Ryan on Drugs at the Los Angeles Review

Over at the Los Angeles Review, I’ve written a short essay about a new book on drugs, art, and culture. Despite the subject, I’m sober as a judge. Here’s an excerpt:

But the book would be limited if it just catalogued the influence of chemicals on the lives and works of artists, fascinating as that might be. Scott goes further, locating drugs within networks of capital and power. Narcotics are big business. Reliant on economic and ecological networks built during centuries of imperial conquest—that’s how rum, cocaine, sugar, coffee, Scotch, tea, tobacco, weed, Oxycontin, and all the other hedonic goodies became global commodities—“migrations of the narco-imaginary are marked by a history of violence.” Police power backs up corporate interests, determining which drugs are legally available and which are forbidden, and punishing socially marginal users of the latter most severely. Witness America’s prisons, full of black and Latino users in 2017, when a middle-class white literary critic might walk down the street smoking a joint in any state where you can buy a medical-marijuana card. The great irony of drugs: promising transcendence, they are wired into the same late-capitalist circuits that provide us with Chicken McNuggets and private jails.



Stop With the Vaping: Some Skewed and Fragmentary Notes

While I’m nowhere close to Jonathan Franzen’s irritability level, I do like to complain about the late-capitalist modernity of which I, born in 1981, am assuredly a child. Lately my gripe synapses have been firing like mad over vaping, which has gained enough cultural momentum, both practically and rhetorically, to get named the Oxford Dictionary’s 2014 word of the year. I detest it: the self-congratulatorily “cool” practice, the ugly enabling technology, the cultural and capitalistic vocabularies that have congealed around it (1).

Now, given that I wouldn’t let my first-year writing students pass off a personal opinion as self-evident fact (I think vaping is breathtakingly lame, thus it is), I’ve yoked together a provisional list–just some working notes that might lead to a genuine essay–of reasons for my antipathy. I hope I don’t seem like a youngish person playing curmudgeon, because people like that are boring phonies. While reading, light up if you feel like it. Even vapers are invited; it’s a free country, bruh. Here goes.

1) I’ll be honest about the age factor: vaping is largely a practice of the relatively young, and I’m getting older, even if I’m not yet “at the stage / Where one starts to resent the young,” as Auden puts it in “A Walk After Dark.” To an extent, it is inevitable that I–that we–begin to feel alienated by at least some of the ideologies and behaviors of newer generations. This is true even for someone in my line of work, teaching, which is necessarily founded upon a deep love for the potential and freshness of the young. Still, in my day, we sat on the steps of the English Department building and smoked our Camels (which we had walked miles to buy) down to the dang filter.

2) A lot of ear-gauged, face-pierced, sloppy-tatted, snapback-wearing extremo dweebs have embraced vaping. Just look at the photos in this excellent mini-ethnography of the UK vape scene that George Nelson wrote for Vice a few weeks ago. Do you want to hang with these guys (and they are mostly guys)? The scene is nearly as bad as people who are vocally reeeeaaaaally into weed. Nelson also reports that many manufacturers have comically “hip” names, like the American company Space Jam and E-Gains. Space Jam and E-Gains! Finish laughing so you can get to the next entry.

3) The material one vapes sounds repugnant. It’s called e-juice, for fuck’s sake. E-juice. The flavor names are reminiscent of the off-brand condoms sold in bodegas, or, in some cases, of the lacquered sugar candies my grandma kept in glass dishes for visitors. Druid, a.k.a. liquorice! Summer Pudding! Nacho cheese! Cool mint! Straight-up old-fashioned Bubblegum like you chewed in fourth grade! What grown-up child needs everything densely and artificially flavored? Besides, know what else has a pronounced, nuanced flavor? Good tobacco.

4) Vape bars and lounges: Ooooh! You mean I get to pay money to sit around and not drink alcohol? Oh, vaping gives you a little buzz? Well let me in, doorman. And here I was just gonna order a bottled water in Starbucks. These vaper dens are like bad acne on LA’s face; I assume this is true in other cities, too. Smoke a fucking hookah, at least–not that those are any cooler.

5) Sorry, mom, but despite decades of official scolding based on nasty medical facts, a cigarette looks cool, cooler than a vape rig; and I say this as someone who quit smoking American Spirits five years ago after growing disgusted by the taste of smoke. Imagine Marlene Dietrich or Jackson Pollack pausing to languidly or hungrily push the button on a plastic vape pen.

6) Hey, people who claim vaping/e-cigs are healthy, slow your roll: the medical community isn’t exactly in agreement with you yet. And if you hate secondhand smoke, well, vaping disgorges plenty of that.

7) Perhaps most prominently, vaping is part of a wider, genuinely troubling, infantile desire–one that originated in but is hardly confined to the US–to have pleasure without consequence. It’s of a piece with the consumption discourse of “light” cigarettes, Michelob Ultra, reduced-fat chips, and chocolate-flavored Weight Watchers snacks.

That’s all for now. Add to my provisional list in the comments–or argue loudly with me–if you are so moved. Look, everyone, my forehead didn’t even turn red while I wrote all this. Small victories in consciousness.

1) I’m mainly talking about tobacco-based vaping here, although weed smokers who vape also kind of bug me–just get a pipe or roll something like your forefathers and mothers. But if your vaping is medicinal (say you’re a cancer patient dealing with nausea from chemo, or someone struggling with COPD), then by all means, vape up.

Everybody’s Readin’ for the Weekend: Some General Links

The weekend—the weekend, first of the NFL season—is approaching like an ecstatic freight train, way better than the phallic ice-locomotive in those Coors Light commercials. We at the Reader have gathered some edifying texts, jams, and sundries to share. None of them are football-related, so don’t worry if you aren’t into wonderful things like sports. (You philistine.)

  • Because I’m a bearded person who teaches college in America in 2014, most people assume that my beliefs are smugly left-wing (COEXIST sticker on my Prius and all that), which I suppose in some sense they are. Heads might explode or spin around cartoon-style when I say that I’m a conservative. Conservative how? Basically—here is my elevator talk—conservatism is a general philosophical orientation that sees change as something that ideally occurs within durable sociocultural traditions and institutions; or, failing that, something that unfolds carefully and gradually in opposition to (or as a replacement for) such traditions and institutions. It is a broad attitude toward the historical world, not a collection of particular ideas, and so one could potentially hold views that code as USA LIBERAL but still be a conservative. I’m with Edmund Burke: conservatism is not inherently anti-change. It is just hesitant to approve of change simply because it is change. For example, to support nationwide marriage equality, a.k.a. Gay Marriage, is to take a fundamentally conservative position, because (and I’m repeating Andrew Sullivan here)  it boils down to inviting new cohorts of Americans into a socioeconomically valuable tradition wherein people commit to each other, buy homes, raise kids, and join local communities. Or: even lefty humanities professors are conservative, to the extent that they have bought into the idea that it is worth shielding universities from contemporary market whims. But most of the time, no one buys my shit about this, so it was comforting to see that four years ago Jonny Thakkar, a philosopher who teaches at Princeton, explained the position much more eloquently, organizing his essay “Why Conservatives Should Read Marx” around the tension between free-market ideology (with its emphasis on disruption, global hyper-networking, the flattening of local difference, and the fluid distribution of abstract capital) and conservatism (with its supposed devotion to history, prudence, care, continuity, and stability). As Thakkar points out, it is strange to hear American Republicans proclaiming themselves “free-market conservatives.” Left conservatism, as he puts it, is possible.
  • Here is a YouTube link to the British-born, Nashville-dwelling composer/soul-singer Jamie Lidell’s best song, the title single from his 2005 album Multiply. Play it loud on your iPhone, maybe on the bus, like a dickhead teenager. Trust me, it’s still hot nine years later. I have read that the TV show Grey’s Anatomy, which I don’t watch, used it in some way a few years ago, which is fucking gross. Welcome to capitalism. This nuke-hot track isn’t quite the Dusty Springfield Experience (that moment of first hearing a white singer whose voice would immediately suggest that s/he is African American), but you get a hint of that when Lidell starts hitting those drawn-out vowels around 1:40.

  • Last week Sinclair McKay (what a name!) wrote a deft trifle for the London Telegraph, reviewing Olivia Williams’s Gin, Glorious Gin: How Mother’s Ruin Became the Spirit of London (Headline, 2014). A lovely little book, sounds like. McKay’s review is sharp, too. But allow me to remind everyone that, in terms of pure carnival force, the gold standard of gin-depictions remains William Hogarth’s Beer Street vs. Gin Lane paintings (1751), those exuberant reactions to eighteenth-century London which transcend their immediate historical circumstances and embody larger Anglo-American fears about drugs, as well as our often-misplaced faith in the possibility of prudent self-restraint.

BeerStreet - William Hogarth

Intoxicated people are enjoying (and exploiting) other bodies, and Industry is the standard of one’s social value (or absence of it), and modern urban buildings are beginning to exist! Welcome to capitalism. Hogarth’s middle-class voluptuousness will appeal to visually oriented contemporary audiences. In conclusion, gin is so great. In moderation. Or not in moderation. Whatever.

GinLane -William Hogarth

  • Adam Gopnik remains a crowd-pleaser, his essays erudite and affable. His punningly titled recent article in The New Yorker, “Heaven’s Gaits” (hi-yo!), starts with biomechanical science but shifts to the para-biological realm of cultural history: the lure of walking in big cities, taking in the enormous buffet of faces that Walt Whitman loved. Worth your time, reader. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell that you that there are also some captivating academic studies of walking out there. No, really. They are smooth reads. Accessible. Stop laughing like that! Anyway, here are three favorites: Ian Marshall, Peak Experiences: Walking Meditations on Literature, Nature, and Need (University of Virginia Press, 2003); Roger Gilbert Walks in the World (Northeastern UP, 1991), which is, fair warning, all about poetry; Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (Penguin, 2001).
  • The Canadian critic Jeet Heer consistently drops intellectual fire on Twitter. If the idea of breaking an already short essay into tweets strikes you as superficial and dumb, you might be surprised by how much liberal intelligence Heer wrings from the Twitter-essay genre. Check out his recent series on why Sideshow Bob is a fascinating Simpsons character. What does it mean to be a “cultural elitist” like Bob? Can you even actually be one in contemporary mass America? Well, can you? Heer pokes that beast. Fantastic.

Have a lovely weekend, y’all. Wear sunscreen and don’t take the brown acid.

More (on) Country

Every year when the Grammy Awards show is on, I find myself wondering who its audience is. No one ever seems happy with the nominees, let alone who wins, and most people are generally unmoved by the really contrived “live” (lip-synced) performances. This past year, Kendrick Lamar (who’s a talented MC, but not the next coming of Nas, as some have claimed) not only lost a statue to these guys, but also had to perform with these guys:


Watching “country singer” Taylor Swift awkwardly dance to this crap is pretty funny, but it also underscores something important: the Grammy spectacle isn’t about music at all. It’s TMZ, a reality show singing competition, a couple soap operas, and a weird Judge [Insert Name Here] show all rolled into one. It’s an advertising delivery mechanism meant to titillate Two-and-Half Men viewers, even as they express moral outrage at all the flesh, flash, and crudity on display. It’s maybe the most Hollywood thing on television in that it’s not even trashy enough to be interesting.

If you’re someone who reads this blog and inexplicably finds yourself watching the Grammys, we advise that you go take a leak or pass out during the ten minutes when they announce the country awards or have some generic, horrifically bedazzled Nashviller perform. Ryan’s ably documented the godawful state of contemporary country, with its pop chanteuses, bros of all varieties, and faux outlaws raging against nothing. I would say that we deserve a better class of country musician, but we really don’t. We deserve the crap we’re willing to pay for, and Carrie Underwood concerts alway sell out.

So thank god for YouTube, where you can not only listen to the likes of Dwight Yoakam, but also watch this performance from the 1991 Grammys:

Jiminy Crickets, where to start? You’ve got Gary Shandling, whose Larry Sanders managed to combine the poofy hair of Jerry Seinfeld with the appalling suits of Frasier and Niles Crane. Folks, there was a time when media execs wanted Gary Shandling to host the Grammys. Then there’s Garth Brooks’ shirt. I think we once had some outdoor furniture cushions in that pattern, but I gotta admit, it looks great with a cowboy hat. Then there’s the premise of the vignette that just follows the lyrics of the song:

Grammy Writer: “It’s like a high-society party scene out of Designing Women where Garth is looked down on by snooty types, and then *poof* we’re magically transported to a “dive bar” peopled by Juliard graduates that make him feel right at home!”

Hollywood Suit: “You’re destined for greatness, kid!”

Someone could do a humdinger of a terrible grad seminar paper on this video. Please cite me if you do. From the dinner-theater acting, to Kathy Mattea’s camera face, this marvelous turd is more interesting than anything the Grammys will ever produce again because it’s not even trying to be cool (see the above), a grail quest that has ruined just about everything in our culture. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that the song, which didn’t win a Grammy (because Vince Gill won this category *7* times in the 90s), is a classic in genre that seems determined never to churn out another one.

Required Reading: “The State of the American Dog”

Hi, I’m Ryan, and sometimes I wish the Internet were made of paper. I worry about our culture’s mind as we transition to a heavily visual, Cloud-hosted mode of living; I distrust the conceit that the humanities will survive and perhaps even prosper through digitization; and I dislike that popular Web writing is often bracketed by and/or sliced up with images that distract readers, myself included, who nonetheless feel anxious without images in view. As a discursive conservative, I think writing-intensive, preferably printed texts are better at conveying complex ideas and feeding thought.

But it would be stupid to claim that these texts are always superior to visually intensive media when it comes to serious inquiry. Done well, hybrid digital texts can rise to the level of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Tom Junod’s essay “The State of the American Dog,” published this week in Esquire (a magazine I’ve griped about before), is in that league. The article would be staggering on its own, but the gallery of pictures that accompanies it might cause things to get a little, uh, misty near your computer. Junod builds the text around his family’s experience owning pit bulls (Dexter and the late Carson), beautiful, emotionally intuitive animals whose lives provide the basis for an ethnography of America that doesn’t reflect well on us. Ever met a pit bull or a pit mix? If their owner isn’t a creep, then that dog is probably one of the best creatures you’ll ever encounter. Pitties are built like high-school wrestlers and bond quickly with people.

The problem is, pits are built like high-school wrestlers and bond quickly with people, which means that terrible humans can easily train them to fight other dogs and generally project menace. The fact that such reptiles are a small minority of owners does not matter much at this point, because for thirty years American popular media has slotted pit bulls into paranoid cultural fantasies about race (the canine lieutenant of black/brown gang-bangers FROM THE CITY), while at the same time the breed has fallen victim to the worst impulses of a frantically consumerist society. (When Junod describes watching a young professional casually dump her pet at a shelter before work because her new condo doesn’t allow dogs, you’ll want to scream for several reasons.) What this means is that today Petey from Our Gang would most likely die in a shelter or on the street.

The demographic shifts that are transforming America’s human population find a mirror in the demographic shifts that are transforming America’s canine one, with the same effect: More and more we become what we somehow can’t abide. We might accept pit bulls personally, but America still doesn’t accept them institutionally, where it counts; indeed, apartment complexes and insurance companies are arrayed in force against them. And so are we: For although we adopt them by the thousands, we abandon them by the millions. The ever-expanding population of dogs considered pit bulls feeds an ever-expanding population of dogs condemned as pit bulls, and we resolve this rising demographic pressure in the way to which we’ve become accustomed: in secret, and in staggering numbers. We have always counted on our dogs to tell us who we are. But what pit bulls tell us is that who we think we are is increasingly at odds with what we’ve turned out to be.

Gore Vidal liked to point out that Americans (“The United States of Amnesia”) don’t have much of a historical memory unless memory suits a present desire. It strikes me that this also enables us to feel less and less shame about how little our contemporary institutions and behaviors resemble the founding theory of America. As Junod has it:

America is two countries now—the country of its narrative and the country of its numbers, with the latter sitting in judgment of the former. In the stories we tell ourselves, we are nearly always too good: too soft on criminals, too easy on terrorists, too lenient with immigrants, too kind to animals. In the stories told by our numbers, we imprison, we drone, we deport, and we euthanize with an easy conscience and an avenging zeal.

But hey, they’re vicious kill-beasts, so they had it coming.

Early Summer Reading

My grades have been in for a little over two weeks now. I’ve yet to get a complaint from a student about said grades, so I think it might be safe to call it: summer is here. Now, I realize that for everyone not working in education, summer is just a hotter version of the rest of the year. Maybe there are more weekend cookouts. Maybe more white wine is uncorked. Maybe there’s a pilgrimage to some family homestead. But, dammit, even if you don’t get a real summer (and the truth is that most people working in education don’t really have that much time off either, what with summer teaching, course prep, and assorted kinds of career development), there’s a chance that on a warm summer afternoon, you might find yourself with a little time to read. The following are some suggestions for how to fill that time, though we will have more throughout the summer.

  • Let’s just get this one out of the way first. If you’ve yet to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ massive Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations,” you should carve out about an hour and do so. Coates is acknowledged, even by many of his conservative critics, as a great writer. His blog posts and articles about the Civil War, his trip to France, and being a black man in America are always worth reading. Like many writers, his blog posts can be messy, but they’re always lucid, and his longform, and I’d assume more stringently edited pieces, are good examples of what I wish more academics would produce. That is to say, I wish academics, many of whom allegedly study narrative and rhetoric, would spend less time theorizing, and more time time telling compelling stories about the world as it was, is, and could be. When it comes down to it, glossing Foucault doesn’t do what Coates does in the passage below. The tenure system’s perverse relationship with academic publishing is part of what will eventually be the undoing of many colleges and universities. The places that survive will do so because they understand that teaching and public scholarship, like Coates’ work and that of Yunte Huang (notice that he lists “writer” first), are more important than impenetrable “studies” that no one reads.

When Clyde Ross was still a child, Mississippi authorities claimed his father owed $3,000 in back taxes. The elder Ross could not read. He did not have a lawyer. He did not know anyone at the local courthouse. He could not expect the police to be impartial. Effectively, the Ross family had no way to contest the claim and no protection under the law. The authorities seized the land. They seized the buggy. They took the cows, hogs, and mules. And so for the upkeep of separate but equal, the entire Ross family was reduced to sharecropping.

This was hardly unusual. In 2001, the Associated Press published a three-part investigation into the theft of black-owned land stretching back to the antebellum period. The series documented some 406 victims and 24,000 acres of land valued at tens of millions of dollars. The land was taken through means ranging from legal chicanery to terrorism. “Some of the land taken from black families has become a country club in Virginia,” the AP reported, as well as “oil fields in Mississippi” and “a baseball spring training facility in Florida.”

  • If you’re in the mood for something a little shorter, Dennis Romero at the LA Weekly just nails why people in Los Angeles should sneer at the culture in San Francisco (and not the other way around). Having grown up in the Bay Area, it’s pretty appalling to see what’s happened to the place. Silicon Valley has become synonymous with a utopian mindset that makes me glad it was people like Axl Rose taking buses out to LA instead of people like Eric Schmidt. When people in San Francisco are done “disrupting” the world, they should consider the following, per Romero:

It’s the Bay that has become a parody of smug white privilege… The preachiness of a McMansion-dwelling Westsider telling you to conserve energy will never be as annoying as some Silicon Valley trust-funder telling you he’s going to change the world when you know all he really wants to do is change his wallet. One is trying. One is lying. 

  • The New York Review of Books is always on its game, but I especially love when it produces a little gem of an article about something I previously knew almost nothing about. It does this all the time, mostly because, like most people I really don’t know all that much. So you shouldn’t be surprised to hear that my familiarity with the life of John Quincy Adams, our sixth president and the grandfather of one of America’s weirdest intellectuals, was, uh, lacking. Thanks to Susan Dunn, I now know that JQ Adams had a frustrating marriage, hated slavery, was addicted to politics, knew both Washington and Lincoln, was mocked for lobbying for better education and scientific research, and was a total dick to his children. As Ryan and I like to say, “In America!”
  • Finally, this isn’t strictly a reading recommendation, but a film about a voracious reader and writer seems like an appropriate substitute (famous last words…) Plimpton!, the latest American Masters biopic is  about, wait for it, George Plimpton, the longtime editor of The Paris Review and “participatory journalist” who famously tried his hand at many different glamorous professions, mostly within the sporting world. He turned these experiences into big pieces for Sports Illustrated, and sometimes later into books. He also wrote light novels, showed up in movies, and had his own falconry video game for ColecoVision (yes, this was a real thing). But I think Plimpton was most important as a curator of an American literary culture that took itself seriously, but also knew how to have a good time. One that wasn’t so political, whiny, and boring. One that didn’t give two shits about MFA programs or “critical theory.” One that would have laughed at “trigger warnings” (thanks, UCSB) and “splaining.” Oh, I know, he was a rich kid who basically just didn’t screw up his life, but I really don’t care. The guy loved writers and writing in a way that most people (including many writers) don’t, so that earns him a lot of points in my book.


Put Me In, Coach, or I’ll Hire Another Coach

In the cover story from last month’s Harper’s, Genevieve Smith tries to make sense of the recent American craze for “life coaches” and other personal-brand/-fulfillment/-identity consultants. Like most everything in Harper’s, it is crisply written. It is also fair. Smith acknowledges that it is easy to mock the idea of a Life Coach (hence coaches now tend to omit the “life”), and she is deeply skeptical of the industry’s premise, viewing it as creepy neoliberal monetization of the acts and values that constitute friendship (empathy, trust, candor, patience). She encounters people who rhapsodize about “producing transformation” and are not kidding.

But Smith admits that life-coaching underscores a reality worth remembering: “our problems are mostly the same,” though they materialize in different forms in different lives and communities.

We are unhappy at work, or if we’re happy at work, we’re working too much and missing exercise or our hobbies or time with our kids. Our parents are sick or dying, or not sick but their minds are going, or at least they’re driving us crazy. Or if not our parents, then our spouses, our friends, our children. We feel disconnected from the ones we love. We feel listless and uninspired. We never followed our passions. We know we’d be happier if we ate right, if we meditated, if we called our mothers, but we don’t. We never do.

Of course, anybody who reads literature, watches films, or listens to music could have told you that. And theoretically at least, the world’s major religions are responses to that shared suffering. Leave it to Americans to look for solace in a transaction that is mainly intended to transform a rudderless client into a more efficient, effective free-agent knowledge worker in a market where secure employment is getting scarce.

Coaches are sort of like teachers (experienced teachers could do this motivational shit in their sleep), and their clients are somewhat comparable to students, in the sense that they are studying something, even if the content is usually delivered as cloudy bromides about Improvement, Actualization, and Motivation, and given physical form in corny group exercises where participants act out their hidden powers or whatever. In one scene, actual grown-ups pretend to inhabit roles like Egyptian queens, surfer-dude Rebels, and fireworks (?). An MBA bro even does a cartwheel.

But the coaching-oriented strain of education entails—indeed centers upon—a monetary transaction. I pay you to coach me, and if I dislike how you coach, you are fired. And that’s fine! That is how capitalism works.

Things can quickly get parlous for the coaches. Many of them work for large consulting companies. In one chilling passage, a group becomes disillusioned with their leader’s techniques. This particular self-bolstering activity that I don’t really get—something Moby-Dickish about embracing the Inner Captain—irritates the clients, so they begin “organizing” their complaints against the instructor, first via e-mail, then personal confrontation. The coach fails to placate them by emphasizing that this is how his program works and that they should be patient. Next time the group meets, they have a new instructor. No more stuff about boats and captains. Like the previous coach, the replacement coach works for the Coaches Training Institute, the final word in whose name is presumably intended to make the firm sound like some kind of not-for-profit, quasi-humanitarian venture.

Again, what happened to the first coach is OK as long as we are talking about an enterprise where a good or service is being exchanged for money. If I dislike your restaurant’s burritos, I’m free to never buy them, or to bitch on Yelp about how the guacamole sucks.

Trouble is, the USA has spent the past few decades clumsily applying this consumer model to most of our colleges and universities. Students and their parents are encouraged to see education as a private good purchased to make a person more employable, and once a student stops conceiving of education as an opportunity to work diligently under the challenging guidance of well-trained experts in multiple disciplines and instead treats it like a commodity transaction, the purchase of a credential bearing a school’s name, fundamentally the same as buying a burrito or a Honda, then the entire project collapses. If getting a bachelor’s degree is like ordering at Chipotle, then it is difficult to convince the tuition-payer (or more likely, student-loan debtor) that handing over money is just the first step, that now the buyer gets to write a lot, read widely, study gobs of difficult math and science, and be evaluated according to rigorous standards developed by people with PhDs. That the degree itself is not the point—the liberal education for which it stands is. It may be exasperating for professors, and a misunderstanding of how institutional accounting works, but the “I pay your salary, so hand me that A” narrative is understandable. I need an A on my burrito.

Now that the majority of American professors have scant job security— like that suddenly unpopular life coach, adjuncts can easily be let go by their employers for the feeblest of reasons—it is difficult to contest this narrative. While this is not the case at every school in the country, it is true of the majority, particularly those that rely heavily on part-time labor. Too often, college teachers have little expectation that their bosses will back them during, say, a dispute over an “unfair” grade, so they inflate gradesreduce writing and reading requirements or soften exams, overlook plagiarism, and try to turn instruction into entertainment. This has been a disaster for higher ed. As Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa demonstrate at depressing length in their magnificent Academically Adrift (2011), which someone needs to nail to the US Department of Education’s front door, too many schools are graduating too many students with etiolated critical-thinking skills and communication abilities, which, in a terrible irony, leaves those new graduates unprepared for the global economy to which, they were promised, a college diploma is the golden key.

Education is not a burrito and teachers are not hired coaches. But many Americans, most of whom would publicly declare their respect for education and teachers, no longer understand this, or never did. Our market society, to which universities were once a partial exception, is happy to oblige them. It will not be surprising when the University of Phoenix starts allowing students to collectively fire their teachers or at least purchase alternative ones. I can see this policy catching on elsewhere, too.