I seem to be going through some growing pains in my academic career. I’m torn between the more traditional route of teaching and scholarship, and the administrative path. Don’t get me wrong; I love teaching as much as I did when I started. It’s where I think the university is headed that I have problems. If I go the administration route than I will surely have to compromise some of my principles, and if I stick to teaching and scholarship I may regret never having tried to move up the ladder.
In a recent conversation I took part in at a committee meeting last week we discussed the advantages of a “practical” education. As a theorist by training I recoil at the word practical. In fact, it’s my least favorite word in the English language. While I do think that students should keep the prospects of a future job in mind, I strongly feel that an education should be anything but practical. One should get an education to enrich oneself. For example, I regularly teach a general education course in world literature. I’m often asked by students not in the humanities (and sometimes by those in the humanities), “Why do I have to read this? What does it have to do with my major?” There is no simple answer to this other than, “Because reading certain works in ancient literature will make you a better person.” Well, try telling that to parents who are shelling out more than $30 grand a year for their child’s education. This answer has no street credit in the contemporary world for most students and their parents. Yet, the fact is that courses in the humanities are often those courses that tell most about who we are as human beings. We should read literature, all kinds and periods, because more than any other cultural artifact literature tells us what it means to be human.
In her most recent book, “Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities,” Martha Nussbaum makes a powerful case for keeping the humanities at the center of university education. As teachers we have an obligation to teach our students not only how to think, but what it means to think. Nussbaum’s thesis argues for a strong resistance to the types of commercial education promised by the growing number of for profit universities, and, because of the competition they inspire, the traditional universities who are forced to adopt similar models. The humanities teach tolerance on many levels, and in a world where tolerance has become just an empty buzz word, we need to re-embrace the humanities.
Unfortunately, higher education, and American education in general, has adopted with a rabid vigor the business model: do more with less. The business model is completely non-compatible with systems of education. When it comes to teaching we cannot afford to do more with less. We owe it to our students to give them the best education we can. We owe it our future to invest in education, and we should invest in education as if our lives depended upon it, because it in fact does. A community is only as strong as its schools and its libraries. Politicians with fancy rhetoric and movie star smiles come and go. A real investment in the future means an investment in knowledge—even if this means raising taxes.
So, why would the above opinion be at odds with administrative ambitions? Because, gentle reader, once one has jumped the fence to an administrative position, one is more of a politician than a teacher or a theorist. An administrator has to press the flesh and work toward compromise. A teacher should NEVER compromise his or her principles for the good of the university. A university is an abstract idea with its own set of rules that often defy logic and intellectual reason. A teacher/scholar should be a trouble-maker, a rabble-rouser, a pot-stirrer, and a genuine pain in the ass.
I often tell my students that they get the education they deserve. That’s not entirely true. If they knew what was going on behind the scenes at most universities across the country they would perhaps run for the hills. This is not to say that we do our students a disservice. For the most part we give them exactly what they want.
And this is the most dangerous problem of all.