The lowering of higher education: The professors 

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It is difficult to see established institutions change. When exactly did our colleges and universities shift from places devoted to transforming our children into mature and thoughtful adults into self-focused consumers? When did higher education become so driven by the bottom line? And, more fundamentally, when did professors morph from revered mentors and thinkers to “content-providers” and “information-dispensers?”

The professorate was once a poorly paid, high status profession. Historically, it attracted men who enjoyed what used to be called “the life of the mind.” These were men who had little taste for the competitiveness of business or the specificity of medicine or engineering. They liked talking. They were drawn to “academe.”

Tracing its root back to the ancient Greeks, academe is a secluded place, a garden, away from the city where people withdraw. They literally sat at the feet of scholars, such as Plato, Aristotle and Augustine. They came to listen and receive knowledge and wisdom. The form of the academy changed through the centuries, but the mission remained relatively constant. Chaucer wrote of his Clerk in the Canterbury Tales  “and gladly would he learn, and gladly teach.” The professor’s mission was, for centuries, constant. And it stayed that way until relatively recently when a new priority, a new mission, was added to the learn-and-teach expectations of the professor: Research!

Once upon a time, professors thought of their students, and their need to learn important things, as “their work.” Now they are expected to not only to be great intellects or to impart wisdom. Now professors have to “add to the knowledge base.” The mantra in the academy has been, for several decades now, “publish or perish” — and it has changed the chemistry of higher education.

With this new priority comes new ground rules.

“Publish or get minute raises, and don’t even consider having a permanent job here.”

“Don’t waste your time trying to understand the length and breadth of your subject, whether it be literature or biology. Become the expert. Get to know more and more about less and less.”

“Write those articles for those new little journals devoted to obscure topics that no one reads other than your future judges on the Promotion and Tenure Committee.”

“And, teaching? Oh, yes. Of course, do a decent job. We don’t want to have unhappy students, students who complain or possibly take their tuition checks to another university. Keep the natives from getting restless.”

“But put aside your own role model, your favorite professor, who was always available, who hung around after class and often went off with a group of you to talk over coffee about everything from his discipline to current politics. Well, that’s over. After class, hurry back to your office and grind away on those articles. Oh, and you’ll at least need a book for the next promotion.”

Without a doubt, our universities have been major contributors to the growth of knowledge, to our prosperity, to our health and to many, many human goods. That is, some universities — particularly, schools and departments of science, engineering and technology. From the humanities? Queer Studies? Various ethnic and gender departments? Not so much.

Although all institutions of higher learning claim to be contributors to “the human store of what is known,” in fact, only a relatively small percentage of our institutions of higher ed contribute to our collective knowledge base. The rest are poseurs. They hunger for the prestige and money of the true research institution. Of course, prestige in higher education simply means, “Where do we stand in this year’s U.S. News and World Report Best Colleges rankings?” As night follows day, money follows higher rankings.

Operationally, higher ed’s drive for prestige and money has changed the college classroom for the worse. It means, “Professor, write those grants, write those journal articles, and keep that young woman, who wants to talk about Keats, and that young man, who is convinced he is dying of a broken heart, as far away as possible.”

Jobs change. Workplace conditions change. But few more than the job of a college professor. The intimacy of the groves of academe has vanished, replaced by the impersonality of a Department of Motor Vehicles. Like docile applicants, students come with the truncated goal of getting the needed license or registration. The idea of an intellectual exchange, let alone a human exchange, with a wise and knowledgeable adult is reduced to a sterile, bureaucratic transaction.

Pity the poor student, although he knows not what he is missing. Feel genuine sorrow for the poor soul who prepared to be Chaucer’s Clerk and wound up a DMV clerk.

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan are writers, former teachers, and the editors of Why I’m Still A Catholic. They write primarily on cultural, educational and religious topics. This is the second in a series of articles by the Ryans on higher education. Read the first here.