“Down the Up Escalator”

Though she is perhaps best known for her 1966 skewering of LBJ, MacBird, perhaps all of us should be paying a little more attention to Barbara Garson today. Her book Down the Up Escalator: How the 99% Live should be out in paperback any day now. Here’s what Adam Hochschild says about it:

Garson knows that the hard times so many people are living through are not just composed of headlines about corporate profits, unemployment rates and foreclosures; they are composed of human beings. This book is a compassionate, probing, pointillist mural of the Great Recession and of the decades-long erosion of the average American’s economic position that preceded it, all told through the experiences of individual men and women. She has followed some over time, has sought out others whose lives illuminate larger injustices, and has found people whose stories will stick with you.

What has this to do with the AAUP or American faculty?

Plenty. In a piece published online last fall, Garson describes the move from permanent jobs to temporary… sound familiar? Garson writes:

According to the latest Labor Department figures, 65% of the jobs added to the economy in July 2013 were part-time.  The average hourly wage fell slightly. Interpreters of those statistics will make it sound as though it’s simply a matter of factories firing and burger joints hiring.   That, at least, would be a situation that could be reversed over time.  If, however, golden jobs are being transmuted into lead by the reverse alchemy described in this piece, then they’re not coming back gradually, certainly not without a growing labor movement and a fight.

Though Garson doesn’t deal directly with the move toward contingent and part-time faculty, the pattern is exactly the same. The tenure track jobs, the gold, are being transmuted into the lead of temporary and adjunct positions at an alarming rate. They have been, for a generation… just as has been happening in business and industry.

What’s more, Garson is describing not only the situations of faculty but of the families of our students. The students, at least, at all but the most elite universities (and even some of those). This “compelling portrait of an economy that has turned against the people” (Publishers Weekly) teaches us a great deal of where our students are coming from–and even more about what the experiences of their younger brothers and sisters will be. It also tells us more about what our students can expect once they graduate.

In addition to making us think hard about our own work environment, this book should make us re-examine the education we are providing. For all the “learning outcomes” and more that we are concentrating on, are we actually giving students the tools they will need for survival in a radically different (and much less promising) world?

After reading Garson, we’ll have a harder time answering “yes.”

2 thoughts on ““Down the Up Escalator”

  1. The corporate leaders who have made a bogeyman out of unions and who have made the notion of well-paying secure employment with benefits a sentimental memory for many categories of American workers are also those who have been funding “educational reform”–i.e., the privatization of public education and the mandating of assessments administered by external, corporate “educational providers.”

    So, any effort to reverse these trends needs to be founded on a clearer understanding and elucidation of how those educational “reforms” are advancing a broader ideological and economic agenda–and not serving our students’, our institutions’, or our own best interests. We have to get past the notion, which has now become somewhat entrenched in the public perception, that these people are holding educators to account for the sake of the public good, simply to restore public accountability. We need to expose the reality that they are simply advancing their own self-interest–engaging in what amounts to social engineering on a massive scale.

  2. Pingback: On Shooting Oneself in the Foot | Academe Blog

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