A statistic that unfortunately is sad but not surprising: the Urban Institute has found that just over 33,000 people holding doctorate degrees receive welfare in the form of food stamps or other aid. Many of those PhDs are adjunct professors making salaries so low that they qualify for food stamps, Medicaid and a number of other forms of public assistance.Via Meadia has deep respect and affection for subjects like medieval history; we took courses in this and many other arcane subjects in the humanities and continue to read books in these fields with great pleasure and benefit. And we have nothing but admiration for the love of knowledge that leads young people to want to study these fields in greater depth.But that respect and affection shouldn’t blind us to the sad reality that much of the American academy today works as a Ponzi scheme. PhD programs in many fields are churning out grads for whom no jobs will ever be found. They have to produce excess grads because if they cut back enrollment, the programs would be too small to justify the continued employment of their current staff.From an economic standpoint, the US today has a top heavy structure in our academic life: there are far too many PhD programs at far too many institutions. The unemployment and underemployment of graduates is cooked into the system.Worse, if we decided to cut the number of programs so that the number of job openings matched the number of PhD graduates each year, the number of job openings would crash. Currently, suppose that 200 professors of medieval history retire or otherwise leave the field each year; that would mean we need 200 new PhDs each year to replace them.But if we reduce enrollment to that number, perhaps half the PhD programs in the country would have to close. That means that perhaps only 100 professors would retire each year — meaning even fewer new graduates would be needed, meaning that even more programs would need to shut down.The jobs of the current practitioners depend on recruiting a steady stream of new hopefuls into the profession, even though many of those new hopefuls won’t get jobs themselves. This is pretty much how Ponzi schemes work, and besides being unfair to the young, it undercuts the integrity of the teacher-student relationship and it puts the whole scholarly enterprise under a dark ethical cloud.Until fairly recently, the problem was more or less covered up by the higher ed bubble. Colleges and universities could keep jacking up tuition, while the government pumped more money into both scholarship funds and the student loan market so that students and their parents could continue to pay.This is beginning to break down. Governments — federal, state and local — have less money for higher ed, and the student loan burden is becoming insupportable.The current system will change. It imposes unsustainable costs of society at large even as it leads tens of thousands of aspiring professors down the primrose path to the food stamp line. We have two motives for following this story at Via Meadia. One is that we think the restructuring of education is one of the key tasks that must be solved to make the United States as prosperous and progressive as it can and should be in the 21st century.The other is that we are concerned for the future of the humanities. We think that a rich scholarly and intellectual life is necessary for the health and well being of society as a whole. We don’t think that the coming educational restructuring is necessarily fatal to the world of liberal scholarship, but we do think that those who care about the humanities need to start thinking creatively about how these disciplines and the scholars who pursue them can flourish in the brave new world now struggling to appear.