|A Brief Review of
In the Basement of The Ivory Tower:
Confessions of an Accidental Academic.
Hardback: Viking Books, 2011.
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Reviewed by Chris Smith.
I picked up In the Basement of the Ivory Tower by the mysterious Professor X because I’m a sucker for social criticism. I had read the professor’s essay of the same title that was published in The Atlantic in 2008, and deeply appreciated the questions he asked there about whether college should be for everyone. In the book, Professor X expounds upon the problem introduced in the essay, painting a rich Dickensian picture of the sad life of an adjunct professor, and he alludes to the complexity surrounding this problem. However, he doesn’t offer much insight about it might begin to be resolved, and instead spends entirely too much time whining about his own situation. Soon after the turn of the millennium, he and his wife bought a home that they, by his own admission, “really couldn’t afford.” As the floor dropped out of the economy over the course of the decade, they found themselves struggling to keep up with the payments, which drove him to take on two adjunct professor positions (by day, he works at a modest government job) and also soured his marriage. If Professor X was, say, a professor of business (or any other sort of professor other than an English one), this book would have been completely unreadable. His writing style is compelling, even funny at times, but the overarching tone of the book’s bellyaching – about his house, his marriage, but most of all about his students and their lack of competency – grew old rather quickly. Part of me wanted to dish out some “tough love,” Dr. Phil-style, telling the professor to simplify his life, sell the house, quit adjuncting, save his marriage and enjoy life.
Yes, I agree with the Professor that Western culture needs a significant amount of reform in the area of higher education, as well as in economic and societal expectations around higher education. However, the new book In the Basement of the Ivory Tower does not carry the conversation much beyond the questions posed in the original essay of the same name. I think the original essay could have been expanded into a challenging book, however, Professor X’s new volume is unfortunately not that book.