Looking Back on 60 Years in Academe

Retired philosopher and Pittsburgh provost Rudolph Weingartner's book examines liberal education, the life of the student and the nature of teaching.
October 3, 2007

Rudolph H. Weingartner began his education career at Columbia College on the G.I. Bill in 1947, where, he writes, "that freshman year ... either induced me to become an intellectual or led me [to] discover that I was an intellectual." That discovery inaugurated six decades in academe that spanned teaching posts at what was then San Francisco State College, as well as Vassar College; serving as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University; and rising to provost of the University of Pittsburgh.

Besides his work as a philosopher, Weingartner's trajectory provided fodder for books examining the culture and mission of academic administration, the organization of academic institutions and the purpose of undergraduate education. In his most recent book, A Sixty-Year Ride Through the World of Education (Hamilton Books, 2007), Weingartner traces his life in the classroom from elementary school to retirement. Recalling his ride from the first grade in Heidelberg, Germany -- which he fled with his Jewish family in 1939 -- to P.S. 192 in Manhattan, to graduate school and beyond, he offers lessons learned and a litany of views on core requirements, "publish or perish," the nature of the college presidency and more.

Now, he writes, "I am indeed out of school for good" -- a self-imposed requirement he urges as a matter of policy. Weingartner took time off from wood sculpting and writing occasional op-eds to answer questions via e-mail, touching on the length of graduate education, students' writing abilities today and liberal education.

Q: Many publications have noted the recent 20th anniversary of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind. A number of people have raised questions about the related "canon wars," and whether there should be a core curriculum in the liberal arts. What are your views?

A: I want to look at this issue of a core curriculum from three different perspectives and I'll try to be brief. I benefited immensely -- for a lifetime -- from having been at Columbia College at the end of the '40s with all those required "liberal arts" courses -- from all of them, if from some more than others.... I then enjoyed teaching Contemporary Civilization for four years (and was good at it), though that was really hard work, especially the first year. I later taught a required humanities (sort of Great Books) course at San Francisco State that was not a happy experience. Many of the students didn't want to be there and I wasn't very comfortable teaching the course, in part for an oddball reason: I never figured out how you teach the first X chapters of Don Quixote, say, and then the next batch. And of course you couldn't assign the whole thing at once. Philosophy really doesn't present this problem.

But finally, let me give you my views from the administrator's (dean's) perspective. When I decided to undertake a major reform of undergraduate education in the College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern, I decided not to push for a core curriculum like Columbia's, in spite of my favorable attitude toward it. Faculties have become very "professionalized" for a whole set of reasons and the overwhelming majority of them very much resent teaching outside their fields.... Columbia is a powerful university with a long tradition of its special curriculum and they can use their prestige to get people to teach these out-of-field courses. But even they not without difficulty. (After three years of teaching at CC, one colleague -- also still short of his Ph.D. -- and I were the "senior" members -- longest continuous service -- of the CC staff then teaching.) Now, by definition required courses are taken by large numbers of students and many who take those required courses do so only because they have to. It is therefore particularly important that required courses are taught well. I did not think that that would happen at Northwestern if, against the odds, the faculty would have gone for a set of specially constructed required courses, on the pattern of CC. The solution, in my view -- and one that I could persuade the faculty to adopt -- was required courses within the standard fields, but courses that have a certain set of characteristics that make them appropriate to be required.

... The fierceness seems to have gone out of the [canon wars]; some changes were indeed made in the direction of the "left," but less radical ones than desired and not wholly satisfactory to the old-liners. I could be wrong about this or, more likely, this may be true of some institutions but not of others.

Q: On the one hand, you suggest that requirements can help students gain a grounding in core subjects and the classics. On the other, one can end up with the situation you had in your last honors Plato course at Pittsburgh, in which you granted "[m]ore failures ... than in any randomly picked dozen of almost forty years of teaching." During your time in administration, did you ever find a way out of this conundrum?

A: That disastrous Plato course was primarily the result of a complete failure of the Pitt advising system. Most of the students in that class should not have been admitted, not remotely having taken the normal prerequisites of such a course.

I emphatically believe in undergraduate requirements. Brown is the only place I know of that does without them and my supposition is not only that they get very good students who are highly motivated but that they do have a strong advising system that steers those students into courses they need. As I mentioned, the problem of teaching required courses is at least partially solved by strong institutions with strong traditions, such as Columbia and Chicago, not to mention highly special places such as the two St. John's [College, in Annapolis and Santa Fe].

Q: What is the connection between the decline in esteem for liberal education and economic factors? Is there any way to reconcile them?

A: There is a short answer to this and a long answer. Tuition and other college-related costs have gone up so fantastically, that those who have to pay this freight -- the parents, note, not the students themselves -- feel they have to get their money's worth. The easiest way to interpret that desire is to ask that the institution prepare their kids for a decent job they will get when they graduate. Not many parents think of a lifetime of jobs, unless they think profession: law, medicine, engineering. When that is envisaged from the beginning, that liberal education doesn't seem so bad, since, if properly configured, it prepares for professional school.

I'll only outline the long answer. Since the days when liberal education stopped being the only undergraduate education there was, its proponents have done a lousy job in selling it. The issue is not first job; the issue is a long trajectory of jobs. When I was dean [at Northwestern] and spoke to the parents who visited their freshman kids for the first time -- an organized set of activities, including a speech by me. Among other things, I asked them to raise their hands as to who was now doing the kind of work they started out doing after graduating: very few hands. Then I asked: how many are working at jobs, activities that didn't exist when you graduated? A lot of hands.

Q: Can you explain some of your suggestions to improve graduate education in the liberal arts? Couldn't one assert -- contrary to the argument in your book -- that having graduate students teach undergraduates serves as an introduction to the art of teaching?

A: No question that argument can be made, but the reality is seldom as modest as it should be and graduate students teach a lot. Two general points, both of which can be much expanded on. First, graduate education takes much too long as it is. Burdening students with extensive teaching duties prolongs that period. Second, the amount of teaching graduate students to teach that actually goes on is mostly minimal or nonexistent. Learn by doing, indeed! Moreover, graduate students have very little motive -- except possibly their own pride -- to really work at teaching, another reason not much is learned.... That learning to teach and that teaching of teaching should take place -- and systematically and seriously so -- when it is actually the job for the recently-minted Ph.D. to teach; they get paid a living wage to do that.... A final point: Undergraduates are being cheated and their parents shortchanged by all the undergraduate teaching done by graduate students.

Q: Have students' writing abilities worsened? Why? And what can colleges do to combat this trend?

A: ... I have to say that my assessment of students' writing is based on my own impressions and on my (fallible) memory. How has the writing worsened? Aside from such mechanics as spelling and grammar, my sense is that the average level of clarity and expressiveness is not what it was. When I say that I do not mean that my Columbia freshmen were great writers. Even way back when, high schools did not do enough. So that then and now colleges must require writing from their students. I am not convinced that "writing across the curriculum" does the job, though it is certainly better than nothing. A lot of work has been done on the teaching of writing, with which few faculty members, including me, are familiar. Moreover, neither are most members of English departments, who furthermore, don't like to teach writing courses (other than so-called "creative writing" courses).

For these reasons I created a Writing Program at Northwestern -- one of the first in the country -- which continues to thrive and do a reasonably good job. When I started college, Columbia required all incoming freshmen to take what were called "Placement Exams" that certainly included writing. Such practices, if reasonably widespread, would put some pressure on at least some high schools to do a better job. I don't know how effective admissions offices can be. I have no doubt that if schools of education required decent writing from the teachers it trains and made learning to teach writing a requirement, that would help.

Q: If, as you suggest, search firms don't do their jobs in finding good candidates -- say, for president -- why do universities continue to use them?

A: While I have not been involved in hiring search firms, I have a complex hypothesis by way of an answer to your question. Administrators of almost anything develop mechanisms for protecting their rears. That is why they often hire consultants to tell them what they already know. "Expert" search firms serve as similar shields. A legitimate, if expensive, use of search firms is to have them do the voluminous paperwork of a major search. I served on the search committee when the Pittsburgh Symphony looked for a new managing director and to have the search firm do the paperwork was almost a necessity, given the size and nature of the staff of such an institution. The mistake comes in when one relies on their judgment and when the hiring institution makes no investigation of its own about finalist candidates.

Q: Many have expressed a desire for the classical president of old -- one who expresses outspoken opinions and challenges, rather than acquiesces or simply raises money. But the few such presidents left today tend to get a lot of flak. Have our expectations just changed?

A: I myself have missed the fact that prominent educators have not taken on that job and have been disappointed in a few friends who have become heads of important institutions and who had the ability to play that public role but failed to do so. I suppose risk-taking is not a trait of academics and you are right, serving in that role courts flak. It is also the case that presidents, besides being money-raisers-in-chief, are also picked for their ability to manage, sometimes simply making them the bureaucrats-in-chief. Not being educational leaders, they are also not particularly suited to that public role. So I guess the answer is that the expectations of many must have changed, if not mine!

Q: You have left school for good. What message would you have for graduate students just entering the world of academe today?

A: Assuming we are speaking of someone beginning graduate school, I would urge such persons to persist if and only if (as the logicians say), [1] they are deeply interested in the subject matter they are embarking on studying at such great length; [2] if they are not in a field that will lead to careers outside the academy, that they have the temperament suited to being teachers, a big topic.... (I exempt geniuses from this requirement; there must always be room in universities for every kind of eccentric who can however make significant contributions to knowledge.) And [3] that they are what is popularly called self-starters, meaning that they do not need to be told (ordered) what to do next. That trait will also serve them well in retirement. I have business friends who don't know what to do with themselves in retirement. That's not a problem I have.


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