Phi Beta Cons

Play It Again

In 2008  “Professor X” wrote an essay, “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower,” that described teaching students who really shouldn’t be in college. It caused something of a stir (although my favorite author on the misconceptions and misdeeds of college students is still Tom Bertonneau). Professor X expanded his essay into a book with the same name, published earlier this year.

In addition to his critique of higher education (which George Leef discussed in a review), Professor X does something else of interest. He starts a gripping narrative. He tells why he became an English teacher: He and his wife bought a house they couldn’t afford. As a result, besides his day job (a government job, we learn, but that’s all), Professor X becomes an instructor at a non-selective four-year college and an open-admissions community college.

The setup is perfect. Not only does Professor X describe the mixed emotions he felt in buying the house, he indicates that by the time of the closing he had already regretted his purchase. But he gamely goes ahead and does the needful, earning enough money to feed the mortgage maw.

He even shares the Walter Mitty–like fantasies (sorry, I date myself) that he experiences as he starts his teaching — imagining himself guiding his students along the path of joyous literary composition. He comes down to earth abruptly when their miserable essays land on his desktop.

Sadly, this literature professor never finishes his personal story. After the great buildup, there is no climax, no denouement. A decade goes go by, the housing market crashes, and all we know is that he is still teaching and the students aren’t any better. 

Did he sell the house? Is he so far underwater now that he can’t escape? Or is he teaching because he wants to — have he and his students finally clicked or do they remain largely unconnected? We can’t tell.

I think I know why the book fizzles: In real life, the professor hasn’t figured out what to do. He is in Act II of his own Hamlet. I’m sorry, because I’d love to know that something changed between his 2008 essay and his 2011 book. I want the story to come out right, or, if it’s a tragedy, I want to know that as well.

Professor X, you love literature and you are witty, observant, and tormented — perfect for a writer. But your dramaturgy failed you. You left your protagonist stuck in a cold, clammy place (the basement) with nowhere to go. Professor X, your audience is frustrated, and for that you get a C.

Jane S. Shaw — Jane S. Shaw retired as president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in 2015. Before joining the Pope Center in 2006, Shaw spent 22 years in ...

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