Did you know that the student protest movement of the 1960s displayed nothing but reverence for the professoriate? In fact, student esteem for the professoriate continued up into the early 1980s, and then, for some reason, students decided to value education as a means to post-college employment over education as the pursuit of wisdom. And now nobody comes to professors’ office hours any more.
This is the narrative of declension du jour about higher education, peddled this time by Emory professor Mark Bauerlein via the op ed page of the New York Times. Since I am neck-deep in breathless dispatches about the cultural decay at the core of American higher education written in the 1980s and 1990s — The Closing of the American Mind, ProfScam, Tenured Radicals, Illiberal Education, yada yada yada — I don’t have much use for Bauerlein’s derivative shenanigans, except maybe to say that higher ed narratives of declension just ain’t what they used to be.
Or maybe they are. Maybe screeds about how the university (or the professoriate, or liberal education, or teen spirit) just ain’t what it used to be in the good old days are exactly what they have always been: part of a slick sales pitch. But what in the world does Bauerlein think he’s selling?
For one thing, what’s with this nostalgia for the good old days of 60s student protests, when the ire of student activists was directed solely at university administrators, and the prestige of the professoriate went unchallenged? Either Todd Gitlin, quoted in Bauerlein’s piece, was not apprised of the bizarre argument into which his standalone quote would be shoehorned, or he has not read the Port Huron statement lately.
That manifesto called the professoriate on the carpet for pursuing research at the behest of the military-industrial complex, with professors’ “skills and silence purchased by investors in the arms race…..Theoretic chaos has replaced the idealistic thinking of old – and, unable to reconstitute theoretic order, men have condemned idealism itself.”* Far from preserving the professoriate from criticism, the student activists of the 1960s condemned professors and administrators alike as sell-outs, sacrificing educational ideals for crass material gains. So the 1960s were hardly the golden age of student awe for the professoriate that Bauerlein has made them out to be.
However, it was the case that in the 1960s more students viewed the primary aim of college as a means to “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” than saw it as a means to becoming “very well off financially.” What in the world has gotten into today’s young people, that they worry more about making a living than they do about attaining wisdom? What could possibly be behind the prioritization of financial security over freedom to flourish intellectually and spiritually? What can we blame for this? Surely not an accelerating trend of massive budget cuts shifting the costs of higher education – an education necessary for that “well-trained workforce” that corporate America wants but won’t pay for – to individual families.
No, the fact that students enter college with a utilitarian view of education and leave college with the same utilitarian view is the fault of the professoriate, of course. “You can’t become a moral authority if you rarely challenge students in class and engage them beyond it. If we professors do not do that, the course is not an induction of eager minds into an enlarging vision. It is a requirement to fulfill.”
As Kevin Gannon has pointed out, Bauerlein’s essay is blithely oblivious to the working conditions of the professoriate – and I use that term broadly (as I think Gannon does as well) to cover all those who are tasked with the job of teaching undergraduates, including many road-warrior adjuncts who don’t even have an office door to keep open in the first place. Gannon astutely argues that Bauerlein is engaging in “academic classism, pure and simple.” Rather than rehearsing Gannon’s points, I would encourage you to read his essay.
But I’ll tell you what else Bauerlein is engaging in here – the lazy (if somewhat confused) rehashing of old arguments. Take one part Allan Bloom (these distracted kids don’t love wisdom any more!) and one part Roger Kimball (these selfish professors care more about their own agendas than the liberal education of their students!) and you’ve got Bauerlein’s lament in a nutshell. What’s new here is the historically confused 60s nostalgia – other than that, it’s a remix of earlier screeds about the closing of the American mind and the ruination of the professoriate.
But, hey, why reinvent the wheel when you can roll out something old and peddle it as something new? If the New York Times is willing to pay good money for warmed-over arguments about higher education that can draw clicks and drive traffic to the paper’s website, who can blame Bauerlein — or, for that matter, Christy Wampole — for getting in on the hustle? Write a lament about how life in the upper echelons of the prestige economy of higher education isn’t what it used to be, collect your check, and then…
And then watch as knock-off narratives about that aloof, out-of-touch, selfish professoriate are turned around and cynically used by politicians and profiteers to further erode public support for higher education at non-elite institutions – at community colleges, at state schools, at struggling HBCUs – where faculty, broadly construed, are already expected to do more with less.
That’s what bugs me about Bauerlein’s piece – not that it’s historically confused or intellectually lazy. Such op eds are legion, “even in the New York Times.” What bugs me is how in its logical and historical confusion and its apparently willful elision of the structural shifts in the higher education economy, Bauerlein’s essay contributes to the delegitimization of American higher education, providing fodder for those who don’t just want to denigrate a college education but defund it as well.
That ain’t right, Bauerlein.
*Tom Hayden, The Port Huron Statement: The Visionary Call of the 1960s Revolution (New York, NY: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2005), 49, 50.