Monday, May 9, 2011

We Are All Cowards

My good and dear friend L. asked me this morning what courage is.  The question has led me to think about not only a definition but also the presence or absence of courage in our daily lives.  Who is brave?  Does it matter?

We read about freedom fighters who willingly risk death for a cause or a country.  We watch as mountain climbers scale impossible heights.  We applaud a little girl who sacrifices her own life to save her sister from drowning.  These are all brave people.  We would all like to believe we could be like them should circumstances warrant, but I very much doubt that the vast majority of us are brave at all.  To me, courage is pursuing an action or course that is filled with danger beyond the normal risks we all take when we drive a car or fly across the country.  To me, bravery is not absence of fear; it is, as Hemingway put it, "grace under pressure." 

There are all kinds of fear, but the one I want to consider here is the fear of speaking one's mind, the fear of ruffling feathers.  Let me be specific.  I have spent over 30 years as a teacher, first in high schools, then in universities.  For most of that time I was quite happy with the way things were organized and managed.  When I taught high school back in the '70s, I was lucky enough to have a principal who had, well, principles.  He was fair and reliable.  He did not suffer fools gladly but he could listen to his faculty and change course if they wanted to try something new.  He thought for himself and allowed us to do the same.

Years later, when I was teaching at a state university, I began to hear rumblings from the public schools about increased paperwork, demands for more and more "assessment," teaching to the test, and being forced through a narrow curricular chute.  Thank goodness I'm not teaching in the public schools, I thought.  That could never happen in higher education.  Professors are too independent; the ethos is completely different.  By the time I retired higher education too was in the grip of a bureaucracy of micro-managers who thought education was best served by increasing the number of buzzwords associated with it--outcome-based,  goals and strategies,  uniform syllabi,  student-centered, critical thinking (as demonstrated by quantifiable data)--rather than by a recognition of and a reliance on the ability of a teacher to get her students thinking for themselves and, if not loving the subject at hand, at least deepening their appreciation of it.

There are two fields where personal relationships matter a great deal: education and medicine.  Students learn from teachers they love, and patients recover more calmly and quickly when they are comforted as well as cured by their physicians.  Both medicine and education have been highjacked by pencil-pushers intent on removing the human factor and replacing it with protocols, rubrics, data, and documentation.  "Oversight" is the watchword, as if good teachers and doctors couldn't be trusted to know what they are doing.  We have lost trust in those we should most revere, perhaps because we have lost trust period.  When reading my student evaluations at the end of each semester, it was the comments I looked at, not the circled numbers or checked boxes.  But when student responses were tallied, it was only the numbers that counted and were kept.  There is a proliferation of paperwork that drains time out of a teacher's or a doctor's day and creates so much redundancy that when you  provide your doctor with your address and phone number you have to put the same information on a dozen sheets of paper, and the nurse at check-out asks you for it again.

All of this bureaucratic glut and nit-picking is not the only thing that troubles me, however.  What amazes me is the alacrity with which otherwise intelligent, competent professionals cave in to the demands to follow all the rules, without deviation.  Standardization is meant to assure quality, but, I suggest, it too often flattens everything into the same pancake.  If there is a good reason for doing something, then I am all for doing it.  But does it really matter if every professor's syllabus looks exactly the same?  Isn't "what are your goals for your class" a terribly silly question?  Does relentless testing promote learning and make it more enjoyable, or is it just an obstacle to real growth?

My question is this:  why don't more people just say no?  Why can't a senior professor simply say, "I've been teaching this course for 20 years.  My classes are always full, and my former students come back to visit long after they have graduated.  Everyone knows who the good teachers are on this campus.  Give me one good reason why I should fill out this silly form and answer your silly questions?  Who benefits from my wasting time in this way?"

What I have noticed is that younger faculty go along with the system without question.  They shrug their shoulders and say, "Just do what the Office of Assessment wants and get it over with."  They have been brought up in this new world and don't know any other.  But I have watched the morale of older professors wither and die.  It is a fact that universities are becoming more and more top-heavy with administrators.  That's where the real money is, and the power too.  Because research has become the be-all and end-all of academia, professors whose research is less than stellar often opt for administration, where the research requirement disappears.  Those may be the best teachers on campus, but administration offers an attractive refuge.  In addition, many of the new administrators who proliferate like rabbits (layers and layers of vice-chancellors, vice-provosts, associate deans, directors of various services, such as student life, multicultural affairs, sustainability, etc. etc.) have never been inside a classroom as anything other than a student themselves.  Their take on the university is quite different from their faculties'.  Productivity, retention, cost-cutting, grant-winning--in short, a bottom-line mentality.  Education is becoming a business with customers rather than students.  Slick advertising entices students with spas, athletics, and luxury dorms, as though a university were a resort with an academic component. 

I am trying hard not to become an old curmudgeon, pining for the good old days when professors smoked pipes and had leather patches on their elbows, but it's not easy.  I know this will never happen; the current system is too entrenched, but I wish our higher education could be divided into teaching institutions and research institutes, each with a clear mandate.  Just as some doctors choose to work in a lab rather than a clinic, so too some academics would prefer to do research rather than teach undergraduates.  The way things are now, if a young faculty member wants to devote his life to teaching, if he feels a calling to teach and can't imagine doing anything else, he is pulled away from his primary passion by research requirements that sap his time and his energy.  It's a mistake too many people make when they think young professors have it easy.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Teaching--at any level--is one of the most demanding, exhausting professions going.  Let anyone who doubts it spend a week in front of a classroom.

Over the course of my career, I have watched students slide down the list of public universities' priorities.  Revenue, retention, growth--these are what come first.  Welcome to the university as corporation.  I'm not saying anything new in the ongoing debate over the future of our educational system, but I can at least encourage those who are still in the game to ask for a timeout.  We need to rethink where we are going and why; we need to re-read Cardinal Newman's "The Idea of the University."  We need to learn to say, No.

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