Back when eastern Europe was under Communism, workers used to quip that “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.” In a superb article behind the Wall Street Journal‘s pay wall, Professor Geoffrey L. Collier, describing the current state of so-called higher education, has reworked that famous quip as follows: We pretend to teach, they pretend to learn.
Students arrive woefully academically unprepared; students study little, party much and lack any semblance of internalized discipline; pride in work is supplanted by expediency; and the whole enterprise is treated as a system to be gamed in which plagiarism and cheating abound.
As Hemingway said, the truth has a certain ring to it. Professor Collier goes on to provide some good insight on the sources of the problems.
The problems stem from two attitudes. Social preoccupations trump the academic part of residential education, which occupies precious little of students’ time or emotions. Second, students’ view of education is strictly instrumental and credentialist. They regard the entire enterprise as a series of hoops they must jump through to obtain their 120 credits, which they blindly view as an automatic licensure for adulthood and a good job, an increasingly problematic belief.
Education thus has degenerated into a game of “trap the rat,” whereby the student and instructor view each other as adversaries. Winning or losing is determined by how much the students can be forced to study. This will never be a formula for excellence, which requires intense focus, discipline and diligence that are utterly lacking among our distracted, indifferent students. Such diligence requires emotional engagement. Engagement could be with the material, the professors, or even a competitive goal, but the idea that students can obtain a serious education even with their disengaged, credentialist attitudes is a delusion.
Here Professor Collier has done a good job putting his finger on the problem: lack of emotional engagement. Students are simply not passionate about learning. Their passions, if they have any at all, lie elsewhere.
Given this lack of student engagement, the question arises, who is to blame, the students or professors? Collier seems to think that professors share some of the blame.
The professoriate plays along because teachers know they have a good racket going. They would rather be refining their research or their backhand than attending to tedious undergraduates. The result is an implicit mutually assured nondestruction pact in which the students and faculty ignore each other to the best of their abilities. This disengagement guarantees poor outcomes, as well as the eventual replacement of the professoriate by technology. When professors don’t even know your name, they become remote figures of ridicule and tedium and are viewed as part of a system to be played rather than a useful resource.
We remember raising the problem of student engagement with our old dean. His reply was to throw the problem back in our laps: “You have to engage them!” He thought the responsibility lay with the professor. Of course, it’s always easy to blame the professor. He’s the one with the credentials, and he’s being paid to do the job. So if things aren’t working the way they’re supposed to, it’s the professor who must be to blame. It’s his job to make it work!
But suppose instead that we were talking about a football coach. If the team plays poorly, the coach must accept the blame, right? Okay, but what if we told you that, right from day one, all or nearly all the players joined the team only because they thought they had to, not because they wanted to. The players never had any passion for football, and preferred to be somewhere else rather than on the field. At every opportunity, the players sought to minimize the effort they put into practicing and playing. Under such circumstances, if the team plays poorly, do you still blame the coach? Without exaggeration, this analogy pretty accurately describes the problem faced by today’s professors.
How can we be so sure that the professors are not the problem? Because in every college classroom, there is at least one person who is, in fact, passionate about the subject, and that’s the professor. Almost without exception, the economics professor is passionate about economics, the biology professor passionate about biology. This must be true, otherwise, how to explain why they dedicated so many years to obtaining PhDs in those fields? And most people like to share their passion, and are happy to engage with others who express interest. Most professors would love to get students engaged, and strive hard to make it happen. The professors are an excellent resource that students could make use of. But they don’t, because they don’t care.
Sure, a few aloof professors might treat with indifference even students who were passionate about learning. In our many years of experience, however, we have seen the efforts made by faculty to engage students. Professors agonize about their teaching performance, and attend workshops and seminars in attempts to improve their teaching. They experiment with alternative and non-traditional teaching methods. They hold meetings and read journals dedicated to pedagogy. All in vain. Rather than “We pretend to teach, and they pretend to learn,” it would be more accurate to say that “We teach, and pretend that they learn.”
Over four years of college, the typical student will take courses with dozens of different professors. Even if many or most of those dozens of professors are poor teachers, surely some will be good. Virtually every student must eventually encounter several good professors. Yet for the vast majority of students, none of those several good professors succeeds in turning them on to learning.
Surely Professor Collier is correct when he notes that many faculty prefer to spend their time “refining their research or their backhand than attending to tedious undergraduates.” But a lot of those same professors would probably exhibit considerably more interest in teaching if they were assigned students who had some passion for learning. They sour on the students because they come to realize that the students are unfit and uninterested.
It’s a sad situation, and to a considerable degree, the students are victims. Many have been let down by a K-12 education that has left them unprepared for real college work. Others, frankly, were born without the necessary intellectual ability, and should long ago have been put on a vocational track, as happens in Germany, for example.
The students are also victims of the broader culture. In his 1987 bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind, Professor Alan Bloom actually attributed students’ lack of emotional engagement to the Sexual Revolution. Our highly sexualized culture makes young people sexually aware and active from a relatively young age. This robs them of a certain innocence and curiosity that is necessary to develop a passion for learning. Certainly, prepubescent children are filled with wonder and curiosity which seem not to survive sexual maturity.
In any event, despite the problems, we have not given up. Here and there, we always encounter a few good students, passionate about learning, and it’s worth doing a good job just for their sakes. Plus there is always J.D. Salinger’s fat lady.