What This Professor Professes

A few weeks ago, a former student groused about college tuition on Facebook, to which I cheekily replied with a favorite quote from Good Will Hunting: “You paid a hundred and fifty thousand dollars for the exact same education you could have got for a buck fifty in late charges at the library.” 

Another commenter admitted that, but asked, “Who recognizes a library education?” 

That’s a revealing question.  It’s meant to say, obviously, that no potential employer will credit what you know based on your own reading alone.  What the world wants to see is degrees and credentials. *

But here’s where the commenter’s challenging query falls short: I’ve never said that the purpose of education is to get a good job. 

Indeed, I’m the kind of teacher who has always avowed that a narrow focus on technical training and future income will ultimately deprive society of the kinds of innovators who built us into such a successful nation in the first place, as they themselves were largely products of a more classical education, or autodidacts entirely. 

Such an emphasis on education for its own sake is often met with confusion or defiance from the student body. 

In my college classes, I usually teach introductory level courses to freshmen just entering college because their tuition has been paid for them and they’ve been told to try college.  Few of them can articulate any objective for being there any more profound than that, and those who can do so, typically give a career plan as their justification for school. 

Fair enough, though.  Our culture has raised us this way, and I can’t fault students for buying into it.  However, as I see the kinds of classes I teach as an orientation to the rest of their college life—and, indeed, an initiation into the community of literate citizens—I often teach them as a change of attitude: from the practical, economical philosophy that got them to this point to one more consistent with traditional Enlightenment ideals. 

“You are here so you can begin taking part in the Great Conversation,” I essentially say.  “This ongoing cultural dialogue, consisting of exchanging ideas, making shared discoveries, and reflecting on a common heritage in the context of the present, lies at the very core of our civilization.  Such a process has created the rich world in which we live, and nurturing its continuation is critical to sustaining that growth.

“By studying here, you are agreeing to enter into a group that agrees that literacy is an important obligation, that culture has value and must be nourished, that the past is powerful and must be a vibrant force in daily living.  This means scrutinizing all old and future assumptions, and breaking with a large part of the current mainstream as it fetishizes ignorance and hedonism, as those values cannot be in harmony with those of education. “

Many students balk at such implicit messages, just wanting to be granted their paperwork so they can proceed to the job training they came for.  Certainly, most don’t expect or welcome a rigorous reevaluation of their priorities as they practice reading and writing, but such is undeniably the essence of the university.  To water that down, as I see so much of modern education doing, is to rob them of those things that are so truly worth cherishing and preserving. 

When students do flinch from the serious studiousness that I expect, I tell them that it is a professor’s prerogative to profess, and that they came here to me to be taught, which means being changed.  I won’t apologize for it. 

* With the Millennial generation’s increasing decentralization of life—in commerce, entertainment, and communication, primarily, making access to nearly everything more democratic, and less controlled by authoritative elements—I wonder if such attitudes will be greatly revolutionized in this century.  Just as YouTube, Ebay, Facebook, and any number of other innovations have flattened the world (to borrow Thomas Friedman’s phrase), I can see education once again emerging from the ivory towers of academia and becoming a common man’s pastime in the neighborhoods of the world. 

Incidentally, if anyone’s interested in seeing what forms an educational philosophy like mine, I might best recommend these three things:

1.       Hugh Nibley, “Educating the Saints.”  Though written for and about a Latter-day Saint audience, this essay espouses a basic, egalitarian educational philosophy that should be required reading for every teacher and student.  Of everything. 

2.       Dorothy Sayers, “The Lost Tools of Learning.”  This essay surveys a traditional mode of education that has long since become heretical to adopt, though it was undeniably successful for centuries and, where it is till used, continues to produce results.  Much of modern education’s failings can be measured as the distance they place between themselves and this system. 

3.       Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind.  Bloom’s book-length essay is not only a powerful indictment of ad-hoc social revolution (the thesis for which it is most famous), but a clear and persuasive defense of instilling the Western canon in the young.

3 comments on “What This Professor Professes

  1. Excellent post. I admire your dedication to the life of the mind. I teach freshman classes, too, and I find many students simply don’t understand that to be educated means to be transformed, to be willing to transform.

  2. I respect your position on education and how you conduct your classes. As a student who came to college believing in the “narrow focus” of obtaining a job and “future income”, I wish I had the opportunity to attend a freshman class that challenged my ignorant assumptions of life.

    Universities today, at least the one I am attending, do not educate students but rather prepare them to be pawns in the workforce. No one in my university is provoked to think or question the values of society, instead being taught out of 5 year old textbook a skill and the “right” way to perform a duty or job.

    I admire your optimism when you say “I can see education once again emerging from the ivory towers of academia and becoming a common man’s pastime in the neighborhoods of the world”. However, when I look at the “common man” with new innovations such as Facebook and YouTube, I see obsession with social networking and a pursuit of illiterate entertainment. Pictures become more important than words, clever “status updates” more important than reading and writing.

    In any case, great article!

  3. Few recognize the joys of a liberal arts education. When I did, I was already in graduate school studying engineering. But one doesn’t have to be enrolled in a college class to study, do they? So I started reading the classics. I surprize many people by how much I know in many different fields. But I’m just an engineer.

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