On to other matters. I meant to respond earlier to the pseudonymous essay of a tenured faculty member who plans to leave academia published recently at Inside Higher Education.
My reaction largely echoes what was said about the piece at IHE. “John Smith” doesn’t consider that maybe some of the problem is the beam in his own eye, in several respects. He plans to leave academia because he thinks his colleagues are too soft on students, because today’s students aren’t intellectually motivated or serious enough for his tastes, because he thinks current students “drink and smoke excessively”, that they don’t “read for pleasure”. In short, because they don’t conform tightly to what he envisions as the scholarly and monastic ideal.
I’m hoping for one that he’s not a historian, because he doesn’t seem to have a historical perspective on some of his complaints, with the humility that ought to follow from it. I know that when I find myself ranting away about how things are worse today than yesterday only to suddenly recognize that my rant could easily have been given with small amendations twenty, forty, sixty or eighty years ago, it’s bit of icewater to the face.
John Smith doesn’t seem to know how to argue on behalf of the pedagogy he believes to be the sole, solitary way to approach a liberal arts education. In that, he’s not alone: a lot of similar criticism is entirely reactive. These critics know what they don’t like, and they hold in their consciousness a kind of Rockwell-esque ideal, burnished and glowing in the fires of nostalgic amnesia. But why their ideal vision is the exclusive best, and how we might achieve it? That’s someone else’s problem. They want the magic administration fairy to sprinkle dust over academic culture, or maybe they’ll mutter sotto voce that the government should do something (but oh my no, we’re not suggesting regulation or government control…yet).
When I look around the institutions I know, I can see a number of faculty whose grading scale is considerably tougher than the average, who are much harsher and sharper in the demands they make of students, who march to a different pedagogical drum. And you know what? If they’re any good at what they do, they usually garner enormous respect for taking that approach, from both colleagues and students. They may not change the pedagogical practices of their colleagues simply by example, because those other practices also have their own integrity and deliberate character. John Smith thinks that his colleagues teach the way that they do because they’re lazy or cynical or resigned. Not that they teach another way on purpose, with a determination, out of equal conviction. John Smith thinks that contemporary students are just bad rather than different, that when they don’t conform to his ideal there is no reason except sloth and sleaze. No wonder he has a hard time convincing them to think otherwise: he doesn’t have any curiosity about the practices he observes, or any real interest in whether what he’s seeing is real or just his own prejudicial imagination and limited personal horizons speaking more loudly than they ought.
If you want to persuade people to act more the way you think they should act, you’ve got to be more genuinely interested in how they actually act, and why they act that way. If you don’t want to persuade, then honestly, don’t expect the world to be other than what it is, and settle for permanent disappointment and isolation as your lot in life. When John Smith writes, “perhaps for a career where deadlines are honored, ideas are exchanged and gimmicks and fads are routinely avoided because they distract from advancing the mission of gaining and sharing knowledge. Yes, it is time to find another line of work, where I can enjoy the fruits of my labor, even if I realize that the grass is grayer, if not greener, elsewhere”, I can’t help but laugh. Yeah, sure, buddy, let me know how that works out when you start looking at the want ads.
I’d suggest a sports car as a solution for John Smith’s mid-life crisis. It’ll save him money in the end and be a lot more fun than sending off cover letters to the imaginary sugarplum employment fairies.