananarama's "Robert DeNiro's Waiting (Talking Italian)" (which I actually own on CD) reminded me that I was a member of Generation X. I think my current liminal status in academia is reminding me of 90s films like Reality Bites and Kicking and Screaming--I'm about as happy with my post-college life as the characters in those films.

Now, an initial disclaimer. I don't buy completely into the whole generational labeling game, and I certainly understand the objections raised against it. However, I also recognize that despite my own efforts to the contrary (particularly in the wake of the Peter Sacks book on Gen Xers in college), I'm more or less a typical Gen Xer. And many of the Boomers I know are more or less typical Boomers. Whatever the origins of these labels, there is something to them. Call it zeitgeist, unpopular as that term has become in academic circles. Whatever. I still like it.

But, this post isn't so much about me or about the labels themselves as about what I was able to discover while playing around on the internet, looking for stuff about Generation X.

A search of Amazon, followed by a Google search, revealed three distinct areas of study currently being conducted in Gen X department: how to best sell us stuff (to which my answer is: provide us with greater economic stability), how to bring us into (or back into) organized religion, and how Boomer bosses can successfully understand their Gen X employees and integrate them into the pre-existing workforce, itself largely the product of Boomers and their values.

This last seems to be a major concern, and was the subject of at least ten of the first forty or so books that came up when I did a subject search of "Generation X" at Amazon. Apparently, the effects of the generation gap are quite severe in many places of business. The values of Generation X, these studies seem to stress, are very different than those of Boomers, and this has caused no small amount of strife in the workplace. For one thing, we appear to be far more interested in our private lives than Boomers--we aren't willing to work as much overtime or devote ourselves to our work to the exclusion of home and family. We also desire greater economic stability, and are resentful of Boomers who block our way up the employment ladder. Finally, Gen Xers have largely rejected both ends of the Boomer "value spectrum": the crass materialism generally associated with Boomers as well as the leftist political activism of the Woodstock crowd. Some pundits have even made the argument that we are more conservative as a generation, though from what I am able to gather, this doesn't necessarily mean we are a Republican generation, but that we seek a stability that was severely lacking in our youth--this is particularly true of the large number of Xers who are the children of divorce and the children of workers who were laid off during the recession of the early 1980s. (Personally, I think it also has a lot to do with the fact that we were weaned on films like The Day After and Testament.)

But my question is, why don't we see evidence of this large generational gap in academia? From what I've seen, most of my fellow Gen Xers have bought into the left-wing branch of Boomer culture hook, line, and sinker, and I can generally find little or no difference between the Boomers and the Gen Xers I work with, even when the discussion is limited to Xers, and the Boomers are nowhere near.

It seems to me that if the problems of the business world were duplicating themselves in academia--and by academia I mean the humanities and social sciences, since that's where I work and those are people I have daily contact with--then we should be seeing a rejection of what I can only characterize as "60s think" among up and coming scholars. They should also be interested in stablizing fields of study, rather than trying to explode them, a la cultural studies and the various ethnic and gender enclaves.

Yet in academia, Generation X scholars are, for the most part, simply replicating the thoughts and work of the Boomers. Oh, we've added things to the mix, but we haven't added anything that smacks of Generation X, at least not as it is described in the non-academic world. Instead, we're just helping the Boomers move their projects further ahead.

Does anybody have any insight into why this would be?

Have Gen X academics allowed themselves to become Boomer clones, or are we going to see a massive Gen X revolution once more of these omnipresent Boomers retire?

(Click on "Confess Your Thoughtcrime Here" to leave a comment.)

Well, Wintson, you've already stated the reason that Generation X has no voice in the academy. Anyone who differs from the values of the Boomers who control the academy by weight of sheer relative numbers is weeded out in every stage of the process--undergraduate classes, graduate admissions, completion of doctorate, job placement, tenure. The only way to survice the process is either to be a Boomer clone or to pass as one until one gets tenure.

I find that I have a lot more in common with the older faculty (past 60) than with those between 40 and 60. They seem to have some humility. They are less convinced of their absolute moral righteousness. And they actually get things done instead of just grandstanding about their values.
So you think that this is all part of the same problem, which is that those currently in charge of the academy are interested primarily in making certain that their ideas and values dominate the academy for decades to come.

And you're right--I guess there was a part of me that realized it. I just came at the phenomenon from a non-academic angle, so it prevented me from immediately making the connection.

If my observations (which hold true for the seven institutions at which I've taught) are accurate, then the problem in the academy is far greater than the current left/right debate, a debate which, having been started primiarily by David Horowitz, is a Boomer-defined debate, with the two Boomer factions fighting the same fight they've been fighting since the 60s. And we've either had to adopt their terms in this debate, or be sidelined.

The sad thing is that if we are truly witnessing a professoriate whose greatest value is its own replication, then we cannot expect to see any real advances in the humanities and the social sciences until the stranglehold of the Boomers and their acolytes is broken. This means, for example, that the current brand of current-events analysis by analogy to the Boomers' formative years (like the erroneous Iraq/Vietnam analogy) will not be going away any time soon.

And I definitely agree with you about older faculty. This is the first place I've taught at without non-Boomer faculty members; there are no representatives of the previous generation around.

In the past, those were the people I always gravitated towards. In fact, most of the professors I worked most closely with during my B.A. and M.A. work are either retired or have passed away. The Boomers were far too interested in turning their classrooms into political platforms for radical feminism, Marxism, etc.

And it was these older professors who forced me to work hard, and to really engage with literature. They also made clarity of expression a major priority--their students either learned how to write or they earned low marks.

This topic warrants greater discussion. Perhaps more Xers will share their experiences. It would also be interesting to hear from the Boomers. Should make for an interesting fight in the comments section.
Hey Winston.

It's true that, generally speaking, the academy tends to clone itself--both intentionally and unintentionally--which would tend to weed out the more conservative Gen Xers who then end up in, say, the business world (for example). Of course, many of these students likely weed themselves out too.

However, I do think that there are these moderate or more conservative (or whatever) Gen Xers that you speak of in the academic world (I would consider myself one of them). As you know though, given the climate many probably keep it somewhat to themselves and play the academic game so to speak (even if they don't fully believe in it). I came across a number of students in my previous PhD program who would likely fit the model you are describing...and even a solid handful of professors (actually none of the profs I took a course with were hostile to traditional methods of study).

Unfortunately, I left that PhD program (fairly large state University) with just my MA for a variety of reasons (including a number of said professors leaving). I am starting a new PhD program (private, Ivy) this year, for better or for worse (not sure yet!). I am apprehensive about finding a balance between promoting the kind of academic study I believe in, and also not "black-balling" myself. Luckily I know at least a few professors with whom I can (mostly) be myself.

I do think the type you speak of is out there...perhaps just not openly advertizing themselves as such.
I confess to being one of the few in humanities grad programs that is more or less conservative.

Funny, but my own slide into political conservatism is a rather recent development, and I think it's much due to the hard-left stance of most faculty members, their efforts to indoctrinate their undergraduates, their slavish devotion to silly and opaque thoery, and (perhaps most frustrating of all) the assumption that, since I've come this far in a graduate program, that I think just the same way they do.

A lot of this is a generational difference, although I think many in the older generation of professors must have been absolutely spineless in their lack of resistance (on intellectual grounds) to the comparatively sloppy scholarship of Boomer appointees. Indeed, some of these old-timers were converted. I have studied under one such, a sweet-tempered, silver-haired old lady who prattled endlessly about Lacanian psychology and "the male gaze" in Romantic poetry. It was impossible to get anything else out of her.

But I, too, am not completely comfortable with a generalization that says that "Baby Boomer" professors are responsible for the sorry state of things. I think an even more important factor is inherent and common to all the various philosophies espoused by the ruling class of higher education in the humanities: That is, that you cannot seperate "ideology" from anything. Every course ever taught, every new Ph.D. ever hired, every sonnet ever written, every song ever sung or danced to is advocating some kind of sociopolitical ideology, and, taken as a whole, either tends towards upholding an opressive power structure or tends towards undermining it.

These folks (somewhat paradoxically) are all for undermining society, so that it may be rebuilt in a way that is suitable to them. In English departments, that dystopian society is already built,and they are fortifying it by hiring only those who reasonably seem to be ideologically pure.

This leaves me to wonder whether a Ph.D. with a more traditional attitude toward the humanities, to say nothing of an unapologetic conservative, has any hope of finding meaningful employment in his chosen field. It certainly doesn't look good for me, at least as long as I keep unabashedly, if politely, writing papers the way I do. Literally the only thing that keeps me going is my faith that people can make a difference if they insist on doing good work, which will, in turn, expose the shoddiness of what many of their colleagues are doing. I have to believe that there is a Vaclav Havel of the humanities out there, or a Pope John Paul, a Maggie Thatcher, or a Ronald Reagan. This may sound corny or overdone, but these folks changed a situation that everyone told them was impossible. Once these folks determined not to back down, and made a decicision not to equivocate, Communist society first loosened up, then collapsed altogether. I don't think comparing the Cold War to the situation in the humanities is too much overblown, though I expect many readers to disagree.

At any rate, I'd love to hear your thoughts.
I've been away for a couple of days, so I'll make a quick comment and promise to write another post tomorrow that really addresses the excellent comments that have been made thus far.

I just want to make it clear that I am most definitely not trying to say that the problems in academia are all down to the Boomer generation--just that taking the generational distinction between the three generations generally represented on a college faculty (the "silent generation, the Boomers, and Gen X) might provide some insight into the nature of the problems we face. Certainly, the Althusserian "all is ideology" understanding of the world and the texts that have been written in it is one of the biggest problems facing the humanities and the social sciences. My musings on the Boomers are merely food for thought, perhaps another piece in the puzzle that we should think about.

I will say that a recent incident which I can't really describe without outing myself hammered home to me that one thing that Boomers seem to specialize in is self-indulgence, and what are postmodern approaches to literature, cultural studies, and ethnic and gender studies if not incredibly self-indulgent? I cannot count how many books and essays I've read that are actually about the critic and his or her ideas instead of the work being studied and the ideas contained within it.

Anyway, I'll try to make more sense tomorrow. I've had an exhausting day and a lengthy drive.
My university is so far out of date: Here is a political conservative Boomer professor under attack from younger students?
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