While the distinguished faculty at the Harvard Law School busied itself discouraging free speech and spreading the gospel of political rectitude, another farce was unfolding a little to the south, at Yale University. As The New York Times has reported at tedious length, graduate students at Yale have organized and were petitioning the university with their grievances. In a “job action” designed to coerce more money from the university, some disgruntled graduate teaching assistants even refused to turn in grades for their classes. These students recently voted to end their job action when the university threatened not to renew their teaching appointments. In our view, university officials were right to dismiss demands by the graduate students and to discipline those who reneged on their responsibilities to their students. As one spokesman put it, they are “students, not employees.”

But this is a situation in which a pox belongs upon both houses. There can be little doubt that graduate students at Yale, like graduate students almost everywhere, are exploited as cheap labor. Teaching assistantships are notoriously poorly paid, and the rationale that they should provide a welcome “apprenticeship” for future college professors looks more and more shabby as universities increasingly rely on these cadres of relatively untrained teachers to supplement their regular professorial ranks at discount prices. In fact, Yale has been better than most institutions at requiring its “big name” professors actually to teach undergraduates. But even at Yale, the habit of fobbing off the ever more expensive education of undergraduates on teaching assistants is a pedagogical scandal waiting to be exploded. For graduate students, teaching has more and more become simply a form of financial aid instead of a genuine apprenticeship; for universities, graduate students have become more and more like a pool of migrant workers. The result is that everyone suffers—not least the undergraduates, who must be content with teachers who often command only slightly more mastery of a subject than their students.

That said, however, the behavior of the graduate students at Yale is unconscionable. The idea that students of any description should seek to organize themselves into a labor union is preposterous. The spectacle of graduate students doing so is only marginally less ridiculous than the prospect of undergraduates or high-school students doing so would be. The real business of a student is to study. That is the purpose of any education worthy of the name, all the more so in the specialized realms of graduate education. Indeed, in our opinion labor unions in general are inappropriate at colleges and universities. They are especially inappropriate among those who constitute the intellectual raison d’être of the institution, the faculty and the students. That we are confronted at even our elite educational institutions today not only with unionized clerical and custodial workers but also with unionized faculties and, now, unionized graduate students is no doubt yet another “sign of the times.” Yet here, too, it is a sign that bodes ill for everyone concerned.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 14 Number 6, on page 2
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