Warning: This is a fairly freeform working-through of a question. It meanders.
Lately I've been thinking a lot about the purpose of the Master's degree. I was told recently by two students from the past year that they're "going to go to grad school". I had to pick my jaw up off the floor. I wouldn't have pegged either of them as grad school-bound. One, in particular, probably won't get in - I'm not sure she's aware of the kinds of grades it takes. The other might have a shot, and it alarmed me to realize this (and also raises the pressing question of grade inflation. If she doesn't have what it takes to go to grad school, why are her grades high enough to suggest that she might well get in to some schools? And how have I contributed to that inflation?). She's an ideologue; she'll be eaten alive in an environment that will laughingly dismiss her hyperbolic claims. Neither of these two have the analytical skills that would seem to be a prerequisite for advanced study. Maybe this is partly the fault of inept professors who don't know how, don't really know how, to teach critical analysis, as much as we think that's what we do all the time - yes, I include myself in this category. At any rate, these students are, I think, products of a culture that has come to view the MA as just another credential. This has been gnawing at me.
Am I an elitist asshole who would thwart the democratic promise of pedagogy? If I believe in the change-making power of education, why would I want to deny it to someone who is clearly getting something from it? If these folks - and others - want to go on to a Master's, what harm will it do? They're not C students. It's not like they're talking about staying in academia for the long haul, doing PhD's and becoming professors. They're pumped right now - why not encourage them in their pursuit of learning?
I see that my unease comes from a desire to preserve the grad school classroom and common room as spaces for deep analysis. Teaching puts me - most of us who teach, really - in touch with the failures of the contemporary classroom as a challenging site. Students who see their relationship with the academy as a business transaction; professors who get frustrated, throw up their/our hands, and retreat into bitterness, cynicism and grade inflation; administrators who have a convenient case of amnesia about the purpose of the university...I do think it's true that all of these have eroded the quality of classroom discourse. We spend a good deal of time on our blogs and in our everyday lives musing, ranting, and/or whining about this.
Of course, I am highly suspicious of my own assertion, here - I worry that I'm being dangerously nostalgic for a mythical golden age of universities that never existed, and that certainly didn't accommodate the perspectives and people and emergent disciplines whose presence in the academy I value and indeed depend on. But I do think something has been lost, at least in the universities I'm familiar with.* Things have changed even since I was an undergrad - tuitions have gone way up, meaning that students struggle with crushing paid workloads and debts that complicate their lives as students ans the conditions of possibility of genuine interest in what we do in school. Administrations have succumbed to corporate pressures in the face of cuts in public funding, and students have picked up on the resulting degradation of the value of an arts degree. I think that all of this finds its way into what we do in our classrooms every day; this is what I mean by an eroded environment - it's bigger than the students or their professors. I think, in fact, that if there's any nostalgia, it's nostalgia for a more progressive era, one in which we didn't spend our time in corporate-branded classrooms and watch as soaring glass temples were built for the business schools as we moulded in ancient, brutalist caves teaching arts.
So I've identified this as the reason I'm wary, very wary, of a grad school free-for-all featuring loads of students who don't have the skills to participate really effectively - it's because I'm dying for something that approximates sustained, engaged inquiry. But as I write this, I'm stopped in my own tracks again - because the students I'm talking about are, at least, interested, excited. Isn't that important? Isn't it enough?
Having written my way through this problem, I now see that it's larger than I realized. I can't endorse using the Master's as a democratic, radically critical site when the conditions don't exist to prepare many students for that before they get there. They come to grad school applications without the necessary skills in part because of the mess the neo-liberal model of the university has gotten us in. Letting them in won't fix that.
Might it do other good things, though? That's the question I'm left with.
*I am, obviously, speaking of the Canadian situation here. Its public university system and the very particular ways that has been threatened over the last ten years.
(In other news: Go Oilers.)