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From: Len Gutkin
Subject: The Review: Are there too many elderly professors?
Late last year, the cartoonist and illustrator Barry Blitt raised some hackles with a New Yorker cover, “The Race for Office,” depicting Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi, and Joe Biden shuffling along in running clothes while leaning on wheeled walkers. Blitt’s illustration, one angry reader
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Late last year, the cartoonist and illustrator Barry Blitt (whose work has graced the Chronicle recently) raised some hackles with a New Yorker cover, “The Race for Office,” depicting Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi, and Joe Biden shuffling along in running clothes while leaning on wheeled walkers. Blitt’s illustration, one angry reader wrote, “makes an unexamined connection between physical condition and mental capability. On the contrary, walkers enable many people to pursue their work and interests.”
Whatever one thinks about the ethics of Blitt’s kind of caricature, though, the advanced age of our political leadership has become impossible to ignore. The most recent exemplum: The special counsel Robert K. Hur declined to bring charges against Biden over mishandled classified documents in part because, as Hur said, Biden appeared to be a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.”
Samuel Moyn, in an acerbic squib for Granta, puts the situation bluntly: “The presidential contest in the United States this year is likely to pit two decrepit men against each other.” This drift into gerontocracy, Moyn says, represents a betrayal of the ideals of enlightenment modernity, in which, for instance, “the French revolutionaries explicitly targeted the empowerment of the elderly.” He goes on: “If modernity has meant challenging the elderly, demanding that they share their power and resources, then our postmodern age is one of their most successful re-enthronements.”
Along with government, academe is Moyn’s exemplary gerontocracy in the modern United States. “Universities,” he writes, “have become senior centers and care homes, while a whole generation of younger scholars and intellectuals have been blocked from progressing in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.”
Charges that academe is a gerontocracy are quite old; the sociologist Robert K. Merton said so in 1943. But contemporary demographic trends have intensified the concentration of power and privilege among the old, as Kyle Siler argues in a 2023 article in Science and Public Policy, “Gerontocracy, Labor Market Bottlenecks, and Generational Crises in Modern Science.” One result, Siler says, is “stunted scientific productivity and innovation, both in the present and future.” He offers a few tentative strategies for ameliorating the situation, including “earmarking larger proportions of funding for younger scholars"; “incentiv[izing] earlier retirements from less-committed senior scholars” by limiting salary increases after a certain age; and “forcing out older, less-productive faculty hired in bygone ages with softer labor markets and lower standards.” (Mandatory academic retirement has been legally prohibited since 1994.)
Would any of that work? Is any of it equal to the scale of the problem? Not without some larger change in politics, says Moyn. “Age maxima for political office, mandatory retirement in the professions, forced transfer of property and wealth: All have been proposed as ways to blunt our descent into deeper gerontocracy,” Moyn writes. But “because old people — through voting patterns and parties and organizations that cater to them — have outsized authority to block such changes, only intensified organization among the young will make such changes possible.”
In some fields, especially in the humanities, there’s no guarantee that earlier retirements will in fact result in greater opportunity for younger scholars. As Jonathan Zimmerman wrote a few years ago in our pages, “A mass retirement by senior professors wouldn’t derail the adjunctification train; if anything, it would speed the train up.” I have spoken to aging scholars who would in fact like to retire but are reluctant to do so because they know their tenure line will not be replaced. Even decrepitude is better than death.
- “I too, felt deeply moved by the analysis of Jacques Lantier in La Bête humaine. On my way from Milan, I wrote a letter to Zola, suggesting that he should make a study of sexual inversion. I think I am going to send it. But I do not suppose he will follow my suggestion.” That’s John Addington Symonds to Edmund Gosse, as quoted by Tom Crewe “on the origins of the gay novel” in the London Review of Books.
- “To build a worldview entirely in reaction to the excesses of one side is eventually to cooperate in the excesses of the other.” In New York, Jonathan Chait on the hazards of Bari Weiss’s Free Press.
- “We discussed love languages, supply-side economics, Putin, Pizzagate, parenthood, astrology, gardening, what happened in the desert (Iraq and Afghanistan), infidelity, prison, populism, OnlyFans, and, especially, what comes after trucking school.” In Harper’s, Emily Gogolak writes about her time in trucking school.
- “Much as Boris Karloff uncovered tenderness in horror, [Emma] Stone takes a cautionary fable of the early machine age and crowns it with a generosity of spirit.” That’s the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane, ecstatic over Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things. In The New York Times, Manohla Dargis was equally impressed by Stone’s performance, but disappointed by the film in general — “a movie that’s so deeply self-satisfied there really isn’t room for the two of you.”
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