There's an interesting article in the New York Times today-- "The 60's Begin To Fade As Liberal Professors Retire"-- that touches on a number of issues surrounding what appears to be an impending "generational shift" in the American professorate. According to the author, over 54% of full-time faculty in the United States were over the age of 50 in 2005 (compared with only 22% in 1969), which means that well over half of our current faculty were at least adolescents in the 1960's. The article mostly focuses on this fact, and emphasizes an alleged generational difference between older and younger faculty members in terms of their "ideological" (by which the author seems to mean, primarily, "political") commitments. Older faculty are "ideologically committed" and younger faculty aren't, the story goes, because much of the older faculty spent their formative years embroiled in the social and political maelstrom that was the 60's. As that older "liberal" generation grays and eventually retires, the influence they exerted in shaping the face of the American professorate is transferred, mutatis mutandis, to the less ideologically committed and more moderate generation of junior faculty.
I'm not entirely convinced that it is accurate to describe the younger generation of faculty (according to the article, "younger" means "between 26-35") as lacking ideological "commitment," though I can appreciate the significant differences between the manner in which such commitments are manifest in the 60's generation and how they are manifest in people of my generation. But that's an argument for another day. What really interested me about this article was that, in the course of describing these generational differences between faculty, the author mentions--and then quickly passes over--several phenomena that would serve as legitimate explanations for it. Here are two in particular:
First, there has been a tremendous increase in female faculty-- almost 40% of the total in 2005, compared with a mere 17% in 1969. Of course, I don't cite this statistic as a way of suggesting that women are "less ideologically committed," but rather to point out that the "old" makeup of the professorate was overwhelmingly constituted by men who had the luxury of fully indulging their ideological commitments, at least in part, because their non-ideological commitments (like the care of a home and children) were being handled by someone else.
Second, shrinking economic support for higher education and the increasing shortage of tenure-track jobs have dramatically changed the professional part of what it means to be a member of the American professorate. The younger generation of faculty are described in the article as more conscientiously "careerist," as if those sorts of utilitarian commitments have replaced what would have been our legitimate "ideological" commitments because we were molded in the cushy, mostly peaceful and relatively prosperous days of the 90's. It seems to me to be a real mistake to assume that some sort of autonomous re-prioritization of values is the reason that junior faculty are more "careerist," rather than attributing that phenomenon to the very real economic and professional pressures under which junior faculty now labor.
To be fair, the article does acknowledge these two points. It just doesn't seem to give them the weight they merit, I think, especially since they are far more helpful in elucidating the real effects of an impending generational change than some romantic re-creation of "the 60's radical professor." All due respect to those illustrious radical profs, of course.
One last thing: I hope that the 60's generation of professors doesn't retire too quickly, because I think there is one very important thing that they know, and we will soon need to know, which will probably bind us together more than anyone has yet anticipated. That is, they know what it's like to have "veterans" as students. It is a fact that, in the coming years, more and more college students will be entering the classroom after exiting a war. They will be radically different people, with radically different experiences of the world, than we junior professors were or had when we were in college. (You can listen to three of them tell their stories in "Iraq veterans on campus.") I've only had three students "back from Iraq" so far in my teaching experience--2 at Penn State and 1 here at Rhodes--but I could already see an inkling of the tremendous disconnect not only between their lives and mine, but also between their lives and that of their classmates. I'm sure that, at this point, the endless analogies between Vietnam and Iraq can seem tiresome... but I think this is one for which we have not yet fully prepared.