American Institutions The Professor As Commodity

American Institutions The Professor As Commodity

In the nineteenth century the academic man was shielded, at least in part, from the general transformation of labor into a commodity. In our own time, as professors Caplow and McGee demonstrate in their valuable and informative study, the academician tends increasingly to be treated as a commodity sold on the market—not this alone, to be sure, but still a commodity sold after much haggling and with impressive ceremonial and ritual accomplishments, though not necessarily in accordance with its use value.

The change is a striking one. Academicians of the past would have been repelled by the very title of this book, but few today would even understand the reasons for such a response. Much more than ever in the past, if we may trust the evidence accumulated by Caplow and McGee, the academy has become a marketplace in which the motives of pecuniary emulation (to use Veblen’s apt phrase) are often as dominant as in other American institutions.

“There is very little point,” write Caplow and McGee, “in trying to determine how good the man really is [when a professor is being considered for appointment] … What is important is what others in the discipline think of him, since that is, in large part, how good he is. Prestige … is not a direct measure of productivity but a composite of subjective opinion.”

The exchange value of the professor is established not through on-the job performance, through his contributions to the educational life of the university. What matters is not the way a man teaches, but his reputation among the cliques that determine marketability of particular individuals within a particular academic discipline.

Publication and research—I am still summarizing the conclusions of our authors—are of the essence here, not teaching. Hence the paradox that “although in most occupations men are judged by how well they perform their normal duties, the academic man is judged almost exclusively by his performance in a kind of part-time voluntary job which he creates for himself … It is only a slight exaggeration to say that academic success is likely to come to the man who has learned to neglect his assigned duties in order to have more time and energy to pursue his private professional interests.”


Lima