Talking with Thomas Frank about the "fraud" and "scam" of American higher education

Last week, Thomas Frank was in town to read at Town Hall Seattle from his new-in-paperback book Listen, Liberal. If you're looking to understand what went wrong with the Democratic Party over the last few years, this is the book for you: Frank explains that Democratic leaders have over time shifted the Democrats from a working-class party to a league of meritocratic professional elites. While Frank was in Seattle, he agreed to meet for a podcast interview for my day job at Civic Ventures. The full interview will be released on Thursday of this week as the first episode of the second season of our new podcast, The Other Washington. (You can subscribe to our podcast on iTunes or, as they say, wherever you get your podcasts.) But for now, here's a sample of our conversation.

I very much enjoyed Listen Liberal. I wish I'd read it sooner. A lot of the book is given over the argument that the Democratic Party is in thrall of elitists who've risen through the secondary education system. You argue that the Democratic Party has become a meritocracy that rewards cautious thinking and conventional wisdom. One thing about the book that I kept waiting for you to do — and one thing that the book always felt like it was on the precipice of doing — was going after secondary education in this country. Because all these elitist people have to come from a system, right? It just repeatedly walks up to the idea of talking about systemic educational reform and then backs off. I was wondering if that’s something you’re working on next?

I already did. There’s no reason why you would know this, but I wrote a series of essays for The Baffler magazine and Harper's magazine about universities, college admissions, all the various scandals in universities, and also about adjuncts.

Back in the 80s and 90s, I went to graduate school in American history. I got a PhD. I wanted to be a professor. I wanted to be a historian. What I discovered as soon as I got my PhD is that the path to being a tenured professor in the American university system had basically been closed to my generation, and to all the succeeding generations.

Instead, professors and university teachers have been casualized. You get your PhD and go out and you have to work as what's called an adjunct, you make very, very, very — you'd be surprised how little these people get paid to teach college students. The majority of university classes in America are taught by adjuncts. They get paid very, very, very little.

The university system has fascinated me because on the one hand the price tag is now, as we all know, outrageous. It's completely off the handle. University of Chicago, where I get my PhD, is close to $65,000 a year now. They're all like that. All of your top tier universities are like that.

State universities are following along behind as they get defunded by the states. The tuition is incredibly high, and yet the people who teach the courses are basically sub-minimum wage employees. Someone forwarded me an article a while ago; it was talking about various people who work at low-wage occupations and what they might do to help themselves. It was listing the low-wage occupations — like people who work in fast-food, people who are in housekeeping, this kind of thing.

One of the occupations that was listed was university teaching. You have to get a PhD to do that! That takes many, many, many years. You're supposed to be the smartest and the best, and all that crap, right? You've done well on your tests and everything, and you've got straight A’s and you've read every book in the goddamn library. That's your future, and it stinks.

That split — that universities are incredibly expensive and university teachers by and large get paid next to nothing — whoa, that is shocking when you put those two facts together and when you try to understand the American university system. And at the same time, the prestige of [the university system] grows and grows and grows.

I live in Bethesda, Maryland. More than 50 percent of the population has an advanced degree of some kind. Everybody has internalized the hierarchy of educational institutions. This is important to everyday life: where I live, people know that such and such a school is really, really, really good and such and such another school is not quite as good.

A friend of mine, his son, I think his son was ten at the time, said, "Daddy, is Williams above Princeton, or is Princeton above Williams?" Of course, his dad knew what he meant. The kid was trying to figure out the hierarchy of American higher education at age ten. This is common where I live. Where you go to college is this incredibly important thing — it's putting a brand label on you. We all know these stories once you start digging into the American university system — the words “fraud” and “scam” just instantly come to mind. Sorry, that's the way I feel about it.

At the same time, remember, I'm a great believer in this. I got a PhD. What would make me happiest in my life would be to spend all my day sitting in the stupid library and writing another dissertation. I love that way of life.