In early 2009 sociologist Tim Clydesdale of The College of New Jersey wrote an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Wake Up and Smell the New Epistemology,” (http://chronicle.com/article/Wake-UpSmell-the-New/4568), which you ought to read. It argues, briefly, that today’s college students are impatient with the “elitist” notions of knowledge their professors bring to the classroom. Since they have the entire world of knowledge at their fingertips through the internet, he argues, the respect with which previous generations of students regarded their teachers has collapsed. The only reason students put up with us at all, he writes, is their practical judgment that, in the current job climate and in the context of the constant chorus from all around them that everyone needs a college education, they need to stick it out and graduate. If we are to do any good at all for these students, he concludes, we need to adjust our teaching to a new generation whom we must treat as partners in learning rather than naïve and uninformed raw material for us to mold. This sounds like great advice. But. . .
Perhaps it is the colorful party trope he uses throughout his article, or perhaps it is his own naïve assumptions about how instructors in general “traditionally” go about their business, but Clydesdale’s article has always rubbed me the wrong way. Primarily, I think the problem is that the contrast he highlights between the current generation of epistemologically confident college students and their deferential forbears is based on a pop-historical fantasy. Yes, today’s students know a lot. And yes, most of them have little patience for decontextualized bodies of knowledge that won’t benefit them directly. But why should we think that this has ever not been the case?
Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, in her book Campus Life: Undergraduate Cultures from the End of the Eighteenth Century to the Present (University of Chicago Press, 1988), has pointed out that American colleges and universities have long been home to students with a vast range of attitudes toward knowledge, authority, achievement, success, and relevance. There were no greater anti-authoritarians than the original students at colleges like Princeton and Harvard, who several times during the late eighteenth century rioted against their institutions, sometimes destroying property and beating faculty and administrators. Those upper-class students, unburdened by respect for the college or the faculty, unconcerned and sometimes contemptuous toward learning, and untroubled by their economic futures, were later joined, as the number and variety of colleges increased, by more serious colleagues. Many of these were young men from rural areas who had found success in their country schools and were now studying for a professional career in ministry. In their study habits and cultural attitudes they provided a stark contrast to their better-off peers.
By the end of the nineteenth and the early parts of the twentieth century, these students were joined by new populations: women, the children of immigrants, and others for whom college study was a prerequisite for entering the work world and assimilating to the American professional mainstream. None of these changes replaced one sort of student with another; they simply complicated the demographic and intellectual landscape of higher learning in a way that Clydesdale ignores altogether. How can we ignore the considerable class, ethnic, or gender differentiation in the perspectives of “the student body” of today?
Even apart from such structural forces, the individual personalities and goals and family circumstances of students guarantee several different approaches to knowledge in even the most homogenous population. Dorothy Holland and Margaret Eisenhart divided the college students they studied in 1980s North Carolina into three broad groups: those who were in college to learn from experts in their fields of choice (these are always our favorites); those who are used to being high achievers—the A students in high school–for whom college is a continuing display of competence; and those—the vast majority, unfortunately—who see college as an exercise in credentialing, and who desperately want to be finished with jumping through meaningless hoops on the way to “real life” (see their book Educated in Romance: Women, Achievement, and College Culture (University of Chicago Press, 1992)).
How can Clydesdale hope to convince us of his vision of the worldly information-processor of today, in the face of other historical moments when we’ve seen the same thing? WWII veterans coming to college on the new GI Bill did not suffer kindly the faculty who had spent the war in the stacks in New Haven rather than the jungles of New Guinea. The college students of the decade between the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the evacuation of Saigon were nothing if not demanding of relevance. The students of the 1980s, desperate to take advantage of the Reagan revolution’s deregulation of the markets, helped accelerate a desertion of the sciences and humanities for the immediate promise of degrees in business and law, which might help them hold off the forces of downward mobility affecting the broad middle classes beginning in the 1970s.
Are today’s students all that different? Can it really be the case, as Clydesdale claims, that fifty or even twenty-five years ago students would arrive at college “in awe” of the faculty, “content” to receive instruction, and “happy” at faculty decisions about knowledge? Having entered college more than thirty years ago, I cannot recognize any of this in my recollections of most of my classmates at that time. Those of us who remained in higher education (most of us no doubt from the “learn from experts” school of thought), are the exception. The student who, according to Clydesdale, “cares little about the course work, the larger questions it raises, or value of living an examined life” is not, as he claims, a product of “this new epistemology” of confident information-processing. This attitude is a stable feature of American universities going back to their origin, a pattern in which most students are interested in a life and culture that has been carved out independent of the classroom (in addition to Horowitz, see Michael Moffatt’s Coming of Age in New Jersey: College and American Culture (Rutgers University Press 1989)).
More centrally for the strategic planning process and the issue of reform, have faculty as a whole (is there such a beast??) really remained mired in hopeless anachronism in our teaching and our relationships with students? Do we really “hide” from students our intellectual journeys and transformations, as Clydesdale claims? Do we refuse to meet students where they are? Do we betray elitist values and hold lofty opinions of ourselves, shunning “the public obligation that our privileged position entails”? Is it really true that the populace as a whole, and our students more specifically, are profoundly “skeptical” of us? While his data from the General Social Survey appear to support his position, we could play dueling surveys until the cows come home, and be no closer to agreement. Recent Harris polls, for example, show college professors as the fifth most trusted profession in the United States, with 75% of respondents expressing confidence in our trustworthiness (after doctors, with the high score of 85 percent, followed by teachers, scientists, and police). Educational institutions as such garner more public confidence than medicine, organized religion, politicians, or major corporations.
In the classroom and the laboratory, in office hours and in our other interactions with students, contemporary faculty are as varied in our approaches as the differences in our personalities and interests (and as the institutional pressures to teach more and publish more and bring in more money) allow us to be. Clydesdale’s prescriptions for transforming our teaching—“determining what our [students] already know, building from that shared knowledge, adapting pre-existing analytic skills, then connecting those fledgling skills and knowledge to a deeper understanding of the discipline” —are already well established.
So why the continued fuss? One of the constants of academic life is the recurrence of the discourse of “reform,” the idea that spoiled and stodgy faculty are immovable except through the most energetic efforts of legislators or administrators or alumni to jolt them out of their torpor and redirect their gaze outward to the requirements of “the real world” or “the public good,” or “public scholarship.” This critique is at least a century old.
In 1925 American novelist Willa Cather described the life and the professional trials of Godfrey St. Peter, a proud, old-fashioned historian of Latin America, in her novel The Professor’s House:
Both [Professor St. Peter and his like-minded colleague Robert Crane], with all their might, had resisted the new commercialism, the aim to “show results” that was undermining and vulgarizing education. The State Legislature and the board of regents seemed determined to make a trade school of the university. Candidates for the degree of Bachelor of Arts were allowed credits for commercial studies; courses in book-keeping, experimental farming, domestic science, dress-making, and what not. Every year the regents tried to diminish the number of credits required in science and the humanities. The liberal appropriations, the promotions and increases in salary, all went to the professors who worked with the regents to abolish the purely cultural studies. Out of a faculty of sixty, there were perhaps twenty men who made any serious stand for scholarship, and Robert Crane was one of the staunchest. He had lost the Deanship of the College of Science because of his uncompromising opposition to the degrading influence of politicians in university affairs. The honour went, instead, to a much younger man, head of the department of chemistry, who was willing “to give the taxpayers what they wanted” (p. 140).
So much for the presumed novelty of educational commissions (such as the UNC Tomorrow Commission, http://www.northcarolina.edu/nctomorrow/UNCT_Final_Report.pdf) which pretend that finding out what the public wants in its college graduates is something novel, or that the public’s desires are a mystery. People want clean water. They want good art. But they also want jobs for themselves and their children.
This practical side of higher education is clearly winning. As Zachary Lockman of New York University pointed out in his 2007 presidential address to the Middle East Studies Association of North America, “every year U.S. institutions of higher education grant more B.A. degrees in parks, recreation, leisure and fitness studies than in all foreign languages and literatures combined.”
But despite the statistical preponderance and rhetorical victories of the practical-minded, the problems of the modern university are usually laid at the door of Godfrey St. Peter. The question becomes, what causes some faculty to turn their backs on that real world and to emphasize a hermetic scholarship over an applied one? Cather and Clydesdale imply, from very different points of departure, that it is the nature of academic disciplines themselves that create this conflict. For Cather, in her sympathetic portrait of Professor St. Peter, science and the humanities are important insofar as they represent “knowledge for knowledge’s sake,” and “the transformative power of the liberal arts.” These are traditions of which, as Clydesdale writes far less sympathetically, “[f]or decades, we professors and administrators drank deeply. . .paying little heed” to the changes around us. Cather’s vision of the proud guardian of knowledge gives way to Clydesdale’s warning against the stale self-reproduction of disciplinary traditions for their own sake.
But there are certainly other explanations of the troubles we face. Three years before Cather wrote about the last gasps of traditional scholarship, Upton Sinclair published The Goose-Step (1922), his muckraking report on higher education in the years following the First World War. For Sinclair, the insularity of university faculty and the influence of applied and business interests in those institutions are not at odds. Instead, he argued, they spring from the same source: the fact that “Our educational system is not a public service, but an instrument of special privilege; its purpose is not to further the welfare of mankind, but merely to keep America capitalist” (p. 18). His tour of the boards of trustees of the nation’s universities at that time is a genealogy of robber barons and their retainers, men who still had the ability to dismiss troublesome faculty at will. The alumni were no less interested in the curriculum, of course, as for them, the university “is an insurance agency for the business and social prosperity of his progeny” (p. 363), and any attempt by faculty themselves to make history current and relevant, to introduce new ideas to courses in literature or philosophy or the social sciences, was doomed to fail. The end product, according to Sinclair, was mental torpor at every level. Housed in its anachronistic gothic towers, the University of Chicago was, he sneered “a faculty of aged dotards, who set the tone of the place, and the young men try to act dotards to the best of their ability” (p. 244).
This dotage was not due to the faculty’s inherent investment in avoiding commerce with contemporary problems or concerns. It was due to the interference of state legislators and local business interests whom university administrations had no choice but to please through the top-down application of tradition. “The duty of one generation is to pass on to the next, unimpaired, the institutions it has inherited from its forbears,” announced Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University (p. 61). Such interference might be highly sensitive to discipline: “The trustees may not pay much attention to the teaching of Greek, but they watch the economics and history departments like hawks” (p. 108), keeping any but the most recondite material out of the humanities curriculum. But in any case, the result in terms of the transmission of knowledge was that “teaching is dominated by a vested class, which fears ideas, and forbids all thinking save what is certified to be harmless” (p. 89), lest they get the sack.
From the student’s perspective, Sinclair asks,
What is the final product of all this system we have been studying? It may be stated in one word, which is dullness. Some men are hired, and they are hired because they are dull, and will do dull work, and they do it. The student comes to college, full of eagerness and hope, and he finds it dull. He has no idea why it should be so; it is incredible to him that men should be selected because they are dull, and should be fired if they prove to be anything but dull. All he sees is the dullness, and he hates it, and “cuts” it as much as he can, and goes off to practice football and get drunk” (p. 61; also p. 89);
The authorities of the university know no vital thing for scholars to do, and are in terror of all genuine activities of the spirit; therefore they sentence men to spend their lives rooting in the garbage heaps of man’s past history, while their students go to hell with canned jazz and boot-leg whisky and “petting parties” (pp. 144-145).
Again, whatever happened to the “awe” with which Clydesdale’s wholly imaginary students of the past regarded the knowledge of their faculty? According to Sinclair, awe was a plant that could never take root in the climate of the academy, dedicated as it was to the accurate reproduction of the status quo.
On whichever theory one might have predicated the notion that teachers of the 1920s were out of step with contemporary demands of students—either that a narrow interest in disciplinary reproduction was to blame, or that the capitalist system was to blame—surely so much has changed in American society and American higher education over the last century that neither theory could apply to the alleged shortcomings of today’s universities. Tenure, one of the most important ways in which the principles of academic freedom have been institutionalized, reduces the ability of faculty to be dismissed for offending powerful interests. Public-private partnerships and research relationships with industry bring the academy closer to local businesses and state-wide economic development initiatives (but see Jennifer Washburn’s 2002 book University, Inc., for the seamy and sometimes fatal downside). New classroom technologies can engage students in ways plain lectures cannot. Student support services help integrate and mentor the alienated. Together, the enormous expansion of higher education services to broader populations, the eclipse of the manufacturing economy, and its replacement by “the fast-paced, knowledge-based economy of the twenty-first century in which every student needs to learn how to learn, in order to compete globally” (we can all reproduce the clichés effortlessly by now), all these changes have transformed activities in the classroom, the purposes of education, and the populations we are called upon to teach. We live in a different world altogether from Professor St. Peter.
But the discourse of the clueless teacher, and the more or less empty call for “reform” (see, for example, Robert Zemsky in The Chronicle of Higher Education, http://chronicle.com/article/Will-Higher-Education-Ever-/47536/) remains unchanged. What gives? Why, over the course of a century, has the critique of higher education remained so stable despite all the changes the profession and its social environment have undergone?
One answer concerns the nature of knowledge in complex societies as such. In 1943 Margaret Mead published an article on “Our Educational Emphases in Primitive Perspective” (American Journal of Sociology 48(6): 633-639). She wrote that the real difference between cultural transmission in our own society and that of contemporary “primitive” cultures is that the relationship between students and knowledge has changed. So far, this might come right out of Clydesdale. But what Mead had in mind was that, with the development of high degrees of social complexity there has been a shift from emphasizing knowledge that young people really desire to learn to conduct their lives (how to construct a fishing net, how to navigate a canoe, how to cook taro), to an emphasis on knowledge that some authority believes it is important to teach, but which it is not at all self-evident that anyone would want to know (calculus, Restoration literature, theology). The desirability of teaching comes to be emphasized over the desirability of learning. Hence strategic planning initiatives, which forecast and measure the manpower needs of society—how many chemical engineers will we need ten years down the road? How many park supervisors? How many poets?—and which examine the funding sources, political support, and institutional infrastructure needed to actualize such a future.
There is a complex relationship here between the idea of valuable knowledge and the broader social world. Knowledge is conceived as a hierarchy of superior and inferior possessions. “As soon as there is any attitude that one set of cultural beliefs is definitely superior to another,” Mead wrote,
The framework is present for active proselytizing, unless the idea of cultural superiority is joined with some idea of hereditary membership. . . .Thus, with the appearance of religions which held this belief in their own infallible superiority, education becomes a concern of those who teach rather than of those who learn. Attention is directed toward finding neophytes rather than toward finding masters, and adults and children become bracketed together as recipients of conscious missionary effort. This bracketing-together is of great importance; it increases the self-consciousness of the whole educational procedure, and it is quite possible that the whole question of methods and techniques of education is brought most sharply to the fore when it is a completely socialized adult who must be influenced instead of a plastic and receptive child (p. 635).
Furthermore, as soon as the possibility arises that education can be used as a tool for social mobility, it becomes apparent that it can also be used as a mechanism for maintaining the status quo. Education is marked as a mechanism for instilling or controlling social change:
In fact, the whole use of education to defend vested interests and intrenched privilege goes with the recognition that education can be a way of encroaching upon them. Just as the presence of proselytizing religions focuses attention upon means of spreading the truth, upon pedagogy, so the educational implications of social stratification focus attention upon the content of education and lay the groundwork for an articulate interest in the curriculum (p. 636).
So, in the early part of the twentieth century, Mead writes, public schooling had come to be seen largely as a means of educating “other people’s children,” socializing immigrants to a way of life they would not share with their parents (p. 637).
What we seldom remember as clearly as we should, is that cultural transmission and economic transformation often work at cross purposes, and that when they do not, seeking change and social mobility on the part of the individual or her family is most often achieved through engaging in social practices that reinforce the standing structure of power overall. Upton Sinclair expressed this cynical view in the most naked possible way, by pointing to the savage treatment of labor by corporate capital in the 1920s:
If you are a mine guard or strike-breaking gunman, experienced in shooting up tent colonies of striking miners, the corporations will pay you five dollars a day and board for your services. If you are a “prominent technical educator,” with a string of university degrees and titles, who can enable the great corporations to swindle the public out of tens of millions of dollars every year, then you can command a salary of a hundred dollars a day, with a percentage on the time of your assistants. That is what a college education is for (pp. 81-82).
If this seems exaggerated, consider Sinclair’s prediction for the future as he marveled at the catalogue of New York University in 1922, which listed “three professors of marketing, five professors of finance, four professors of accounting, four of business English, three of management, one of salesmanship, one of merchandising, one of foreign trade, [and] one of life insurance.”
Of course, this new kind of education is yet in its infancy, and we must not expect perfection. Pick up this university catalogue ten years from now, and you will find its deficiencies made up; you will find a Professor of Stock-watering and an Instructor of Political Manipulation. You will find an eloquent statement setting forth the fact that the handling of labor has now become an enormous American industry; that there are hundreds of large agencies for the putting down of strikes, and salaries as high as twenty and thirty thousand dollars a year are paid to competent masters of such work; therefore the university is establishing a Department of Strike-Breaking. . . .Also there will be eloquent “advertising talks,” explaining that business men now spend most of their time keeping agitators out of their factories, and that the secret service departments of great corporations have come to be the most important part thereof; so the university is now establishing a Department of Espionage, with a Professor of Varieties of Bolshevism, and a Dean of Deportation Proceedings, and a Special Lecturer on Attorney-Generalship (p. 322).
This sardonic fantasy, quaint in its hyperbole, might have been written by Jonathan Swift or by the Charles Dickens of Hard Times. But it loses some of its humor and gains some edge when compared with a notice circulated by email to UNC Charlotte’s faculty not too long ago:
AGENCY: U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS); Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate; Office of University Programs
ITEM: Notice seeking proposals to research, create, develop, deploy, and evaluate innovative educational tools, approaches, and resources to educate and inspire the next generation homeland security workforce. Attracting historically underserved and underrepresented populations is a requirement of this initiative.
The underserved and underrepresented populations of the contemporary university will find their place in the social order by serving its interests. Students understand this. And this—not the internet and its effect on student epistemology—is what accounts most centrally for the indifference most of Clydesdale’s students exhibit toward an examined life. Self-examination is unnecessary, while credentialing is a must for the vast majority of students we serve. This is why the Godfrey St. Peters of the world, proud of their disciplinary expertise and eager to pass it on, suffer in their attempts to proselytize the neophytes that enter the gates of the university each Autumn, in comparison to the programs promising fat salaries for the management of hotels and political borders and information. Knowledge is not at issue, really; practical interests are.
Those of us in the humanities and social sciences are not faultless. We have allowed words like “innovative” and “inspire”—see the DHS notice above—to be taken over by those who are primarily interested in innovative ways to control and manage human action, and in inspiring philosophies of duty to standing structures of inequality on local, national, and international scales. One of the things that has changed in society’s evaluation of higher education over the long term is that a humanistic understanding of education—that it is about leading out and developing an essential inner self—has been eclipsed by a postmodern (some would say neoliberal) understanding of education, in which education is about “learning to learn,” or “life-long learning;” that it is about developing psychic flexibility and decenteredness. That decenteredness is an asset in the proverbial “fast-paced, knowledge-based economies of the twenty-first century,” in which universities are charged to train students who can “compete” on a global scale. This is because, while humanistic education valued the idea of education as a means toward perfecting the self, postmodern educational theories present us with no other goal than constantly training and re-training a flexible workforce that can be deployed to chase the whims of the global market. If, as Clydesdale claims, there is such a suspicion of “traditional academic authority” among contemporary students, it is not because these students “have the world at our fingertips—and the world has been at our fingertips for our entire lives.” It is because students live in a world in which the hope of finding the true self and living the examined life are tragically at odds with being prepared to have the fickle winds of the world economy and its ruling institutions sweep them up and carry them into the unknown. The problems college students face these days do not have primarily to do with mismatched epistemological relationships with their faculty. Their difficulties have to do with their fragile and uncertain futures out in the world.