A few weeks ago, I offered my services to the New York Times to improve its coverage of higher education. This week, I’ll repeat the offer, since the situation there is only getting worse.
This week, Mark Bauerlein argued in the Times that kids today don’t respect their elders anymore. Okay, that’s not entirely fair: he criticized the generational shift from using college to search for meaning to using college to search for work. As evidence, he adduced a study of grade inflation that looked only at four-year colleges, and at the relative lack of eager young acolytes splayed across the hallway of the Emory University English department. He even quoted Todd Gitlin on the alleged earlier reverence for faculty, which was not how faculty at the time perceived SDS. But never mind that.
The core of his position is that students used to look for intellectual mentors. Now they look for grades.
His argument isn’t terribly new; readers of a certain age will remember Allan Bloom saying something similar during the Reagan administration. For that matter, narratives of decline from a golden age are as old as, well, narratives. In my observation, golden ages usually coincide with the youth of the person telling the tale. But what of the merits of the case?
What would a “disciple” look like in Nursing? Or Criminal Justice? How would one be a disciple of an adjunct, who may or may not be back next semester?
Bauerlein’s argument takes the elite, well-funded, selective research university as a universal. It also takes the humanities as representative of higher education generally. It ignores community colleges, where the issue isn’t grade inflation as much as it is keeping students from flunking out. (It may take effort to flunk out of Emory, but students flunk out of community colleges every single day.) It assumes that faculty are accessible for open-ended meetings, which is to say, that they’re employed full-time. Most aren’t. It assumes that students are all full-time and of traditional age; nationally, the average age for a community college student is in the mid-twenties -- not exactly “kids” -- and most of them work. They wouldn’t have time for endless bull sessions even if they wanted to.
But beyond all of the institutional issues, Bauerlein misses the educational point.
Tolstoy once claimed that there are really only two stories, and we keep telling each of them over and over again: a stranger comes to town, and a hero goes on a quest. In higher education, we live those two stories continuously. Every semester, a new crop of strangers come to town. And every semester, we set a new group of heroes off on their respective quests.
That’s our job. It’s what we do. It’s about the students.
It’s not about the faculty. The idea that colleges exist to recruit groupies for faculty is creepy, patriarchal, and wrong. (It’s also a pretty close description of many graduate programs, which explains a lot.) Colleges employ faculty, and staff, and yes, even administrators, to create an environment in which students can be empowered to go off on their own quests. Each of those groups has a role to play. But ultimately, their roles are in service to the students. The heroes of the story are the students.
To the extent that student attitudes towards college became more utilitarian over the years, I suspect that a combination of cost-shifting to students and a higher-stakes job market explain much of it. It’s easy to ignore economic considerations when you’re coasting on a generational economic tailwind; switch to a headwind, and what was previously invisible is suddenly obvious.
I wouldn’t give Bauerlein’s piece much thought, except that it’s in a venue that carries weight, and it tends to give aid and comfort to those who would dismantle public higher education wholesale. If higher education only worked in a bygone era, when students were somehow different, then there’s no more point in funding it now than in funding buggy whip factories. But that’s only true if you start from painfully narrow definitions. If you take students as the heroes of the story, then you’ll notice that there are heroes aplenty wandering the hallways. They may not have as much time to stop as their predecessors did, and they may be older than they once were, but they’re just as worthy. They’ve come to town, and they’re readying to conquer the world. I’m happy to help, and I welcome the help of all who respect students for who they are.
“Kids today” may not usually be kids, but they’re worthy of respect and constructive help, even if the ways they ask for it don’t resemble the ways they did forty years ago. And for what it’s worth, I’ve seen plenty of students attach themselves to faculty or staff who care about them. They’re entirely capable of reciprocating respect. But someone has to go first.
Times editors, my phone works. Please use it before publishing yet another variation on “kids today…”