Friday, October 31, 2008

John the Professor

Read this remarkable essay at "Inside Higher Education," the "true confessions" of a professor whose despair over the state of higher education - its moral and intellectual laxness - has led him to the conclusion that he must leave the professoriate. It is at times harsh in its judgments about students, but in many respects it is largely true about a great number of American institutions of higher education. At the elite institutions where I have taught I don't see so much evidence of the "cruise ship" mentality as much as the "credentialing" rat race. But for that reason, much of the analysis remains valid: the decline of intellectual exchange (among both students and faculty), the absence of leisure reading, the constant anxiety about grades and "gaming the system" to ensure a pristine transcript for the next credentialing stage - all of these aspects of John the Professor's essay ring true to me.

What "John the Professor" doesn't spend any time considering are the cultural conditions that led to this pass. We should be cautious about imagining some perfect moment when the university was populated by serious and intellectually-engaged participants (read Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise to recall a time when the university system truly was a finishing school, replete with "gentlemen's C's"). John the Professor would need to reflect on the ever more perfect meritocracy we have built - one in which accomplishment is measured increasingly by prestige markers, not intellectual accomplishment. He would need to consider the decline of the actual relevance of what students purportedly learn in the university with what they will need to know to succeed in the "real world": including how to hob-nob (i.e., "drinking and smoking" - though, do our students really smoke too much??), how to get along, how to collect faux accomplishments and most importantly how to "market" oneself. Above all, one needs to be unconstrained by moral and religious considerations: success is achieved by the ability to "just do it," not in forbearance. Arguably one of the key and essential features of the liberal arts education was the transmission of cultural restraint: how to govern our appetites, how to achieve the liberty of self-rule, how to pass from that condition of childhood to adulthood. The college was a place that had as its core mission the inculcation of adult virtues, ones whose groundwork had been well-laid by family, community and church. The entire culture of a college - from its courses to its daily life, including mandatory chapel service and chaperoned dances - aimed to lead the young person to good judgment, prudence, moderation, responsibility and self-control.

John the Professor laments the decline of the college because of what no longer happens in the classroom. If that is the last bastion of what is supposed to be worthwhile about the role of the college in transmitting and reinforcing good culture, then the battle was already lost long before John the Professor entered the professoriate. I find myself at times viewing the wreckage with similar temptations to hopelessness: but then I encounter students and faculty who understand the scope of the destruction and in the wreckage try to build something new and better. Renewing a culture is almost impossible, but it begins not with despair, but with chastened hope, a small community of those who understand, and a willingness to show by example a better way.

1 comment:

Black Sea said...

"I am in my mid-40s . . . "

This may have more to do with his state of mind than he realizes.

Being in my mid (well, mid to late) 40s myself, I could assemble a fairly long list of friends who do a variety of things unrelated to teaching, and who could and would make similar observations about the people and institutions they work for and with.

I would recommend that he treat himself to a bottle of wine and a DVD of The Browning Version, with Albert Finney. If he still feels the same afterward, then maybe he's right to resign, though I'm not convinced that whatever he is headed for will really be any better than what he's leaving behind.

But at least it will be new, for a while . . . .