Sunday, February 19, 2006

The MFA Education Scam

First of Three Parts.

Associated Press ran an article 12/31/05 by Eileen Alt Powell explaining that college tuition rates are skyrocketing so high that middle-class families are foregoing saving for retirement in order to pay for their children's education.

Why is this happening?

It's because this society has constructed a narrow gate through which individuals must pass in order to have any kind of approved success; increasingly, in order to survive. To practice medicine or law one has to pay the bill and obtain the degree. This regulated monopoly mindset has spread to other fields. Is there anyone working for a mainstream newspaper who doesn't hold a journalism degree? This wasn't always the case. (See the 1958 movie "Teacher's Pet" for an interesting take on this.) Construct a gate, hire gatekeepers, and once people have control they can charge anything they like. The sky's the limit.

Doubt this? Look at the surging wealth of universities around the country; continually expanding; gobbling up adjacent neighborhoods; new construction projects everyplace as the money rolls in; hapless individuals desperate to survive in a rat-race system paying the bill.

In the 1990's when I began my examination of the literary world I scanned through scores of literary journals. In many of them, if not most, EVERY contributor was an MFA grad. I asked, what's going on? Does one now need proper certification in order to write-- the fundamental marker of freedom in a democratic society; able to be accomplished (or should be) by anyone after, at the latest, the eighth grade?

We see the professionalization of literature; the hiring of gatekeepers and construction of gates.

It's not as if these many thousands of certified MFA grads are producing great or interesting writing. Examination of their works leads to the expected: thousands of robotically polished homogenized stories and poems which look produced by well-regulated factories.

2 comments:

poetastin said...

Howdy, King:

I used to be on the fence about the whole MFA issue. Now I'll be applying to several programs in December. Let me tell you what changed my mind:

1) 2-4 years to write. Tuition wavers. Stipends. Good programs essentially pay you to visit their town and write for a few years, hassle free.

2) Community. Nothing wrong with surrounding yourself with other artists. "But likeminded artists!", you might say. Well, I'm not going to join a romance writers group; I'm going to seek those with similar tastes. Don't you do this with your ULA?

Going by my undergrad experience, there's about 90% less indoctrination than you'd have folks believe. I've never seen someone rewrite their idea of art based on someone's notions of proper dialogue technique, comma placement, or point of view. If that does happen, well, I imagine those students aren't very capable to begin with. They won't be rewarded simply for attending grad school. My sense is that there's maybe twenty pages worth of solid writing advice that is merely recycled from teacher to teacher, class to class. You can (and will) derive the the same knowledge from reading. Good teachers simply know when to apply it, when to leave it alone. Mere access to these folks, as well as other writers (who have, yes, been united by subjective standards of competency) may help you realize slight problems or inconsistencies in your work months or years ahead of schedule. You are on the same path, you just get there quicker. You don't start writing 3500 word, translucently prosed, "realistic" narratives of migrant farm workers that end in trite epiphany just because your teacher says so. At least, I don't plan to. And while I'm emphatically not doing that, I'll also be getting paid to write for a few years (see #1).

Doesn't sound so bad, does it?

Anonymous said...

I'm having the same dilemma as a painter. There are thousands of BFA and MFA painters being pumped out of universities across the country every year. Few people can make a living on paintings. Tremendous supply, Minuscule demand even with illustration. The best paying job they're going to get in their field? Teaching a new crop at the same universities. Or grade school. I know this first hand and I feel like a fraud. What a rut.

Maybe painting is not meant to be an occupation. I can accept that. My concern is with the false hopes Art School feeds incoming students. "All of our instructors are working artists" they say. Sure they are. They're working as teachers. By junior year most students catch on and just stick around for their degree.