When people lament about how broken academia is now (for example Higgs of Higgs-Boson), I am so tempted to generalize about the olden days:
- Many, if not most, jobs were not advertised publicly and many job processes were really old boys networks at work. The job market may not be efficient and does induce heaps of stress, but it is probably better than the olden days.
- Speaking of old boys, how many jobs were held at any level by women? By non-white folks? Things are not perfect today, but compared to forty years ago? Oy.
- Speaking of gender, there is still sexual harassment today but now it is something that is mostly seen as beyond the pale and something to be punished. It used to be accepted and normal (like the way drunk driving was depicted in early Mad Men episodes). So, yeah, things are better.
- Lots of folks got jobs and then never did any research or just produced a few articles and then left the publishing game. It would be a fun project to explore the CVs of those hired in the 1960s and 1970s and see what they produced before and after tenure compared to those produced in the 1990s and 2000s. While there are new deadwood folks being produced today, I would guess that the percentage has gone done significantly.
- Perhaps not everyone should be doing research (although I still strongly believe that teaching and research inform each other), but you would think places that are research schools would have expected everyone to be doing research but you would be surprised in the olden days.
- It used to be that much of the leading research was produced at only a few schools, but despite the continued importance of the Harvards and Princetons, there are more interesting and important researchers doing interesting stuff elsewhere. When knowledge production is centralized, in-breeding and group-think can be problematic. By having a larger and broader research community, we are more likely to see innovation, dynamic debates, and progress. No guarantees but more likely.
I am sure there are other ways in which the good old days are not as good as the present. Nostalgia has its place, but the reality is that change happens. Not all change is good but much of it is. Progress cannot happen without change, although stagnation works just fine for those who are advantaged by the old ways.
And as the noted political theorist William Joel once wrote: “The good ole days weren’t always good and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.”