Sunday, May 10, 2015

 

Kids Today: A Response to Mark Bauerlein


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…”  

Comments:
Thank you.
 
Amen! Sing it, brother!
 
There is one story Tolstoy left out: the mom who comes and goes, who keeps trying and is held back and who eventually gets there. Plenty of those in community colleges in my experience as a long-term adjunct.
 
"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." — Yep. Outside of his own very limited corner of the world, things are a little different.
 
"How would one be a disciple of an adjunct, ..."

BRAVO!

Or didn't that cross his mind because they don't they have any teaching English at Emory, or because freshmen are invisible to professors and don't count?

"he criticized the generational shift from using college to search for meaning to using college to search for work."

I will spare you my first thought, but it might have been the same as yours. Need a coauthor?

My father attended college to become an engineer. My grandfather attended college to become an engineer. (For a generational context, my grandfather's education was interrupted by a year or so in France to help win WW I.) They both wanted good grades because they both wanted to pass to indicate that they had learned enough to get good jobs, and I know that my Dad's buddies did not put English classes high on their list of what mattered in collge as long as the grade was a C. I'll spare any English faculty what these ex-GIs called their English class in the late 40s.

My generation was the anomaly that attended college to "seek meaning", not the norm. And I did, by the way, taking a variety of classes just for the fun of it, before going into physics for the fun of it.

The oil shock and recession circa 1974 and the Reagan recession circa 1981-82 took care of most of that "search for meaning". In fact, I recall a major shift from social science majors to business and STEM majors was quite disruptive in the late 70s, even before Reagan came along.

Obligatory fact check:

Most of that grade inflation happened between 1960 and 1972 +/- as a result of the Vietnam-era draft. It is not a recent phenomenon as he implies. We even had an A+ grade to help that along. My college English class was a joke compared to the one I had in high school. If he wants to read evaluations where students might have heard a discouraging word or grade, he needs to look in a math or science department.
 
OMG. The guy complaining about grade inflation has a 4.5 for easiness on The Site That Shall Not Be Named. One student said he gives back points if the TA grader is too harsh!
 
"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."

The scary thing is that it is rare these days to find an opinion piece in a venue that carries weight that doesn't come from this same ideological background.
 
@CCPhysicist. They seem to have very few adjuncts teaching English at Emory, from what I can tell. Out of 38 faculty , there are 3 lecturers, one senior lecturer, and one visiting assistant professor. The lecturers all seem to have been there for less than three years. It's a total mistake to take Emory as the norm for staffing.

From what I've seen at a couple of liberal arts institutions, a number of humanities faculty are starting to actively discourage the PhD among their majors. Unlike like Professor Bauerlein, I'm reluctant to extrapolate any larger trend from that.
 
The abstraction inherent in calling 21 million American college students "heroes" is actually more insulting than Bauerlein, and suits your own hero narrative, in that you become the hero essayists defending them. But hey.
 
Career Counselor @ 5:19AM -

Comments on The Site That Shall Not Be Named indicate that all of the papers in his 100 and 200 level classes are graded by TAs, so there are plenty of adjuncts involved in classes where he is the instructor of record.

My name would never have shown up officially on any documents when I was a TA in grad school, even though I was the only person in the room teaching recitations just like some regular faculty did. Still and adjunct IMO.
 
The abstraction inherent in calling 21 million American college students "heroes" is actually more insulting than Bauerlein

Not at all. Would you prefer the term protagonist?
 
"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?"

Enh, Beige will.

Who's more wrong -- the Class Warrior or the person carrying out his bidding even if he thinks the Class Warrior is wrong?

 
If you're getting adjunct info from the website, you're not going to find it. Adjuncts teaching one or two classes will not show up on the website. Look at a course listing where the instructor is listed as TBD.

This argument that the kids are to blame is in opposition to some extent to Putnam's "Our Kids", where a lot of the blame is placed on us, the adults, for being self-centered, broadly speaking. I'm not quite done with the book, but certainly social and economic factors is more the problem. Bauerlein seems to account for none of that. Income inequality, major recession, all the reports that show that the college educated outearn the non-college educated? Where is that in his argument?

It's op-eds like these -- and others I've seen recently -- that give higher ed a bad name. No wonder no one wants to fund it if they equate it with whiners looking for sycophants. And that hurts institutions that don't have those kind of attitudes or whose missions are to broaden the college-educated among us.
 
Laura wrote:

"It's op-eds like these -- and others I've seen recently -- that give higher ed a bad name."

It's also op-eds like these that give op-eds a bad name, especially ones in The New York Times.
 
When every job lists a four year degree as a requirement (whether it makes sense or not), is it really surprising that people go to college to get job-tailored educations?
 
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?